"The Polar Express" is a rather new addition to the holiday canon of literature. The book, written by Chris Van Allsburg, came to life in 1985, and the motion-capture animation movie arrived at the station in 2004.
However, the story of a boy who gets to ride with Santa on Christmas Eve has already become something of a beloved classic, one that Utah Symphony principal pops conductor Jerry Steichen wanted to bring to life. He does, with two shows this week in Salt Lake City and one, courtesy of the Ogden Symphony Ballet Association, next week in Ogden.
"My sister Brenda and I were talking about this, and we were already in college by the time it came out," said Steichen, calling from Texas. "But Mom picked it up when it won the Caldecott award and we really all love it.
"So what we are doing here is projecting the artwork from the book on giant screens, and then there is a sung narration. The baritone (Brent Turner) sings the whole story, and the action is commented on by orchestra. It is not a short story -- it is a 20-minute work of music. We have some children onstage playing the elves. It really is just magical."
Other enchantments adding to the kid-friendly evening include a visit from the Jolly Old Elf himself, as well as a singalong to many holiday tunes.
A chorale evening
Aside from Mr. Claus, other special guests join the symphony for the show. The West Jordan High School Concert Choir, directed by Kelly DeHaan, is featured on several numbers, including "The Polar Express" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."
Also joining the show for a few numbers is Karen Brookens, assistant professor of music at Weber State University. Steichen visited Huntsville last summer for an OSBA party, and while there, he heard Brookens sing. He ended up choosing her to perform as part of the family show, as well as the full symphony show earlier this month, "Holiday Celebration With Jerry."
Said Brookens: "I was asked if I'd sing a couple things at that party-- a few fun, light, jazzy pieces. And as it turned out, it ended up being an audition for Jerry, and I had no idea. Actually, it was the most fun audition I ever did, because I was just having fun and didn't know to get nervous.
"She was so wonderful," said Steichen. "And I had all these songs for a women's trio in mind for these shows. I had two women, young artists-in-residence from the Utah Opera Guild, and I knew then that Karen's was my third voice."
Though Brookens, a soprano of some renown as well as an educator, has sung with many groups and in many settings, this is her first time with the Utah Symphony.
"This is a huge change for me," she said. "I have sung with orchestras, of course, and oratorios, but usually I do voice recitals with just a piano. This is a whole different realm -- more laid-back stylistically, more jazzy perhaps. It is really fun -- not that the other things I do aren't fun, but I am reaching a different audience this time. I can't wait to hear the symphony behind me -- absolutely world-class musicians supporting me! It is mind-boggling. "
The challenge is tapping into the wonderment of the holidays and delivering it to the audience, especially the youngsters.
"I think channeling into the childlike nature of this show brings out the child in me -- the young Karen, in my elementary days," Brookens said. "It was so fun to get ready for Christmas then. You were in awe, and it was fresh and new and exciting. You believed, and that made it magical."