For associate conductor Conner Gray Covington, the Utah Symphony’s annual “Here Comes Santa Claus” Family Series concert holds a special place in his heart.
This will be Covington’s third “Here Comes Santa” program in his young tenure with the symphony.
“Fourth,” he amends. “This concert was actually part of my audition before I even started with the Utah Symphony, back in December of 2016.”
The annual holiday concert returns to Peery’s Egyptian Theater on Monday, Dec. 23. The concert is sold out, but local promoters say hopefuls can visit the theater box office or call 801-399-9214 on the day of the show to see if any tickets have been turned back in.
Covington said the yearly event is a lot of fun, but it requires a different skill set from the typical concert he conducts with the symphony.
“I wrote the script with one of our guest artists,” he said. “Coming up with jokes that are corny — but not too corny — is always a fun challenge.”
And the best part?
“Seeing the kids faces light up with Santa comes onstage is always a lot of fun,” he said.
These more lighthearted programs aren’t without their challenges, according to Covington. It’s just not the same sort of pressure that usually confronts the conductor of a world-class symphony orchestra.
“It’s not necessarily that you’re doing a Mahler Symphony where you try to get everything in the right place and everybody together,” Covington said. “It’s the pressure of making the show run smoothly, and making sure that basically we have everything in place to present not just the music but the talking around it, the shtick with Santa. It’s a different kind of pressure.”
The program for the evening will begin with Leroy Anderson’s early-1950s piece “A Christmas Festival.”
“Which, in my opinion, is the perfect Christmas opener,” Covington said.
No less than famed composer John Williams called Anderson “one of the great American masters of light orchestral music.”
The symphony will then perform two movements from “The Nutcracker” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and the grand pas de deux from Act II — followed by a work celebrating Christmas at the movies with famous tunes from holiday films like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Home Alone.”
Up next is “Rejoice Greatly,” a movement from Handel’s “Messiah. Covington calls it a great way to show off soprano soloist Grace Kahl’s incredible voice.
Then comes “The Night Before Christmas” by Randol Alan Bass.
“It basically has great music for orchestra, to go along with the narration of ‘Night Before Christmas,’” Covington said. “And the music is very cinematic, very John Williams-ey.”
After that, Santa appears onstage. Covington gives him a “lesson” on conducting (although Santa is actually played by a former tuba player in the orchestra), before the audience joins the symphony in a Christmas sing-along.
“It’s a great one we’ve got this year," Covington said of this year’s sing-along. "It’s well-constructed, and it has a ton of famous Christmas carols packed into a short amount of time.”
The conductor said this sing-along is another prime reason for Kahl’s voice on the program — she helps lead the sing-along.
“Nobody wants to hear me sing,” Covington laughs. “That’s why Grace is there.”
The final sing-along is a great way to bring the program to a close, and it lends a communal feel to the auditorium, according to the conductor.
Covington said “Here Comes Santa Claus” is very much a family-oriented program.
“If kids are having a rough night and screaming in the audience, that really doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everybody is there to have fun and see Santa.”
The program changes each year, according to Covington, although there are a couple of constants. For example, Santa conducting “Sleigh Ride” is a tradition that “goes quite a ways back” with the symphony, and every year they’ve done a movement or two from “Nutcracker” — although the exact movements involved change year-to-year.
The Utah Symphony also did Bass’ “Night Before Christmas” last year as well.
“I’m trying to make that a tradition,” Covington said. “It’s such a nice piece.”
Melissa Klein, executive director of concert host Onstage Ogden, said “Here Comes Santa Claus” has become a beloved tradition in Weber County.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity for everyone, of all ages, to get together,” she said. “It’s really kind of a classic Christmas program.”