The Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra is gearing up for its annual Christmas concerts, but for the first time in more than 100 years, the concert program will be missing the centrepiece of the season.
The SSO will present two holiday shows this year, on Dec. 5 and Dec. 12, both of which will be livestreamed. Neither will feature the SSO Christmas tradition of Handel’s Messiah, the large-scale choir and orchestra oratorio that has been a staple of the orchestra’s holiday offering for more than a century.
“We knew in May that wasn’t going to be a reality,” SSO executive director Mark Turner said. “This would have been our 108th year … it’s pretty insane to think a fledgling city was producing an event that large.”
The piece by George Frideric Handel involves a substantial choir along with the orchestra, which is not feasible for the SSO during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Turner and the SSO recently made the decision to move to having no live audiences for concerts due to increasing case numbers and restrictions.
While Turner said it was “weird” to not be able to put on the Messiah in its entirety for Saskatoon, he noted that there will be excerpts from the work at the Dec. 12 concert, along with a variety of other holiday classics.
“We’ve got some music from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio; we’re going to be doing Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves … we get to intersperse some more classical Christmas into this concert, which we don’t normally get to do,” Turner said.
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The SSO traditionally puts on two Christmas concerts — one as a part of its “Pops” series including renditions of family-favourite songs, and the other centred around the Messiah. This year, the two concerts will still be separated by their tone.
A Night at the North Pole on Dec. 5 features guest artist Dean McNeill and pop-culture Christmas tunes like Sleigh Ride and You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch. A Candlelight Christmas on Dec. 12 includes more intimate works like Greensleeves and excerpts from the Messiah.
Saskatoon-born guest conductor William Rowson, currently with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, is coming back to Saskatoon to conduct both concerts. Rowson has plenty of family still in Saskatoon, but the pandemic means despite coming back to the city he’ll probably have to share the holidays with most of them over video calls. It’s one of the reasons Rowson said he applauds the SSO for continuing with its holiday shows — in a time of unprecedented uncertainty, there can still be something to bring people together during the season.
“I feel like an essential worker for a short amount of time as a musician, because I think music has the power to bring a sense of normalcy … it can bring everyone together in a community,” Rowson said. “It can bring us together in a time where things feel like they’re falling apart, a little bit, and reconnect us.”
Though he had been looking forward to directing the Messiah for the first time with the SSO, Rowson said the rest of the holiday program has him “thrilled” to come back and conduct.
The thought of a Christmas without music is “unthinkable,” he said.
“Christmas is a season of traditions, and a season where we gather together and share memories. We have a fun Christmas program, and we have a beautiful Christmas program.”
A Night at the North Pole will take place on Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. A Candlelight Christmas will take place on Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. Both concerts will be livestreamed.