GSO balances classics with challenges for holiday concert

Dec 9, 2016

An argument exists in the orchestral world about sing-alongs. They're fun for the audience, especially at Christmastime, but the more traditional conductors and musicians despise it. They feel people should sit still and quietly in their seats for the duration of the program, stifling their coughs and politely applauding at the appropriate time.

Shade Zajac sees both sides of the argument. But when it comes to his own holiday concert, the new conductor of the Genesee Symphony Orchestra wants the audience to enjoy itself. And that means singing along with beloved carols.

"It's tough to pick holiday programs, more so than other programs, because people expect certain things," said Zajac, who will lead the GSO through its annual Holiday Festival concert at 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Mary's Church. "But I also have to keep the balance so the players are happy and excited."

To appease the audience, Zajac included the ever-popular "Sleigh Ride" and "Christmas Festival," which includes several traditional Christmas carols like "Silent Night," "Joy to the World" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

"This is a concert for the audience, for the people who come out to support us concert after concert and the people who only come to this one because it has become a wonderful tradition for us," Zajac said. "I think this is a 'thank you.' If they want to sing along, do it. I try to make it an experience for everyone, not just the orchestra.

"To do 'Sleigh Ride' or not to do 'Sleigh Ride' is always the question. But people love it, so we have to. But I told the orchestra that if we have to do this repeatedly each year, then we're going to have to do something fun and exciting."

Zajac then hinted at a guest conductor for "Sleigh Ride," but would not divulge any more information on the planned surprise.

Two of the pieces for this concert were decided by the guest soloists who will perform with the GSO.

Emily Helenbrook, a renowned soprano originally from Alexander and a graduate of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, will sing Mozart's "Exsultate, Jubilate." Helenbrook has performed many times with the GSO and is a past winner of the group's Young Artist Competition.

"It's really cool to have her back," said Zajac, who also referred to Helenbrook as "incomparable." "(The Mozart piece" is a really beautiful piece and really shows off what the voice can do. There are three movements, and I think the third movement will bring down the house. She will not disappoint. She will absolutely blow it out of the water, and everyone will be on their feet by the end of it."

The other soloist is Amelia Snyder, a 16-year-old saxophonist from Irondequoit. Snyder was one of three winners of this year's Young Artist Competition and she will perform Glazunov's "Concerto for Saxophone and String Orchestra."

"When you go to a symphony orchestra, you don't necessarily expect to see a saxophone concerto," Zajac said. "The saxophone is very rare in the orchestral repertoire. It's not typical. This is just for saxophone and strings. Even though it doesn't really have anything to do with the holidays, it sounds Christmas-y, and I think those listening to it will feel the Christmas spirit."

Zajac also went local in selecting an arrangement of the "Ukrainian Bell Carol" by Nancy Strlau, his conducting and composing professor at Nazareth College.

"She's a really talented composer, and I was lucky to study with her," Zajac said. "As a composer, it's really hard to add new material to something that is pre-existing. This, she has done in a really flawless way. You’ll hear the very recognizable "Ukrainian Bell Chorale," and then you'll hear this different section that could have been. That's really cool."

Moviegoers will also recognize "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Christmas at the Movies," a medley of themes from "Miracle on 34th Street," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "The Polar Express," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "A Christmas Story" and "Home Alone."

To do something a little different, the GSO will also perform two big brass numbers, "Fanfare from La Péri" by Dukas and Wagner's "God’s Entrance Into Valhalla."

Tickets range from $7 to $15 and are available through DailyNewsTickets.com or at Roxy's Music Store, the Genesee-Orleans Regional Arts Council, YNGODESS, Vinyl Record Revival, and the Bank of Castile in Le Roy.

By Matt Krueger, Batavia Daily News