The Symphony, Like Santa, Stops by for Christmas

Sioux City Symphony Orchestra
Christmas with the Symphony – featuring Holiday Jam with the Hegg Brothers
Orpheum Theatre (sort of) & KTIV & SCSO.Live
December 19, 2020

It’s been nine months since the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra last took the Orpheum stage, and though tonight’s performance (broadcast on KTIV and the SCSO.Live platform) was recorded a couple of days ago, it’s nice to have them back in our lives.  And this time, in our homes as well. 

With everything going on in the world, it’s easy to look back with nostalgia and long for the way things used to be.  Tonight’s performance—featuring Holiday Jam with the Hegg Brothers—nodded to the past while also focusing on an impressive present and a promising future. 

In the past few years, I’ve heard the Hegg name around Christmas, because one Jeremy Hegg—music director of Holiday Jam—has been providing the symphony with contemporary Christmas orchestrations.  So it was nice to see this spirit of Christmases past grace the stage with his brother Jonathon (second keyboard) and the rest of the Jam.  (I hate saying “the rest of them” because it’s worth checking them all out here.)  The group brought a distinctive jazz feel to the evening and imbued the concert hall and the home with energy (even as five- and six-year-olds were growing antsy, earning timeouts, and going to be early).

Photo from SCSO Facebook Page

The evening began with a quick moment by Richard Steinbach on piano.  Steinbach is the new Executive Director, and this beginning concert piece may be a nod toward new beginnings under Steinbach’s leadership.  But the real show began when the orchestra, Holiday Jam, and their lead vocalist Allison Nash set a daunting bar for themselves with a knock-out performance of “Cantique de Noel,” better known to you and me as “O Holy Night.”  I’ll leave the criticism here to my wife, not known to pull her punches, who put it this way: “That’s my favorite Christmas song and she nailed it…We can just stop watching now.”  As good as the performance was—and it was great—it’s the kind of thing that leaves you wondering if the ensemble can sustain that kind of execution for the rest of the evening—and for the most part it did. 

Nash admitted during one of the brief interludes that this was her first time performing with an orchestra.  My humble advice to her is she should keep it up.  She also said that this was one of her first performances in a year and that she was still “dusting off her vocal cords.”  Maybe that explains why she didn’t sing more, because I could have listened to her all night.  But of course a program has to be diverse, and there were instrumental pieces as well as vocals held up by Jeremy Hegg himself, whose voice carries a different, deeper flavor than Nash’s.

Because the event was prerecorded, we were able to see small ensemble performances in the Pierce Mansion, the Cathedral of the Epiphany, and Congregation Beth Shalom.  These were fine pieces performed well, but they seemed to lack some of the energy and flare of their concert hall counterparts.  Regardless, this was a nice and understandable touch, given the fact that the Christmas program is typically the homiest, with its large crowd and audience sing-alongs.  (For better or worse, Jeremy Hegg and Allison Nash may have upended our vocal expectations of Christmas concerts to come.) 

If you were left wondering—as I was—if the concert could live up to its stellar start with “O Holy Night” and “Carol of the Bells,” it did.  An instrumental “What Child Is This?” (set to the well-known melody of “Greensleeves”) felt like the finale—though it was not.  This brought out the characteristic energy and jazz personality of the guest group and fired up the orchestra once again.  The last piece, a Hegg original called “To Be Alive and Well Is Swell,” felt a little bit more like a coda, as it eased the audience nicely out the evening.  I was honestly a little worried when I saw that the program would conclude with a piece not already known to the audience, but it held up well and was explicitly Christmas enough to satisfy even an uninitiated and skeptical listener (like me). 

The one thing I might change, if I had the power to change such things, is that in the return of the orchestra to the stage, I would have liked to see and hear more orchestra.  I’m happy to follow the small group ensembles around to community venues, but there was a stretch of a few songs where Holiday Jam performed in the Orpheum without the orchestra.  I know it’s nice to give the guests their due; I know that more orchestra performances would have required more orchestrations, all of which were done by Jeremy Hegg (yikes); but I also know that the symphony has proved itself enough to its community that it needn’t cede its stage to anyone. 

In the grand scheme of things that’s a criticism worth talking about hardly at all.  The big news is the symphony is performing again.  It is filling our present and has its eyes on the future.  Tonight’s performance was broadcast on KTIV, yes, but it’s also available on SCSO.Live for free until Christmas.  What does that mean?  It means you can tell your symphony-averse friends to look it up and give it a try (for free) and see and hear what modern, innovative programming the symphony is investing in.  And if they like it?  Well, they can donate roughly the cost of a couple entry-level tickets ($50 total) for season-long access to SCSO.Live.  With that, they can hear and re-hear the Holiday Jam concert, as well as all of the upcoming concerts, educational programming, and interviews the SCSO will be dropping in the coming weeks and months. 

Brendan Todt lives in Sioux City and teaches at Morningside College. He wrote for the 20/21 SCSO program book.