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Holiday programs for everyone, new and traditional

David Newman grew up in the Hollywood music scene.  His father, Alfred, wrote the scores for more than 200 films, winning nine Academy Awards in the process.  Before he became a conductor and composer, David started his career as a violinist, playing in studio orchestras recording the soundtracks for films like ET and Jaws 2.  He has since composed music for more than 100 films, showing a fine touch for children’s fare like Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones.

All of which makes Newman an ideal choice to conduct the first-ever screening of Home Alone with a live orchestra.  When he makes his debut on the Severance Hall podium on December 18, it will be an auspicious occasion in more ways than one.

“I grew up collecting classical music, and George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra were absolutely top of the line for all those years,” he says.  “It’s one of the finest orchestras, if not the finest orchestra, in the world.  I’m really excited.”

The entire month of December will be exciting at Severance Hall, where the holidays have been a special time since 1940, when The Cleveland Orchestra hosted its first dedicated Christmas program.  More than 70 years later, the schedule is still fresh with new voices and ideas.  Superstar singer Natalie Cole will be performing with the Orchestra on December 11.  Holiday concerts for children and families are scheduled throughout the month.  And shoppers in search of unique gifts need look no further than the Cleveland Orchestra Store, open prior to, during, and after every concert.

Robert Porco will be leading the Orchestra’s Christmas Concerts in a traditional mix of seasonal music, holiday classics, and sing-along favorites.  The assortment of choruses joining him is nothing short of spectacular:  the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus at all concerts, the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus and members of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus for selected concerts, and the Cleveland State University Chorale for one performance on December 13.  A special guest from the North Pole will make an appearance at all those performances.

In addition, there are several holiday concerts designed specifically for young people 3 and older. On December 1, the PNC Musical Rainbows series goes on the road to present a “Music of Chanukah” program at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood. The series returns to Severance Hall on December 13 and 14 for morning Christmas Brass Quintet concerts featuring Cleveland Orchestra musicians and narrator Maryann Nagel.

For all the merrymaking inside the festively decorated Concert Hall, the happiest person at Severance Hall this season may be Beth Schreibman Gehring, who will be selling the beloved Silver Bells at a table outside the gift shop.  After two years as president of the Women’s Committee of The Cleveland Orchestra, which coordinates ordering, wrapping, and selling the bells, Gehring is free of administrative duties and eager to rejoin her fellow volunteers at the sales stand.

“It’s what I love to do,” she says.  “For years, my mom and I used to go to Severance and sell bells.  I really miss her.  She was the heart and soul of Silver Bells.”

Gehring’s late parents, Arnold and Barbara Schreibman, started the tradition more than 45 years ago, selling engraved Reed and Barton Christmas bell ornaments to benefit the Orchestra’s Education and Community Programs.  After Schreibman Jewelers East closed in 2003, Beth and her mother brought the project to Severance Hall, where it has been a runaway success.  Though the tradition has been a joyful one and a wonderful way for Beth to remember her mother, she has never lost sight of its original purpose.

“Every year we order 500 and sell out,” Gehring says.  “It’s not hard – people come running up to the table begging for them.  The bells literally fly out of our hands.”

The Cleveland Orchestra Store offers an extensive collection of CDs and DVDs that make it easy to give the gift of music, or get children started with age-appropriate books and recordings.  There’s also a classy assortment of Cleveland Orchestra logo apparel, along with music-themed glassware, holiday ornaments, books, and accessories.  Shoppers can also get live recordings of past Christmas Concerts at Severance by making a $15 donation to the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus Fund.

Presenting movies at holiday time (with The Cleveland Orchestra performing the musical score live) is not new at Severance Hall – last year, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times drew a packed house.  But Home Alone represents something special, the first live performance of John Williams’s rambunctious score that was nominated for both an Academy Award and Grammy Award.  David Newman knows Williams’s music well.

“I sat in the violin section of studio orchestras when John Williams was conducting,” he says.  “So I’ve watched him a lot.  And a scoring session is exactly like performing the music live – there’s a big orchestra in a room, and they’re playing along with a movie, and the conductor is chasing the movie.”

This is more difficult than it sounds, though the process is in Newman’s blood.  His father developed a technique called the Newman System for synchronizing film and music that has become the industry standard.  Brief flashes of light called “streamers” trail across the screen periodically to give the conductor cues.  The audience doesn’t notice them, but the conductor is a very busy person during a live performance, keeping track of the streamers on a small monitor at the podium while maintaining eye contact with the orchestra to keep the music flow smooth and perfectly timed with the action onscreen.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Newman admits.  “Chasing a movie is not like doing an opera or ballet, where there are human beings onstage who can adjust to you.  But when the music is good and the film is good and it all comes together properly, it’s a thrilling experience.  You get this organic, visceral feel of something live happening that you’re not going to get at a movie theater.”

Natalie Cole is the daughter of Nat King Cole, who has been identified with the holiday season ever since his 1946 release of “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….”). His daughter, a nine-time Grammy winner, has kept part of his repertoire while building an impressive singing career of her own, striking out in new musical directions and developing a second career as an actress.

In her 2010 memoir Love Brought Me Back, Cole tells the gripping story of her near-death from kidney failure and how she was saved by a young organ donor from El Salvador.  That helped inspire her to record Natalie Cole En Español, an album of Latin standards sung in Spanish that includes three songs her father recorded.  One of them, “Acércate Mas,” is a duet made with the same techniques used to create Cole’s 1991 father-daughter hit “Unforgettable.”  She is expected to mix in selections from her Spanish album along with holiday favorites and some of her most popular hits when she sings with The Cleveland Orchestra.

Watch for the traditional wreath hung above the entrance to Severance Hall to signal the start of another bright, joyous holiday season.

by Frank Kuznik

Frank Kuznik is a longtime journalist and culture writer covering Northeast Ohio's vibrant arts and entertainment scene.  Born and raised in Cleveland, Frank has worked extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe, most recently in Prague as the editor-in-chief and culture editor of The Prague Post.  He also writes about music on CulturedCleveland.blogspot.com.