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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015 6 years ago

Community Carol at the Pops Orchestra

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The Pops Orchestra combines music and theater for the first time.
by: Nick Reichert Arts & Entertainment Editor

It was Dec. 14, 2014 and Robyn Bell’s mind was buzzing with the sounds of Broadway. The conductor for The Pops Orchestra was sitting at home flipping through TV channels and unwinding for the night. She had been mentally preparing herself for the following night’s concert, “The Holiday Spirit of Broadway.” It was the orchestra’s first performance in a season entirely focused on the Great White Way’s best composers and lyricists. Bell and the community orchestra had been rehearsing for weeks on holiday standards, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “White Christmas.”

Suddenly, something on the screen caught her attention: a full orchestra playing behind a singing Ebenezer Scrooge. Charles Dickens’ iconic Christmastime characters were unmistakable. But instead of the traditional film or stage adaptation, every character on stage was singing to all new orchestrations and songs. “A Christmas Carol: The Concert” was a brand new take on the classic story. And even though she had a Christmas concert the next night, Bell was already planning for next year.

“What I heard and saw on that PBS concert stopped me in my tracks,” says Bell, who is entering her fifth season as the Pops Orchestra conductor. “I saw those iconic characters singing onstage with a whole choir and a full orchestra.” 

Not only was it a new orchestral take on a holiday favorite, but it was also something that she felt would be a perfect collaboration for The Pops and the choral and music departments at State College of Florida. Bell got in contact with the show’s composer, Bob Christianson, and one year before they would start rehearsals, the Pops Orchestra had secured a musical Scrooge and company for the opening of its 40th anniversary season.

Robyn Bell, conductor of The Pops Orchestra, wanted a piece to challenge the musicians.

“A Christmas Carol: The Concert” isn’t your grandparents’ Carol. All the ingredients are there. Scrooge, Marley, Cratchit, three ghosts and Tiny Tim are all present and accounted for. Even a narrator character is added in for good measure. However, the Pops Orchestra’s production of this familiar holiday hallmark takes an entirely different approach. For the first time, it combines original orchestrations with live acting. It converts Dickens’ dialogue into lyrics and presents the beloved story as a dramatic concert. 

Joining The Pops Orchestra onstage will be an entire cast of State College of Florida’s vocal studies and theater program students, as well as professional actors Randolph Locke and Catherine Randazzo as Scrooge and The Narrator, respectively, in costume. Armed with a binder filled with all the music, the cast looks fittingly similar to a traditional caroling group. This innovative concert staging might scare away other community orchestras used to performing only instrumental songs, but everyone in the Pops Orchestra, from conductor Bell and stage director Melodie Dickerson to the 94-year-old trombonist and 14-year-old percussionist, was up to the challenge.

“This is the first time we’ve mixed theatricality and music together,” says Melodie Dickerson, stage director and director of choral and vocal studies at the State College of Florida. “The singing will inspire the orchestra, and the orchestra will inspire the singers. Professionals, students, and semi-professionals are working together to make this musical fusion a special event.”

Nearly a year after Bell first stumbled upon the show, the orchestra and cast of singers watched the televised production together. At first, there was some apprehension. 

“Some of my players were like, ‘I don’t know if we can do this,’” says Bell. “But once I gave them the music and we started practicing and saw how all the different parts fit together, that initial intimidation melted away and turned into excitement.”

Professional violinist and Pops concertmaster Felicia Brunelle was excited to present this new “Carol” to local audiences. “I have not heard of this going on before in this town, and I’ve been here for 25 years,” says Brunelle. “It’s something new. It’s not just a church performance. It’s not the basic holiday pops. It’s different.”

Since beginning rehearsals on Nov. 9, the Pops have been preparing for this new production in a whole new way.  Both the orchestra and the cast have been practicing in separate parts of the Neel Performing Arts Center. The orchestra prepared on the auditorium stage, and the cast memorized their blocking inside a nearby rehearsal room. For almost the next month, each section of the production worked alone, honing its role to bring it all together for the last two Monday rehearsals before opening night.

“I can’t wait to hear us sing with The Pops,” says Randolph Locke, retired opera singer and vocal instructor at SCF.  “I have never learned a piece quite like this, and the fun of this job was that it was going to be challenging.”

When Bell picked this new work, its musical challenges were as big of a draw as its potential entertainment value. 

Robyn Bell says that she wants "A Christmas Carol: The Concert" to challenge and entertain audiences this holiday season.

“We’ve performed standards and songs from musicals before, so I knew that the music was in our skill set,” says Bell. “When I select the season, I’m always aware, as a conductor, to pick music that challenges our musicians but is attainable enough for our audience to enjoy.”

Although its members might not be the classically trained stock of professional orchestras, the Pops Orchestra has been a staple in Sarasota and Bradenton’s music community. It represents the diverse musical talent that exists outside of professional concert halls. Full-time musicians play alongside players who, though they haven’t made a career out of their talents, have kept on playing their whole lives.They put the community in community orchestra.

“We all speak the same language,” says Brunelle. “It’s all about the notes on the page. Whether you’re a casual player or a professional, we lose all of our differences when we’re playing the same music.”

Bell hopes that this unorthodox program will elevate her band of community musicians to a new level of performance. 

“The orchestra was, at first, intimidated at the thought of this concert,” says Bell. “But it’s been my job to make them sound as good as possible. I don’t want the audience to just say, ‘ Hey, it’s our dentist up there onstage,’ but, rather, ‘Wow, my dentist sounds great up there onstage.’”

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Nick Reichert writes about Sarasota fine arts, including theater, dance, opera, music and visual art. He graduated from Wake Forest University in 2013. Follow @TheNickReichert on Twitter for regular updates.

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