For a few hours on Dec. 4, The Grand Opera House echoed with the sounds of live music for the first time in nine months.
The Philly Pops recorded its two annual Christmas shows in the Market Street venue’s main auditorium, Copeland Hall, although nobody was there to hear it except the musicians and crew.
“Thank God for the Grand Opera House in Wilmington,” said Frank Giordano, CEO of the Pops. “It was a perfect alternative location. We had a great experience and I want to thank everyone who welcomed us and made this happen with really such short notice.”
It was the first the Pops performed in Delaware, and arrangements came together so quickly there was no fanfare.
“We’re show people; that’s what we do, that’s why we exist…to put on shows,” said Mark Fields, executive director of The Grand.
While The Grand shifted to drive-in concerts, drive-in outdoor movies and now the Winter in Wilmington Light Show, “it’s been many months since we’ve had real live music in any of our theaters,” he said.
“So, we are delighted to have hosted the Philly Pops for its virtual holiday concert. It was a poignant reminder of what we all have been missing during the pandemic.”
The shows, “A Philly Pops Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season” and “Comcast NBCUniversal I’ll Be Home for Christmas: A Salute to the Military and First Responders,” will be available to stream for free in late December.
“A Salute to the Military” will be live streamed through the American Forces Network to 1 million service members around the globe.
Both performances feature Music Director and Principal Conductor David Charles Abell leading the musicians with “Hamilton” star Mandy Gonzalez (Angelica), Artistic Director for Jazz Terell Stafford on trumpet and guest pianist Charlie Albright.
The Pops chose to record at The Grand because Delaware’s COVID-19 gathering restrictions were more lenient than those in Philadelphia. Delaware allowed up to 50, and the Pops orchestra included about 40 pieces, Gonzalez and its recording crew.
While the Pops had recorded shows before, “virtual is new to us,” said Pops CEO Frank Giordano.
COVID restrictions kept changing in Philadelphia as the number of positive cases soared in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and afterward.
The Pops holiday shows usually have 300 people on stage, including three choirs, Giordano said. For the virtual program, they had to pare it down to under 50.
The arrangements to use the Grand were made over a couple of days right before the taping, he said.
Recording from noon to about 8 p.m., the musicians and soloists were socially distanced. Wind instruments such as horns and woodwinds played behind plexiglass shields, and singers sang behind them. Other performers wore masks.
Because so many were needed to perform and tape the show, few others were in the theater.
Gonzalez rehearsed virtually, but was at The Grand to perform in person for the taping. She sang to Albright playing from the West Coast. The choir performances were all taped elsewhere and will be edited into the program.
The results are great, said Giordano, who has seen rough cuts of the shows.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” Giordano said. “It was also exciting to perform in the home town and state of our president-elect, Joe Biden.”
With so much unknown about COVID and the future of performing, Giordano said the Pops might be back at The Grand for virtual recordings, or even an in-person one when restrictions lift.
“We’d like to come back and do a live performance and really thank everyone,” he said.
“Spectacular Sounds of the Season” will be available as a digital stream from the Pops’ website from Dec. 18 to Jan. 1 at phillypops.org. Details are at phillypops.org/christmas. The show also features virtual performances of the Pops Festival Chorus, The Philadelphia Boys Choir and The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” will be available privately to Philadelphia police, firefighters, military, veterans and first responders at phillypops.org/xmassalute.
The Philly Pops is the largest standalone pops orchestra in the United States and focuses on American popular music.