116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“There’s no place like home for the holidays” may very well be Orchestra Iowa’s theme song for the remainder of 2021.
Last year “felt surreal,” Maestro Timothy Hankewich said, “because there were still mini family celebrations going on, and having been in the habit of performing Christmas music for 20 years of my career or more, it was simply a hole that was missing.
“Which is why we ended up doubling down on our Christmas concerts this season, starting with the Messiah (Nov. 20 and 21) and now with Holiday Spectacular (this) week, then a program for brass and organ the week after that, (followed by the) ‘Nutcracker.’ ”
Hankewich and company shook up the snow globe in 2019, mixing sacred and secular offerings, instead of the former formula of showcasing sacred numbers in the first half and secular in the second half. That mix will continue this year, when cabaret chanteuse Amy Friedl Stoner steps into the solo spotlight.
“I still follow that model, sort of,” Hankewich said. “It changes depending on the guest soloist that we have, and what they bring to the table. With Amy Stoner this year, we're putting in a lot more contemporary, so there's a lot more flexibility. … But if you were to really summarize it, the first half is a little bit more serious than the second.”
What: Orchestra Iowa’s Holiday Spectacular
Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, and Saturday, Dec. 4; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021; face masks required
Tickets: $18 to $59; student prices available; details at artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/holiday-spectacular-2021/
In 2019, award-winning blues great Kevin “B.F.” Burt of Coralville blew off the rooftop before Santa had a chance to land there. This year will take a peppermint twist.
Stoner will bring to the stage “class, elegance, style, fun and a lovely voice,” Hankewich said.
They met through Stoner’s first Follies performance in 2008, when she was one of the soloists on “Memory” from “Cats.” She and Hankewich then worked together on Follidays, a holiday version of Follies staged at Coe College in 2009 and 2010 while the Paramount sat silent after the 2008 flood. Then came the “Music Man” collaboration between Theatre Cedar Rapids and Orchestra Iowa in 2013, where she was one of the Marian soloists; and most recently, Brucemorchestra on the front lawn at Brucemore mansion in September.
Counting her own Christmas show, which moved to the Paramount in 2019 and will continue there Dec. 10, she said she’s performed on the massive stage “dozens” of time. And it never grows old.
“I always think about in 2008 when I first walked out and had that solo. I was so nervous, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I get to do this.’ I always try to think back to 2008 Amy and channel that energy, because I don’t ever want to take it for granted,” Stoner, 39, of Cedar Rapids, said.
“If you would have told me in 2008 that 11 years later, you’ll get to do your own show here, I don’t know if I totally would have been able to fathom that. It’s just so overwhelming in a good way.
“It always gets me when I walk out for the first sound check or load-in, when you walk out and see the empty house — and even with no lights on — it’s so beautiful. When you’re onstage and (it’s) lit, you can’t see as well. You can always see the people somewhat, but it’s at sound check that it gets me,” she said. “You can see every single seat and it’s just so beautiful to imagine what it will be like later that day. It’s kind of like an anticipatory excitement. I always have to pinch myself a little bit.”
While she’ll sing with a band for her own show, she’ll be singing with Orchestra Iowa behind her this weekend.
“There’s absolutely nothing else in the world like it,” she said, “and it’s also super nerve-wracking. If I make a mistake, it’s not my 10- or 11-piece band — it’s a full 50 or however many people behind me knowing that I made a mistake and potentially letting them down, which is the biggest fear. But, they’re also some of the best musicians in the Midwest, and it’s led by Tim, so obviously, I know they would have my back if anything happened.
“It’s thrilling and it always makes me want to rise to the occasion and be my best because you’re singing with the best.”
An extra thrill will be sharing the stage with her 9-year-old son, Weston, who will be one of the children gathered around her as she reads “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
When asked if he’d like to be on stage, his reaction was priceless: “Well, I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.”
“He is very excited,” Stoner add. “To have him up there with me and backstage with me will be so cool.”
Other guests include the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale and the Orchestra Iowa School’s Discovery Chorus, which will have fewer children than in years past, because of the pandemic. In an effort to pare down the number of performers, the Espressivo Strings from the Preucil School in Iowa City and the Carillonneurs from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids will not be joining the orchestra this year.
“One of the challenges of this program is how to keep everyone safe on stage,” Hankewich said. “There are hundreds of people involved in this program every year. And how do you manage the forces so that they are distanced enough from each other, but can still do their work? So this year, I tried very hard not to over-fill the stage.”
The concert has been in the planning phase since about February, after Hankewich reached out to Stoner about joining the orchestra onstage. But rewinding even father, and sometime “mid-COVID and post-derecho,” Stoner spotted Hankewich and his wife outside a coffee shop in the NewBo District.
“I said, ‘I’ve been meaning to email you all throughout COVID, and before COVID, to say I’d love to work with you guys sometime, but now, neither of us have gigs for the foreseeable future,’ ” she recalled with a laugh.
The next months were filled with uncertainty about resuming live concerts safely; trying to gauge audience interest; asking Stoner for a list of “anything and everything” she’d like to sing; and then, trying to get the rights to the songs the musicians would want to perform.
“The real slow, grinding work is waiting for copyright clearance,” Hankewich said. “If we were doing a Christmas song that was written beyond 1925, we have to go through this very lengthy, onerous and sometimes expensive wild goose chase of securing copyright clearance. And so that also goes into budgeting considerations when we're putting a program together.”
Keeping a holiday concert fresh and exciting is no easy feat for singers and instrumentalists who have been performing the same music for years.
“Writing it yourself is a good start,” Hankewich said, and to that end, he and Steve Shanley have been creating new arrangements to familiar songs, and to the pieces Stoner will perform.
“I think we found that mixing up the headlining guest artists to feature on stage keeps it fresh. (Also) finding ways to put more contemporary carols into the mix,” Hankewich said. “And finally stage design. Instead of just a regular concert experience, the stage should look smashingly gorgeous, and I think over the years, we've started to understand that and we dress our stage differently, and you'll also see decorations in the in the lobby.
“We also realize that the experience starts before you even arrive to your seat. And in this case, for example, we will have carolers welcoming our audience members as they enter the Paramount.”
Cedar Rapids Washington High School’s Madrigal Singers will perform in front of the theater, while string ensembles will the Hall of Mirrors with seasonal sounds.
For a contemporary touch, Stoner is especially looking forward to performing “Once Upon a December,” from the 1997 animated film, “Anastasia.”
“It’s such a pretty, kind of haunting Christmas song,” she said, “and a couple of the more modern pieces would be ‘Sleigh Ride’ and ‘I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” both sort of in the Ella Fitzgerald style.“
With both the Holiday Spectacular and her own Paramount show, Stoner is hoping to “create this super huge, warm hug back into hearing live performance,” she said.
“I’m sure for some (it is) one of the first big, big shows that they’re back at. And to bring them back to such a warm environment and have them feel safe — and take a tiny break from the world and be off our phones for a little bit and spend time together. We didn’t get to do that for about a year,” she added.
“Hopefully, to bring them back to live entertainment in a really positive, happy, just huge way.”
And if a certain person in a red suit should make an appearance, what is Hankewich’s Christmas wish? Simply, “To be good to each other.”
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