Holiday Pops: Choir for community

The holiday season is known for bringing people together, but that generally brings to mind bustling family dinners and children home for the holidays — for some, though, that means getting together to sing holiday standards.

The Holiday Pops concert this year brings together around 70 singers of all ages and all abilities from the community. One woman brings her 10-year-old son. Some singers are in high school or college. On the other end are singers who may have heard some of the songs, like I’ll Be Home for Christmas — with a special Alaska-specific verse — on the radio when they were fresh to the airwaves.

Conductor and early organizer Sally Smith said there are people who participate in Holiday Pops, which has no audition fee — and no auditions — with little to no singing experience, or having not sung a note since high school. But with a relaxed environment — no attendance policy and no judgment — people find they are right at home in the choir room or on stage.

Smith’s vision for Holiday Pops was based on tradition of the past. She wanted a concert where you could “bring your family and sit down, sing your old favorites.”

Holiday Pops is half secular, half sacred, Smith said, with anything from classical music like Bach or Mozart to the kind of song you’ll hear on your regular radio, including Jingle Bells, a Hanukkah song and a medley of Christmas-related songs from Broadway musicals.

They have a lot of music to tap into, most lent or donated from Juneau-Douglas High School, the former Juneau Oratorial Choir and from the collection of Barbara Wilmot, who used to have a chorus.

“Drawing from those sources we put together a good collection of popular-style music,” Smith said.

More than the music, though, those who put on Holiday Pops do it for the community.

Smith said she likes the diversity of the chorus, whether age, experience or sector.

Humphreys said she recognized her postal worker as a member of the chorus. Smith said they get everyone from students to legislative staffers and just about anything in between.

“We meet on grounds of coming together, on grounds of community,” Smith said. “Of leaving our differences at the door.”

Over the years, Smith said, she’s seen friendships develop that might otherwise not have. She’s seen people come in with no experience, or their last experience a decade or so ago, and go on to take voice lessons or participate in other choral groups.

“What has struck me about it that I didn’t expect was the number of people within the chorus and audience who tell me very touching stories about what a difference it has made for them,” Smith said.

One singer called the Empire to share how happy she was to have found her place in the choir, singing with the tenors. Smith said a woman, who has since moved, experienced the death of her last surviving sibling in the midst of all the rehearsals.

“She said if she hadn’t had this to come to, she didn’t know what she would have done,” Smith said.

She considers it a warm place that isn’t judgmental — “We accept even people who are challenged with singing. And lo and behold, you’ll find a couple years later that they are better singers.”

“It’s amazing how good she can make them sound,” Juneau Lyric Opera Executive Director Rosie Humphreys said after describing the no-stress environment.

At a recent rehearsal, about 60 of the singers packed into the Thunder Mountain High School choir room, which is bursting with chairs, instruments, music stands and a grand piano in addition to the people. Smith led the group in exercises at the piano after she and the show’s producer, Rebecca Albert, told them about the final rehearsal schedule. When Humphreys arrived, she took to the piano as accompanist and Smith took to the front of the classroom, where she could lead the group in song with graceful and deliberate gestures.

Occasionally she would call out criticism if a note was flat, but with a playfulness met with joking from the singers. She would also offer suggestions and, of course, praise.

“People come in with no experience,” Humphreys said, but explained that working with Smith, it’s “easy, makes sense and is fun.”

Smith said she wanted to make Holiday Pops accessible, which is why the standards are so relaxed for participation and why there are no fees to participate. That attitude is also why it’s organized so tickets are inexpensive, just $10 for adults and $8 for students and seniors. It’s possible because most everyone who participates is a volunteer. Smith volunteers her time conducting, Albert volunteers her time as producer, as did Guy Warren for many years, and Lorrie Heagy volunteers time as accompanist.

Between renting rehearsal spaces and the actual performance venues (Chapel by the Lake on Dec. 7 and Juneau Arts & Culture Center on Dec. 8), providing music for all the singers, who have a copy of their own to mark as needed, lighting and programs, the costs rack up, Smith and Humphreys both said.

Some singers make donations to cover the cost of their music, but Humphreys said there is a need for more support both financially and through volunteering.

Smith said they “need new people taking over when us oldsters can’t stand up anymore.”

“We really need two producers,” Humphreys said, hoping to alleviate some of the work Albert and Smith take on.

Humphreys said Holiday Pops is a program JLO would love to continue producing — the program is in its sixth year now — so she and Smith have hopes the passion people have for the program can keep it alive.

In addition to the singers and volunteer piano accompanists and producers and backstage help, Smith said they’ve had a brass ensemble as well.

“Each year we’ve had the added blessing of a brass ensemble. Brass and chorus and Christmas. It gets no better than that.” 

Know and go

A program of the Juneau Lyric Opera, Holiday Pops is coming up Dec. 7 and 8. The Saturday concert will be at 7:30 p.m. at the Chapel by the Lake and the Sunday concert will be at 3 p.m. at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. General admission tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors.

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