Musings: The Spartanburg Tree Lighting
by John Holloway
On the Tuesday, November 27, the Spartanburg Community Band will play for the annual lighting of the Christmas tree in Denny’s Plaza, continuing a holiday tradition that has been a part of Spartanburg for many years. These are some of my recollections of this event, along with a preview of what to expect this year.
My first experience with the tree lighting was playing tuba with the Spartanburg Symphony Orchestra under Henry Janiec shortly after the construction of the Denny’s Tower. It was very cold and a bit damp. We were close enough to the tower that an occasional drop of water would fall from somewhere very high and hit the timpani head with a loud PANG. I remember playing Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and “A Christmas Festival,” selections which Henry often programmed on Christmas concerts. The SSO continued to play for the lighting until the orchestra transitioned into the Greater Spartanburg Philharmonic under the direction of Bill Scott.
Dr. Scott had a different vision for the tree lighting and put together a brass ensemble from the orchestra. Brass instruments have the advantage of being more resistant to inclement weather than strings and woodwinds. There is also a traditional association of brass with holiday music, and a substantial Christmas repertoire exists for brass ensembles of various sizes. The Spartanburg Repertory Company joined the brass at the end of the program to lead the group singing of carols, concluding with “O Tannenbaum” and the lighting of the tree. When Bill moved on and a non-resident conductor was selected to lead the (again) renamed Spartanburg Philharmonic, it was more practical to find a local conductor, and I moved from the back row for a few years to conduct the brass at the tree lighting.
Eventually the Spartanburg Community Band became the official ensemble, and it was the back row for me once again for a while. I have served the band since its inception as a conductor and tuba player, and three years ago I resumed the conductor position full-time. The tree lighting that year was memorable because I had just had surgery on my right shoulder and conducted the performance entirely left-handed. I confess I was curious to see if I could actually pull this off. Since conductors frequently mirror their pattern in the left hand, it’s easier than it looks; but I did not anticipate how problematic it is to turn pages and conduct with the same hand.
Our program this year has much in common with the one I played with the Spartanburg Symphony years ago. We will be performing “Sleigh Ride” and “A Christmas Festival” which Anderson scored for both concert band and orchestra. It’s been said that “Sleigh Ride” is the “Stars and Stripes Forever” of Christmas music and I risk public displeasure if I don’t include it. Other traditional tunes are represented in “Jubilant Holiday” and “And the Mountains Echoed: Gloria!,” concert band arrangements of “In Dulci Jubilo” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
I also like to program selections from pop, rock, jazz, and practically any other genre that has a good band arrangement available. We have a wonderful arrangement by Tom Wallace of “Midnight Sleigh Ride,” a special arrangement Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan did for their jazz band of Prokofiev's “Troika” from Lieutenant Kije. The Neoclassical new-age music of Mannheim Steamroller translates very well to concert band, and we will be playing the Chip Davis arrangements of “Carol of the Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” “Christmas From the ‘50s” is a medley, and “All I Want for Christmas is You” is an excellent instrumental arrangement of the popular Mariah Carey song.
For several years, it has been our privilege to have the very talented Diane Lee, co-anchor at WSPA, as our announcer and vocal soloist. In addition to leading the caroling, Diane will be singing the ever-popular “White Christmas.” Composed by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn, it has the distinction of being the most recorded Christmas song. It is a joy to work with Diane and her featured solos at our concerts are always audience favorites.
It is always a pleasure to be a part of this tradition. We are much indebted to the City of Spartanburg not only for organizing this event, but also for the logistical and structural support they provide to the SCB to make our performance possible.
John Holloway is Principle Tuba in the Spartanburg Philharmonic and Conductor of the Spartanburg Community Band. The Denny’s Tree Lighting ceremony will take place on Tuesday, November 27, 2018.