The Princeton Symphony Orchestra will celebrate the joyful Christmas spirit with a “Holiday POPS!” concert of popular seasonal soundtracks, Dec. 16 at 3 and 6 p.m. at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium.
Singer Morgan James and maestro John Devlin will accompany concertgoers in a merry mix of nostalgic holiday hallmarks, festive new inclusions and a big carol sing-along with the Princeton High School Choir. The annual tradition goes back decades to when the orchestra, founded in 1980, was still known as the Princeton Chamber Symphony.
For Devlin, the concert will be a reunion. He was the orchestra’s assistant conductor from 2015 to 2018 and worked closely with music director Rossen Milanov. Devlin regularly conducted the PSO holiday show during those years, but this year’s shows will mark the first time he has been invited to conduct it as a guest artist.
“I always love working with the Princeton Symphony’s talented and growing staff, and the players and I are all old friends now,” he says. “They do a beautiful job at beginning relationships with artists who are going to focus on the community aspect of what their artistry can mean for the city of Princeton, and then once they find artists that align with that vision, they bring them back over and over again.”
His musical home since 2019 has been in West Viriginia, as music director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
He will tap into the warm holiday theme of togetherness by introducing treasured friends to Princeton’s audiences, one of whom is James. The soul songstress has appeared regularly as a symphony pops soloist with various orchestras, including the Wheeling Symphony under Devlin’s baton.
The Holiday POPS! concert will be her PSO debut and she is excited to make new Christmas memories with new and old friends. “One of the great joys of my life and in my career is singing in front of a full symphony orchestra,” she says. “There’s such power and magic in that instrumentation. And when I get to collaborate with John, it’s joyful because he’s such a special musician and friend, so what could be more joyful than these orchestral arrangements for the holidays with him and Princeton? I’m looking forward to sharing this music, and I’m going to try to squeeze in as many costume changes as I can!”
Devlin will reinvent the program a bit with the introduction of two holiday works he commissioned and premiered with Wheeling Symphony, where he is a passionate advocate for emerging composers. As music director, he has commissioned and/or premiered 50 new pieces with the orchestra.
Quinn Mason’s “Christmas Eve Festivities” paints a vivid picture of festive activities such as sleigh rides, tree decorating and caroling. Devlin hosted the world premiere in 2021 at Wheeling.
Leanna Primiani’s “Gaudete” world-premiered with Devlin and Wheeling in 2020. It is based on one of the oldest Christmas carols, which is believed to have been composed in the 16th century. Familiar holiday melodies are woven through the work and arranged in a modern setting.
Seasonal atmospheres of the Ohio Valley will be heard in two pieces by Matthew Jackfert, a composer based in Charleston, West Virginia.
The Princeton choral music scene will be represented through two arrangements by Ryan James Brandau, a prolific composer and arranger of holiday choral music. Brandau is the artistic director of the local symphonic chorus and orchestra Princeton Pro Musica, and leads three other ensembles based in New Jersey and New York. He and Devlin attended a conducting program more than a decade ago, and have remained friends ever since.
Brandau’s “Deck the Hall” and “Auld Lang Syne” will incorporate the Princeton High School Choir, led by director Vincent Metallo. The choir has been included in the symphony’s holiday merry-making since 2003. They will also join in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and “A Christmas Festival” medley of carols (including “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World”) and will encourage the audience to sing along.
The concert will also include arrangements of beloved, older-style tunes from the American Christmas canon such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
“There’s a lot of familiar settings, especially with Morgan’s selections,” Devlin says. “Morgan loves jazz and she loves Ella Fitzgerald, so two of the pieces we’ll perform will be arrangements that Fitzgerald used for her beautiful jazz Christmas album, so the audience will have another one of those familiar-style Christmas tunes but with a little bit of a twist that feels very classic.”
James looks forward to singing the pieces that embody the seasonal message of joy to the world. She will put a soulful spin on Christmas chestnuts such as “Cool Yule,” a jazzy standard of the holiday season that was written by Steve Allen and made famous by Louis Armstrong.
“I always get into the holiday spirit when I hear that song,” she says. “When you hear it with the brass and strings, it’s just so fun.”
Devlin and James first collaborated for the touring show “Symphonic Soul: The Magic of the Memphis Sound,” which paired Memphis soul music with her original tunes played by a symphony orchestra.
“I lost my original conductor a bit last-minute,” James recalls, “so I reached out to a few people, though conductors are often booked years in advance. A close conductor friend of mine recommended John and said he was really special, and knew we’d really get along well. So I reached out to him and, by some miracle, he was available and he delved into it.
“We had such a special experience. He’s not just a conductor who stands on a podium and waves his arms. He’s a really cohesive musician and artist, and an incredible human being.”
