Randall Fleischer, 'New York Voices' headline NSO Pops holiday fest

Annual KenCen event opens tonight in the Concert Hall.

WASHINGTON, December 11, 2012 – Popular with families and kids of all ages, the National Symphony Orchestra Pops celebrates our traditional year-end holiday season at the Kennedy Center with its annual music fest, “Happy Holidays!” Young and old alike will be delighted with the Concert Hall’s festive appearance, decked with ornaments, flowers, greens, banners, and whatever else it takes to make your season bright.

Featured as special guest artists will be the Grammy Award-winning quartet of jazz singers known as New York Voices. These concerts also mark the Concert Hall return of the NSO’s former assistant and associate conductor, Randall Craig Fleischer, who last led the orchestra in this venue in the early 1990s.

But wait. There’s more. Although it’s just a rumor, local buzz has it that Santa Claus himself may put in a guest appearance at these concerts. You better watch out!

The NSO Pops’ holiday program

We had a opportunity to speak with Maestro Fleischer a bit earlier this week. Although local audiences have had a chance to seem him conducting the NSO at Wolf Trap in recent years, he’s genuinely excited to be returning to conduct the orchestra at the Kennedy Center. There, arguably, he enjoyed his first big time engagement with a top-tier symphony orchestra. “I’m honored to be back,” he says. “It’s like coming back to see your family after many years.”

He’s looking forward to conducting this weekend’s concerts. “It’s a great program,” he says. “We’re pleased to be featuring ‘New York Voices,’ a jazz vocal group that’s well known for their tight jazz harmonies and varied swing-style repertoire” which he compares to the veteran ensemble, Manhattan Transfer, although “they have their own wonderful musical personality.”

(Below: a video clip featuring New York Voices.)

Of course, between New York Voices’ sets, “the NSO will be peppering in plenty of audience favorites like ‘Sleigh Ride,” ‘Nutcracker’ selections, and an interesting Hasidic arrangement” of the ‘Dreidel’ tune, he says. “We hope the audience will get in the holiday spirit and smile for a couple hours. And at certain points, we’ll also invite them to sing right along with us near the end of the show.”

“There will be other wonderful surprises, too,” he says, “although I can’t give them away. But the program should absolutely delight the audience.” Concertgoers  “should be very comfortable bringing their kids and grandkids,” he says, because this is really a family show Family show. “It’s lighthearted and joyful, and even your 12 year-old daughter will enjoy it,” he adds, noting that he and his wife, Heidi, have a young daughter—Michaela—themselves.

The Peripatetic Conductor

Since departing Washington in the early 1990s, Mr. Fleischer has racked up an impressive string of guest conducting engagements, not to mention a number of key appointments. His most recent trio of positions—he is serving simultaneously as music director for New York’s Hudson Valley Philharmonic, Ohio’s Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, and the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra in our northernmost state of Alaska—involves a considerable amount of globetrotting.

All three orchestras, he says, are comprised of excellent musicians, and their annual seasons are typically either sold out or close to it. The Anchorage position, he notes, “was very much due to an NSO connection that began in the fall of 1991,” he says, when “NSO started a two-week residency program” in Anchorage and other locales trying to grow or develop major orchestras. When a full-time music director opened up in Alaska’s largest city, the Anchorage Symphony, already familiar with Mr. Fleischer, invited him to take that position.

Randall Craig Fleischer.

As the orchestra has grown, Mr. Fleischer has added new works to the repertoire, including Bruckner’s difficult Symphony No. 7, “which the orchestra had never performed before,” he says.

Like most music seasons in the Lower 48, the Anchorage Symphony’s major season starts in September and runs through the cold, dark Alaskan winter. Do people show up for concerts in this kind of weather, we wondered. Mr. Fleischer laughed. “The weather doesn’t bother our audiences,” he says. “Cold and wind don’t keep them from coming. Even if it’s 20 below and windy, most of our concerts are sellouts.”

