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Quincy composer’s ‘Rocket Sleigh’ finding play in Holiday Pops programs

Cirque de la Symphonie with the Boston Pops and Conductor Keith Lockhart at Symphony Hall credit: Stu Rosner

Stu Rosner

Cirque de la Symphonie with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall.

Quincy composer and orchestra leader Delvyn Case is hoping that his festive orchestral work “Rocket Sleigh” will find a steady orbit in the rarefied atmosphere of popular holiday concert programs.

Delvyn Case

Wheaton College professor Delvyn Case.

Case, a Wheaton College professor who directs the Great Woods Symphony Orchestra, launched the explosive four-minute piece eight years ago and has watched it grow in popularity with holiday concert programmers. It’s been played hundreds of times over the past few years by major and regional orchestras all over North America and the United Kingdom. As of early December, 12 orchestras have included it in their holiday season programs, including the Toronto and Atlanta symphonies.

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Four orchestras are performing it n conjunction with Cirque de la Symphonie, a new company that melds circus art with concert music.

Often called “Holiday Pops,” Christmas season concerts are fixed stars in most orchestras’ seasons, raising big money for tight budgets. Some orchestras will offer the same program over a couple of weekends, or as many as 12 concerts over three weeks, Case said. Not only are they strong sources of revenue, these concerts are also the only time some listeners will sit in a hall to hear a live orchestra.

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And because holiday concert audiences come to hear their favorite pieces, concert programs rely on a limited “canon” of familiar audience-pleasing pieces.

“My dream is for my piece to become a holiday classic, too, and its recent popularity is encouraging,” Case said.

After writing the piece for the Quincy Symphony Orchestra several years ago, Case showed it to a few conductor friends, some of whom performed it with their orchestras. Then he promoted it on YouTube.

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“The nice thing is it started to snowball,” he said.

The work was picked up by a music publisher, which also promotes it. And this year a recording of “Rocket Sleigh” was released on a compilation disc titled “Dashing: Sounds of the Season” by Navona Records.

The composer describes “Rocket Sleigh” as a workout for the musician who plays the percussion instrument happily named the “sleigh bells.” The piece is closely patterned after one of the most frequently played works in the holiday concert repertoire, “Sleigh Ride,” written by Leroy Anderson in 1948.

“Sleigh Ride” begins with those sleigh bells tingling away and suggests a nostalgic ride in a wintry countryside, not a traffic jam on the interstate. Musicologist Steven Ledbetter, whose program notes are used by many orchestras, characterizes the work as “a delightfully witty depiction of the joys of cold fresh air, sleigh bells, the steady trot of the horse, and in the end a cheerful whinny from Old Dobbin” played by a trumpet.

“’Sleigh Ride’ is a great composition,” Case said. “It deserves to be a classic. The sleigh bells are the hook.”

“It’s great music,” agreed Quincy Symphony music director Yoichi Udagawa, “and people want to hear it.” Udagawa said orchestras perform it more than almost any other piece of music.

Case said his “Rocket Sleigh” can be seen as an updated successor to Anderson’s work, styled for a faster, hard-hitting contemporary world -- hence the “rocket” of the title. It’s written in the same key, B flat, and mirrors its structure.

As an example of its wide play, he cites the piece’s inclusion in the second-half of a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington in which only three composers were represented -- Tchaikovsky, John Williams, and Case, for “Rocket Sleigh.”

Directors of other regional orchestras agree that holiday concerts tend to draw heavily from a relatively fixed pool of familiar, audience-pleasing works.

“I would say it’s a limited repertoire, the favorites that everybody wants to hear,” said Udagawa, who has directed the Quincy Symphony for 20 years. “The Holiday Pops concerts are more of the same work than any other kind of concert.”

In addition to “Sleigh Ride,” commonly programmed elements include “The Nutcrackers Suite,” a carol medley, an audience sing-along, and orchestral arrangements of nostalgic Christmas songs such as “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire” or “We Need a Little Christmas.” Many concerts include a reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” Some bring Santa on stage.

Udagawa sees some more recently composed music breaking into that canon, such as “The Polar Express” soundtrack and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” a song from the 1966 TV show “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” The Grinch theme, written 50 years ago, is evidence of how long it takes to become a classic.

Steven Karidoyanes

Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra music director Steven Karidoyanes.

Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra director Steven Karidoyanes said the formula for a successful Holiday Pops program includes a large helping of the tried and true, plus something new.

“Everybody wants them the same, and everybody wants something new. If it’s the same old, same old, what makes it special?” Karidoyanes asked.

The something new this year for his orchestra’s Holiday Pops is a fresh treatment of a cultural classic, actor Neil McGarry’s one-man performance of excerpts from Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” He saw McGarry perform this work, was impressed (”I was exhausted, exhilarated, moved to tears”), and imagined it with music. He ended up writing the music to accompany McGarry’s turn with the Plymouth Philharmonic himself.

Karidoyanes also loves and frequently programs “Sleigh Ride.” “It’s like ‘The Star-spangled Banner,’” he said.

And he’s aware of Case’s “Rocket Sleigh.” “It’s still on my to-do list,” Karidoyanes said. He cited other factors that determine the scope of holiday programs such as what instruments the conductor has on hand, rehearsal time, and budget.

“First performances are easy to get,” he said. “There’s nothing harder to get than the second performances of a piece.”

Brockton Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor Emilian Badea, who programs and conducts the holiday concerts for his orchestra, was not familiar with “Rocket Sleigh,” but said his programs are diverse and include many works beyond the standard repertoire. Last year the Brockton Symphony played a lesser-known but “phenomenal composition” by Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye titled “Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop.”

“I told the audience, ‘We will put you on a train and give everybody a ride.’”

Badea, too, is a fan of Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and said a connection to that work is likely to prove favorable for Case’s chances of placing “Rocket Sleigh” in the charmed circle of holiday concert fixtures.

“People will like it,” he said. “Sometimes with a brand new piece, if you don’t associate it with anything, it’s hard to really hear it.”

Robert Knox can be contacted at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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