By Richard Chang
At Musco Center for the Arts, the holidays underscore the mission of the 2 ½-year-old nonprofit organization, located in the geographic — and spiritual — center of Chapman University.
“Opening up, inviting, welcoming, and respecting everyone who lives in north Orange County — to make this a locus of cultural activity and make Chapman known for its outreach — is at the heart of what we do,” said Richard T. Bryant, executive director of Musco Center.
It is part of a legacy that began in the early 1960s, with the first Wassail concert presented to families in an Orange school bus building.
On Sunday, Dec. 16, more than 150 musicians, singers, and dancers from across Orange County and Southern California will grace the Musco Center stage for “A Southern California Christmas.”
On Friday, Dec. 14, accomplished singer and pianist Michael Feinstein will perform a show consisting of American Songbook favorites and holiday classics.
And on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8, the Chapman College of Performing Arts’ (CoPA) Music Department is presenting the 55th Annual Holiday Wassail Concert.
Musco Center already got the holiday ball rolling with a special screening of the animated classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” on Nov. 17. The free screening, a collaboration with the Hilbert Museum of California Art, was followed by a panel discussion of those well-acquainted with famed animator Chuck Jones.
‘A SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CHRISTMAS’
No single performance may reach out to the area community more than “A Southern California Christmas” on Dec. 16. Over 150 performers from across the Southland are expected, including the Orange Community Master Chorale, the Anaheim Ballet, the Southern California Brass Consortium and the Southern California Children’s Chorus. Michael Short, music director of the O.C. Master Chorale, will help direct the show.
“This is a community-wide event,” Musco executive director Bryant said. “We want to relate to our surrounding communities. We want to bring them aboard. We’re bringing tens of thousands of people to Chapman who have never been to Chapman University. We’re bringing people together of different cultures, and it works.”
Started last year, “A Southern California Christmas” is already becoming an annual holiday favorite. The Long Beach-based Brass Consortium rings in the holiday spirit.
As massive choirs occupy the stage, the audience sings along with the carols and fills the theater with festive holiday cheer.
Daniel Emmet, a multilingual opera singer and Chapman University graduate (’15), will perform. Earlier this year, he competed on “America’s Got Talent” on NBC and made the season finale with opera legend Plácido Domingo, finishing in fifth place.
Emmet’s audition went viral on YouTube, attracting more than 4.5 million views. It has since been dubbed “the impossible challenge,” because judge Simon Cowell asked him to learn a new song and deliver it in Italian within one hour, which he did, splendidly.
Selections from “The Nutcracker” will be elegantly performed en pointe by the skilled dancers of the Anaheim Ballet, who will be accompanied by live music. At last year’s inaugural event, carolers surprised attendees in the lobby, and holiday treats and beverages were offered for all to enjoy.
FEINSTEIN: AN INTERACTIVE HOLIDAY
Michael Feinstein has few rivals when it comes to preserving, performing, and celebrating the Great American Songbook. The pianist, singer, and former Gershwin archivist has appeared on radio, television, YouTube, and in live concerts to discuss and perform standards by the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and many, many others.
On Dec. 14, Feinstein will deliver a mixture of holiday songs and choice selections from the Great American Songbook. He’ll play piano, but he will also have a trio onstage with him: musical director Sam Kriger on piano, Kirk Smith on bass, and Albie Berk on drums.
“I don’t do a lot of holiday programs,” Feinstein said in a recent interview. “When I do, it is inherently fresh. I try to find things that celebrate the season. People are so inundated with specific Christmas songs, that I try to find songs that are timely that aren’t filled with sleigh bells and don’t drive people crazy.”
Feinstein likes to keep things spontaneous in concert. He occasionally accepts requests and enjoys interacting with his audiences.
“Holiday songs are among the few songs we have now that everybody knows,” he said. “To sing a song like ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ if you do the song well, it is pleasing to the audience, because it evokes so many memories of this time of year.”
Feinstein splits his time between Los Angeles and Indiana, where he is artistic director of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis. He also serves as principal conductor for the Pasadena POPS orchestra.
He said he’s looking forward to his debut at Musco Center and sharing some holiday cheer and wisdom.
“The songs that have endured at holiday time do speak to what is important. They’re looking at the essence of what our lives are about. So, Christmas songs help to soften the heart, and remind us about what is important in life.”
RED, GREEN … AND ORANGE
In 1963, William Hall, then a new professor of music at Chapman, sought to start a holiday show on or near campus and to get local residents involved.
“There was a real opportunity for community involvement at Chapman,” recalled Hall, who taught at Chapman for more than five decades and currently serves as dean and artistic director of Musco Center. “We were literally in downtown Orange, but nobody knew anything about us.”
So, Hall took inspiration from the English Christmas tradition of wassailing, which involves a group of people going door-to-door, singing carols, and receiving food and/or a drink from the wassail bowl, a large vessel used to make and dispense the holiday mulled beverage wassail.
The first Chapman wassail concert took place in an old Orange School District bus building. Local residents were invited to sit and have dinner, drink from a wassail bowl and enjoy Chapman students play music and sing from table to table. Even though it was a new opportunity for Chapman University to engage with the community, Hall recalls, pretty soon, it became a popular annual event.
“The community knew about it and fought for tickets to the dinner,” said Hall, who organized the annual Wassail concert for 47 years until 2010. “We offered them something they could participate in that was joyful, exciting, and fun.”
Under the aegis of College of Performing Arts Dean Giulio Ongaro, about 200 students are expected to perform in the Dec. 7-8 concerts, including the Chapman University Singers and Choir, directed and conducted by Stephen Coker; the University Women’s Choir, conducted by Kyla McCarrel; and the Chapman Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Alfred Wachs.
“While the spirit of Wassail remains unchanged in 55 years, times have changed,” said Wachs, who also serves as music director of the Chapman Orchestra. “As such, amid beloved carols and holiday favorites, we now include a broader range of diverse and inclusive music that represents the spirit of the holidays from across the globe.”
‘YOU’RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH’
Frequenters of Musco Center have already gotten a taste of the holidays with a free screening of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” on Nov. 17, co-presented by Chapman’s Hilbert Museum of California Art and Musco Center.
The original, 1966 animated version of Dr. Seuss’ classic was created by Chuck Jones, the man behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, “Looney Tunes” and many famous cartoons. Jones was also an Orange County resident; he died in February 2002 in Newport Beach.
The collaboration was another effort by Musco Center to reach out to new audiences and make the holidays an opportunity for communities to put aside differences for a moment and celebrate being together.