As far as the Hudson and Youngstown orchestras are concerned, each of these is an excellent ensemble as well, both benefitting greatly from the availability of top-notch musicians in the New York City and Cleveland areas respectively.

An added plus for Mr. Fleischer’s Youngstown gig—it’s a little like homecoming. “Mom and Dad live in the Canton area,” he says. “That whole northern Ohio area is a place where a person can make a decent living as freelance orchestra musician. Youngstown, Akron, Canton, Erie, Pittsburgh’s orchestra and opera, Dayton, Toledo all have music programs in addition to excellent music schools like the Cleveland Institute, and Oberlin,” where Mr. Fleischer himself first studied. “After graduation, a good pocket of these musicians stay in the area either permanently or until they land a job somewhere else,” he says.

On musical fusion, composition, and kids

Not only a conductor, Mr. Fleischer is also deeply involved in music education and composition. “I’m continuing my active work as a composer/arranger,” he says. As a longtime rock fan, “I’m particularly interested in rock and world music fusion. I’m compelled by ideas and repertoire. I’m also interested in combinations of music and movement that some might think are totally ‘out of the bubble’” of classical music, he says, citing his compositions like “Step Africa.” “That’s a dance piece that features African-American stepping, which I’d describe as dance and body percussion, an interesting fusion of music and dance,” he says.

His latest evolving compositional effort is “Rocktopia,” which he describes as “a fusion of symphonic music and opera with rock and roll.” Currently, “I’m shopping ‘Rocktopia’ as a standalone separate event,” he says.

“Bach and many other composers included or incorporated folk dances and folk elements into their own compositions,” he notes, by way of explaining that incorporating rock and folk into the symphonic repertoire is not that far fetched, historically. “But today, we seem to have built an ivory tower for ourselves” in classical music, he says. “It’s dysfunctional.”

Vocal ensemble ‘New York Voices.’ (Image from NYVoices’ website.)

“Over the last 50-60 years, we’ve lost touch with the contemporary audience,” he continues. “When Elvis came along, symphonic music went the other direction.” As far as programming more popular classical and light opera hits, Pops concerts hadn’t changed much either since 1957,” he notes.

“For everyone for the longest time, the acceptable standard was Arthur Fiedler’s concept of pops.” Today, “I’m trying to write new chapter in symphonic pops. Rock is a legitimate art form, as far as I’m concerned,” he says. The genre creates “true musical statements of substance made with the electric guitar.”

Obviously, not all rock and all classical music plays well together. “I’m not sure Bruckner and Jimmy Hendrix will ever get along with each other,” he laughs.

Is the current generation of composer-musician finally leading the way, once again, toward regaining the audience that academic, primarily atonal/serial composers seemed to have set about losing throughout much of the 20th century?

“I believe that’s the case,” he replies. “You can see today that composers as different as Corrigliano, Adams, others, write music that should move the audience, not offend them,” he says. And as a result, “more symphony organizations are beginning to regularly commission and schedule this more accessible new music. A new chapter in classical music is still being written.”

In addition to his own compositional efforts in what he regards as the leading edge of a musical revival for symphonic programming and content, Mr. Fleischer is also concerned that music education is getting less and less available in a public school system that used to include classical music as a key part of its curriculum. Not all that long ago, “music was once an important part of the public school experience,” he observes.

As a partial answer to the problem, Mr. Fleischer has been one of the leaders in an ad hoc but growing effort on the part of symphony orchestras to try to fill the educational gap—not only with the kind of “Young People’s Concerts” initially championed by Leonard Bernstein, one of Mr. Fleischer’s mentors; but with extensive “music in the schools” programs as well, that can introduce rising generations to the endless riches available through music.

“We need to continue efforts like this,” he says. “Rock, all music really, has excited me since I was a young boy. It excites me today as a composer and arranger. We need to actively make the same kinds of experiences available to the children of today,” he says. “We need to get in the door.”

The NSO Pops’ “Happy Holidays!” program runs through December 16, 2012. Ticket prices range from $20-85. For tickets and information, visit the Kennedy Center’s website.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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