Concert of carols

Bells will be ringing: The Philadelphia Orchestra will present The Glorious Sound of Christmas concerts Thursday through Saturday, at 7 p.m. at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce streets. Tickets are available online at philorch.org, or call 215-893-1999 or visit the Kimmel Center box office.

This weekend, the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians will be in their usual places on the stage of Verizon Hall, just as they are almost every weekend.

Except that this time, they won’t be performing the typical classical music fare of  symphonies and concertos.

Instead, three concerts, presented Thursday through Saturday evenings, will feature a program of Christmas carols and other holiday music.

It’s the annual Glorious Sound of Christmas concerts, a popular tradition. Indeed, it’s such a long-standing tradition that an album with that title dates to 1962 and features a holiday concert conducted by then-music director Eugene Ormandy.

Now, 54 years later, this holiday concert is still a favorite tradition. As in past years, this weekend’s concerts include guest artists.

They are the choir known as the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. Soprano Alison Buchanan maintains a busy schedule as a vocal soloist. The orchestra will perform some arrangements.

Appropriately enough, one of the pieces the Mendelssohn Club will sing – accompanied by the orchestra – is Mendelssohn’s own Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

“It’s a stunning arrangement,” says Gabrielle Rinkus, a Fox Chase resident who is in her third season with the choir. “As soon as I hear the opening notes, it’s a special moment for me.”

Other holiday pieces on the program include We Need a Little Christmas, Sleigh Ride and The Very Best Time of Year.

Based on her experience with the past two concerts, Rinkus predicts that during the performance of Sleigh Ride, a surprise guest will appear on the stage – Santa Claus, who cavorts around the stage as a one-man comedy act.

“The audience is just delighted,” reports Rinkus.

The guest conductor this year is Thomas Wilkins, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

“I’m looking forward to working with him,” says Rinkus.

It’s the first time the Mendelssohn group will sing under his baton. But as Rinkus notes,  their artistic director, Paul Rardin, has trained them to adapt to different conductors.

“Dr. Rardin is great at reminding us to be prepared for a new conductor’s style and interpretation,” she says. “No two conductors will conduct the same piece the same way.”

Adapting to a new conductor is just one of the challenges for the singers.

Another is blending in with the orchestra so that their voices are heard and not overwhelmed by a full orchestra.

“There’s a risk in trying to overcompensate and over-sing,” says Rinkus. “We have to be mindful not to overuse our voices, especially since we’re singing for three consecutive concerts.”

Perhaps surprisingly, another challenge involves singing pieces that are so familiar.

“When we sing music that we know so well, there’s a risk of taking it for granted,” says Rinkus. “We still want to maintain a level of musical excellence even if it’s something we’ve sung numerous times.”

Despite the familiarity of this holiday music, the singers rehearse faithfully every Wednesday evening throughout the year and on some Saturdays, too. They present five different concerts a year.

The holiday season is especially busy. This past Saturday evening, Dec. 10, they presented their own annual concert, Feast of Carols, a Mendelssohn Club tradition.

And not even one week later, they’ll perform The Glorious Sound of Christmas concerts on three consecutive evenings.

To prepare for this, they rehearse first with their own director. Then comes a rehearsal with conductor Wilkins, followed by a dress rehearsal with the full orchestra on the night before the concerts begin.

“One thing I always look forward to is when, after weeks of practicing this music, we have our first rehearsal with the orchestra,” says Rinkus. “For me, that’s when the music comes to life.”

This season marks her third time performing with The Glorious Sound of Christmas. But music has been an integral part of her life ever since  age 8, when she began playing the piano.

Much later, at Temple University, she majored in music education with a concentration on piano. She now serves as assistant director of annual giving for the Westminster Choir College, located in Princeton and part of Rider University.

Most other members of the Mendelssohn Club, like Rinkus, also have full time-jobs. But their commitment to choral music is such that they willingly give their time and effort to rehearsals and performances with this choir.

Now that their own Feast of Carols concert is behind them, the choir members are eagerly looking forward to performing on the stage of Verizon Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra this weekend.

ldquo;Verizon Hall itself is architecturally magnificent,” says Rinkus. “And the combination of being in such a beautiful space while singing with the world-class Philadelphia Orchestra is an incredible experience.” ••