Devlin calls James a fantastic colleague. “There are a variety of talents that make Morgan such a special artist,” he says. “Not only does she sing at the very highest level, but she understands the type of communication that audiences are craving from someone like her. She speaks to them in between the numbers and connects with them as people, and she can sing in so many different styles with great beauty and impact.”
James graduated from The Juilliard School with a degree in classical music and segued into Broadway, appearing in five productions. She has dedicated the last several years of her career to touring; her most recent tour was in support of her fifth studio album, Nobody’s Fool.
She routinely switches over to a holiday music tour in December, singing seasonal standards mixed with original songs from her Christmas album A Very Magnetic Christmas.
She thrives on moving between intimate club venues and larger spaces such as the Richardson Auditorium.
“The thing I love the most about my career and path is that every night is a little different,” she says. “One night I’m in a gown in front of a full orchestra and the next night I’m in a club in a little sequin dress or singing duos in a pantsuit in Germany.
“I always say I have the absolute best job in the world. I’m so lucky that I get to cross so many genres and play so many different types of venues.”
Devlin similarly navigates the multi-genre settings with ease. At Wheeling, he conducts both classical and pops programming, embracing various styles and repertoires.
Though the holiday concert is pops music, his roots are symphonic. He holds master’s and doctoral degrees in orchestral conducting from the University of Maryland School of Music. Career milestones included assistantship roles with international conductors Gianandrea Noseda and Christoph Eschenbach.
His childhood in Westchester County, New York, was full of music. “My parents had everything on: Disney movies, Broadway shows, classic musicals, jazz, Sinatra and big band music as well as opera and ballet and orchestra.”
His musical fluency has been advantageous, since symphonic conductors of his generation have shifted from the formal maestro stereotype to more convivial ambassadors of outreach. They are expected to create wide-ranging programs of pops and classical music in order to attract younger and more diverse audiences.
“More and more — especially at these smaller regional orchestras like the one here in Wheeling — the conductors are being asked to stand behind all of the repertoire, especially with so many of these styles of this music being great American music that uses the orchestra: jazz and blues, Appalachian and bluegrass, hip-hop and R&B, and Broadway and Hollywood scores,” he says.
“It’s just a matter now of incorporating the progress that has been made by advancing these styles, combining it with indigenous American music, and finding the composers that are doing the work that should appear on the symphonic stage for all these genres.
“I take great pride in scouting talent in all genres and learning about the music that is supported and to find artists both locally and nationally that are representing it best and then presenting it with the orchestra. I think it’s an authenticity of interests and a love of those styles that allows me to be joyful on the podium whether I’m conducting Brahms or Irving Berlin.”
His years with Princeton Symphony were marked by dynamic performances and enduring community connections that continue to keep him close. He has been invited back as a guest conductor almost every year since then. His last performance was in June for The Princeton Festival with singers Capathia Jenkins and Ryan Shaw in a concert paying tribute to Aretha Franklin.
He considers Milanov and executive director Marc Uys to be mentors, and credits them for his inspired leadership in Wheeling. He is halfway through his fifth season there, and recently signed a contract extension.
“Rossen helped me grow as a conductor and as a musician, and was a great model for me as far as how to guide an orchestra as the leader of the people and players who are within the orchestra and also just how to have a long-term vision for the orchestra’s artistic growth,” he says.
“Marc is one of the most dedicated and visionary artistic leaders on the administrative side I’ve ever been around. Not only has he supported me during those three years at Princeton but even more so afterwards as he became a colleague, and he has attended concerts for me with other orchestras and has been a strong supporter of my career.”
Beyond the concert hall, Devlin and James will both celebrate the holidays away from home, with friends and family.
James’ touring schedule will find her in Japan with her husband, Doug Wamble, a jazz guitarist from Tennessee. He performs in his own trio and is James’ album producer and touring musical director and guitarist. They will present “A Very Soulful Christmas with Morgan James” at Tokyo’s Cotton Club, Dec. 22-25.
“When you travel full-time for a living, you learn very quickly that you have to take the holidays and your traditions with you because you can’t always be home for the holidays,” James says. “When I travel, I bring my husband and the dogs with me, and that’s how I always take a piece of home with me. And whenever I’m travelling for Christmas, I love taking in the local traditions and experiencing the holidays that way. I love baking, so I always do a huge baking day every Christmas and cook a big vegetarian feast with all sorts of treats.”
Devlin will be in Puerto Rico to celebrate the holiday with his wife Camille Cintrón Devlin and her family.
“In Puerto Rico, the holiday is not one or two days like it kind of is here with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” he says. “They party all the way into mid-January and it’s so much fun to be there! They have traditional meals and foods, and a huge Christmas market in Camille’s hometown of Ponce. Her parents will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary so it’s going to be a very celebratory time.”
As the saying goes, no matter where you are in the world, Christmas always finds you.
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s “Holiday POPS” concerts take place at the Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University, Dec. 16 at 3 and 6 p.m. Visit princetonsymphony.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.