Holiday concerts can be as predictable as apple pie, but not when the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra performs one. In its first visit to Ann Arbor in 40 years, the ensemble will defy convention with a program of international Christmas tunes, regional American favorites and a few surprises here and there.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of the Boston Pops
Santa says, “If this is your idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Years.”

Actually, Sunday’s concert is chock-full of surprises, all of which deviate from what we normally think of as a night at the symphony. Crisler Arena, transformed specifically for the occasion, will allow patrons to purchase tickets at all angles from the stage – even behind – with seats arranged in tables. Keeping with game-time tradition, concession stands will also be open. And if all this weren’t enough of a change of scene, the concert will also feature a special guest: Actor and Chelsea native Jeff Daniels.

For the Boston Pops, in its 117th year, all of this is standard fare. Accustomed to performing in stadiums, rock concert venues and even the banks of the Charles River, the ensemble has earned a reputation for being adventurous. Its founder, Henry Lee Higginson, envisioned the Boston Pops as an alternative to strait-laced classical music. His vision has carried over to the orchestra’s prestigious conductors: The infamous Arthur Fiedler, film score giant John Williams and now, Keith Lockhart.

Taking over the post from Williams in 1995, at age 35, Lockhart stepped immediately into the celebrity spotlight. He finds that, after working in relative obscurity for 13 years, the Boston Pops was a considerable adjustment. “It was a big change, it took some guts, when things like the news of your engagement is an Associated Press news item – it gets a little freaky,” Lockhart said. “You don’t go into classical music with the idea of being famous – it’s something you grow into and it gets more natural, and after eight years, it’s part of who I am and what I do.”

Speaking of what Lockhart does, the list just keeps getting longer and longer. In addition to 50 regular-season concerts at home and national broadcasts on the A&E channel, the orchestra undertakes three tours a year. The holiday tour is a relatively new concept that started with Lockhart. Stopping in seven cities in seven days, the orchestra performs an ambitious program that continues to push boundaries.

“When you do a Christmas concert, you have two conflicting things to go through,” Lockhart said. “One is that the holidays are a touchstone for people – it’s a place to recognize the familiar, and therefore people come to those concerts with the expectation that they’ll hear things they know and love.”

“On the other hand, since we do these concerts every year, they can’t be cookie cutters of the year before,” he added. “You have to balance that expectation – it’s a combination of doing what we do at the Pops in general, which is bridging the gap between great classical music that was written for orchestra with material that was arranged just for us.”

The Boston Pops is pulling out all the stops this year with its diverse program. While traditional songs such as “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World” will be performed, lesser-known pieces such as Hollenbeck’s “Cajun Christmas” and Hairston-Hollenbeck’s “Mary’s Little Boy Child” will also be featured. Daniels will narrate “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and Randall Pittman, owner of Forest Health Services, will be the guest conductor for “Sleigh Ride.”

The orchestra will be also be accompanied by soprano Kathleen Brett and the renowned University Singers from California State University, Fullerton, under the direction of John Alexander.

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