Before he dons his penguin suit to hang with the real deals in Antarctica later this month, Maestro Timothy Hankewich will be glamming up his tux with festive touches for Orchestra Iowa’s Holiday Spectacular.
The annual Pops Series show will be onstage Friday (12/20) to Sunday (12/22) at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids. And on Dec. 28, Hankewich and his wife, Jill, will head toward the South Pole. They’ve already been to the North Pole, a couple of years ago.
“We decided to go south,” he said, “and we forgot to stop.”
Even though it’s summer down under, he’ll still have to pose quickly for penguin-twin photos, so he won’t turn into Frosty the Snowman on vacation.
Maybe he could can some of the Holiday Spectacular heat generated by guest performer and bluesman extraordinaire, Kevin “B.F.” Burt of Coralville. He’s been making temperatures rise throughout the Midwest for more than 25 years, and catapulted to the world stage in 2018 as the winner of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
“This show is really all about Kevin Burt,” Hankewich said. “I am a huge fan of his — always have been. I’ve noticed in this area that it’s hard to be a prophet in your own town, and the fact that he’s tearing it up on the national and international blues scene, I wanted to grab him and work with him before it’s impossible — before he gets too busy.”
Burt’s songwriting prowess also fits quite nicely with a tradition Hankewich has embraced, of tailoring the orchestra’s Christmas music to the guest artists.
“When you collaborate with an artist, it’s not as if you can just phone up and buy the music and make it happen. You have to write it, to tailor it to the talents of your guest artist,” Hankewich said.
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“In this regard, Steve Shanley is our unsung hero for our Christmas program. ... He’s my go-to guy and one of my favorite people. He is one of the most talented musicians I know.”
Burt and Shanley have teamed up for special arrangements of “Jingle Bells,” “We Wish You a merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls” and “Joy to the World.” The program also includes Burt’s original number, “Thank You,” which Hankewich described as “very sexy” and “Barry White-ish.” “It’s just a slow groove,” he said. Burt also will solo on his own arrangement of “Silent Night.”
At the other end of the spectrum is a piece Hankewich penned, titled “Santa’s Arrival.”
“That was my summer project,” he said. “It is hysterically funny, and I think everyone’s jaws are going to hit the floor.”
He also added his touches to an arrangement of “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” Crafting a new setting of such a familiar song depends on the style you’re going after, he noted.
“The art of arranging is taking a melody everybody knows and then superimposing a particular style,” he said. “In Steve Shanley’s arrangements, there’s some Latin, some gospel, some swing. For ‘Let There Be Peace,’ I just decided to go with a more movie soundtrack feel and use the orchestra more as a symphonic ensemble.”
All of this work behind the scenes creates a new and unique experience for listeners.
“If you were to compare a lot of Christmas programs among symphony orchestras throughout the country, they would all look generically similar,” Hankewich said, “because they’re all using the same Christmas arrangements that are in the public domain. What we do is, we make our own, for the most part. That is a greater magnitude of difficulty to organize.”
The programming is getting a bit of a shake-up this year, by mixing sacred and secular numbers throughout both halves, instead of sticking to the usual format of first half secular, second half sacred.
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“Given the different mix of talent onstage, it made better sense to switch it around a bit,” Hankewich said.
In addition to Burt, other guests include the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale, Espressivo Strings from the Preucil School in Iowa City, Discovery Chorus students from the Orchestra Iowa School, the Carillonneurs from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, and narrator Eric Hanson, co-host of The Morning Scramble on local radio station Z102.9.
Inviting choirs to participate is a natural, Hankewich said, and a tradition he’s happy to continue.
“I am a huge choral fan, and to me, Christmas is more of a choral tradition than an orchestral tradition. A Christmas program without a choir seems incomplete to me,” he said.
“But there’s also (an element of) how to stay relevant with your community, and that is to reach out to some of the many talented people in our area who normally would not get a chance to perform with a symphony orchestra. ... It’s also part of our educational mandate. When we perform with the Discovery Chorus and the Espressivo Strings, it’s part of their development as future musicians.”
And it wouldn’t be a Holiday Spectacular without a few surprises up the maestro’s sleeves. No spoilers here, but he said it’s all in the name of creating an ebb and flow of fun and festive, energetic sights and sounds for the season.
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• What: Holiday Spectacular: Orchestra Iowa Pops at the Paramount
• Where: Paramount Theatre, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (12/20), Saturday (12/21) and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (12/22)
• Tickets: $18 to $59, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com; half-price for students age 17 and under or in college, available in person or by phone