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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Holiday Pops’ is especially ‘on’ this year

Conductor/creator Dudley Birder covers numerous Christmas sounds.

PHOTO: “Holiday Pops,” pictured in a previous year, includes a finale with a baby (real) as the infant Jesus. Green Bay Symphony photo

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – This year’s 15th annual “Holiday Pops” again is a massive, colorful Christmas card (5 stars out of 5) put together by Dudley Birder, who has been prominent on Northeastern Wisconsin’s music scene for more than half a century.

A repeat performance is tonight, Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts. Info: www.weidnercenter.com.

Performers

Dudley Birder, conductor

Green Bay Symphony Orchestra

Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College

Birder Studio of Performing Arts

The production puts a sea of humanity on the Weidner stage, shoehorning close to 300 performers onto the space. It’s an eye full, with the orchestra dressed in formal black and white, the chorale enhanced by red bow ties for men and large white scarves for women, the children wearing white gowns with big bows and carrying candles (electric) and super-large snowflakes projected on walls.

The two-hour, 20-minute program is a Dudley Birder aural memoir of his musical Christmases past.

Program

Dudley Birder, “Gloria Fanfare,” orchestra, adult, child singers

John Rutter, “Adeste Fideles”/“O Come All Ye Faithful,” orchestra, adult, child singers

Randol Alan Bass, “Seasonal Sounds,” orchestra, adult, child singers

   “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”

   “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

   “Frosty the Snowman”
   “Jingle Bells”

Randol Alan Bass, “Gloria,” orchestra and chorale

Victor Herbert, arrangement by Dudley Birder, “Toyland,” orchestra and chorale, “March of the Toys,” orchestra

Mark Wilberg, “Four Carols,” orchestra and chorale

   “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

    “The First Noel”

   “When is the Goodly Fragrance Flowing”

   “Joy to the World”

Calvin Custer, “It’s Christmastime,” orchestra

   “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”

   “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

   “Silver Bells”

   “I’ll be Home for Christmas”

John Rutter, “Four Carols,” orchestra and chorale

    “Go Tell It on the Mountain”

   “Angels Carol”

   “Bring a Torch”

   “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “Nutcracker Suite,” orchestra

   “Marche

   “Danse de la Fee-Drague”

   “Trepak”

Ken Darby, arrangement by Harry Simeone, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” orchestra, chorale

Robert Shaw and Robert Russell Bennett, “The Many Moods of Christmas, Suite IV,” orchestra, chorale

   “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light”

   “The First Noel”

   “O Little Town a Bethlehem

   “We Saw Three Ships”

   “Deck the Halls”

Franz Gruber, arrangement by Dudley Birder, “Silent Night,” orchestra, adult, child singers

Traditional 16th century English carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” orchestra, adult, child singers

The music is a bridge of some glories of the 20th century to today through Dudley Birder and his taste for large-scale chorale music with orchestra. A “Holiday Pops” probably would not include selections made famous by Fred Waring from the 1920s through the 1960s except for Dudley Birder. The program’s rendition of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” – which Birder says was popular when he was in college – remembers a sweetened vocal blend seldom heard today. Birder connects with Waring through two singers he taught who toured with Waring’s group in the latter stages of Waring’s career – one of whom Birder has outlived (with nostalgia perhaps running deeper than merely picking a song for the program).

Another 20th century bridge to today comes in the invigorating Victor Herbert selections, “Toyland” and “March of the Toys.” Friday night, Birder introduced them by saying they arrived “83 years ago the day I was born… (pause) … No, 86 years ago. I keep trying to forget.”

Other selections are bridges to composers who Birder knows personally (John Rutter and Randol Alan Bass), likes a lot (Mark Wilberg and Robert Shaw) and/or admires greatly (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky). All have a way of showcasing large groups of singers with a symphonic orchestra or, with Tchaikovsky, presenting an orchestra in ways so unique (like the music-box sound of a portion of the “Nutcracker Suite”) that they are ingrained in the cultures of many countries.

The program is rich in melodies associated with Christmas for generations, and a bridge in some cases of centuries-old songs to today. Friday night, the singers were “on,” perhaps because of taping for a TV special (see http://www.wptschedule.org/episodes/44791016/Green-Bay-Holiday-Pops/). The hall’s Wood Family Organ reverberated, harp sounds danced lightly, the chorus soothed or rose to ROBUST glories and the children, ah, the children… They are featured in a medley called “Seasonal Sounds” that is cute on a grand, grand scale of cute like you don’t experience but for “Holiday Pops.”

Everything builds to a presentation of “Silent Night” and a focal setting with Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, with the baby being quite real – and another reason that sets “Holiday Pops” apart, aside from the 86-year-old guy who puts it together.

THE VENUE: Cofrin Family Hall is one of three performance spaces within the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. At its maximum capacity setup, the hall seats 2,021 over its three levels of maple-and-burgundy seats. Opened Jan. 15, 1993, the hall was built to adapt to the needs of orchestra concerts, operas, musicals, plays and organ, band and choral concerts. For acoustical properties, wood is emphasized on the seats, mezzanine and balcony surfaces and walls near the stage. Many surfaces are curved to help shape the sound. Wood is featured for an aesthetic reason, too – a “from here” aura of woodsy Northeastern Wisconsin.

THE PEOPLE: The name Cofrin relates in great degree to A.E. Cofrin, founder of Fort Howard Paper Co., and his son, Dr. David A. Cofrin, who was instrumental in building of the Weidner Center through multi-million-dollar donations. A friendship developed between David A. Cofrin and Edward W. Weidner (1921-2007), the beloved founding chancellor of UWGB. He arrived when there were no buildings on the present-day campus on rolling hills near the shore of Green Bay. His interests ranged from academia to birding to sports. He loved building projects. It was in his blood. He guided the building of the Weidner Center, so named from early on in construction. Weidner admitted his eyes welled once when driving to a performance and seeing a green sign along the highway: WEIDNER CENTER.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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