The holidays may feel and sound a bit different around Colorado this year, as the Colorado Symphony has been unable to host their annual collection of holiday programming in Boettcher Concert Hall. These yearly concerts including Holiday Brass and A Night in Vienna are always among the most eagerly anticipated of the season. But perhaps no concert experience is as beloved as A Colorado Christmas, the yearly holiday extravaganza which brings comfort, joy, and Christmas spirit to families and concertgoers across the state.
Despite a seemingly endless cascade of mounting obstacles, the Colorado Symphony has remained undeterred by their inability to host in-person concert events due to the COVID-19 pandemic and instead set their sights on designing an incredible holiday performance that could be enjoyed safely by everyone from the comfort of their own home.
This new virtual A Colorado Christmas performance, which features performances from the Colorado Symphony, Colorado Symphony Chorus, Colorado Children’s Chorale, and vocalist Devin DeSantis, will debut on Virtual Stage on December 18.
Over recent years, vocalist Devin DeSantis has become synonymous with the Colorado Symphony’s annual holiday concert experience. As a Colorado native, DeSantis grew up in Boettcher Concert Hall as a proud member of the Colorado Children’s Chorale and started his solo career with the Colorado Symphony at the age of 11 in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, conducted by Marin Alsop. In addition to a burgeoning performance career, DeSantis has returned to the Boettcher Concert Hall stage in recent seasons as a vital part of the Colorado Christmas experience. So it should come as no surprise that he was thrilled to celebrate Christmas with the Colorado Symphony and audiences across the state once again in 2020.
We sat down with Devin to discuss the formative experiences that shaped his career, Colorado Christmas memories, and what audiences can expect from this year’s virtual Colorado Christmas experience.
As a Colorado native, many of your formative choral experiences came in Boettcher Concert Hall, first with the Colorado Children’s Chorale and later as a young soloist alongside the Colorado Symphony. What were those early experiences like and how did they shape your career?
Devin DeSantis: Not only have they shaped my career, but those experiences and memories at Boettcher have really defined who I am as a person. Even today, I still have dreams where I’m running around the backstage and basement of Boettcher. I owe everything I am as a musician and a performer to the Colorado Children’s Chorale. Yes, I learned the basics of music, singing, and stage presence, but I also learned what it is to be part of a whole; to listen, to lead, to follow, to have respect for those around me and the space we are inhabiting, to pull my weight and do my job and trust that everyone else on that stage is doing the same. I spent my afternoons after school going to rehearsals. I spent holiday breaks in concert halls and theaters. I spent spring breaks and summers in different parts of the country and the world—bringing the gift of music and meeting people from all walks of life. I may not have fully understood it when I was a kid, but I was so lucky to get such a worldly education. It never felt like work to me. Creating music brought me the greatest joy and seeing how it would bring joy to others was everything I ever needed as a kid–it’s exactly how I still feel about it today, and it’s why I’m still making a living as a singer today.
You’ve been an integral part of A Colorado Christmas for the last few years. What do you enjoy most about that annual concert and what specific memories stick out?
DD: Since I graduated college, I’ve always said my ultimate dream job was to sing in front of an orchestra, and my absolute favorite time of year is Christmas. Coming back “home” for the holidays to host A Colorado Christmas is truly the highlight of every year. I LOVE bringing the joy of Christmas to the masses. I love making people think about their families and loved ones and relive their own favorite holiday memories. I think the moments that always stick out in my mind are the moments when I lock eyes with the kids in the audience that are there with their families. Usually, they are sitting on the edge of their seats, or peering over the balconies, dressed to the nines in their fancy holiday dresses and suits. Sometimes I can even give a little wave, or a wink and you see that jolt of wonder that flickers in their eyes–that part of the live experience that makes it personal and tangible. It’s magical.
The Holidays are such a special time for so many in Colorado and A Colorado Christmas is always one of the most anticipated concerts of the season. What is it like to work alongside the Colorado Symphony, Colorado Symphony Chorus, and the Colorado Children’s Chorale on this massive undertaking? What is the rehearsal process like with so many moving parts?
DD: It’s a joy to come to Boettcher and create A Colorado Christmas. In the years past (the normal years!) we begin planning in the summer really. Associate Chorus Conductor Mary Louise Burke and I work together to make sure it’s a well-balanced, diverse program that hits all the right holiday notes. But surprisingly enough, it’s only a few HOURS of actual rehearsal time! I’ll fly into Denver that week of the concerts, spend a day with the incredible Artistic staff creating light cues and solidifying any choreography and movement so we’re all on the same page. We will have one rehearsal with the Chorus, one rehearsal with the Orchestra, and then one big dress rehearsal with everyone involved, before adding the audience. It’s pretty amazing really. Placing that trust in the hundreds of artists involved to come to work and do their job to create the perfect concert experience for the audience. It’s thrilling and sometimes a little terrifying, but completely worth it in the end.
COVID-19 has affected so many people around the world this year. As a musician and a performer, what has this experience been like for you personally.
DD: It’s been heartbreaking and continues to be. Live theatre will not return for a long time. It’s hard to see other countries’ theatre and music scenes coming back to life, and here in America all of my friends and colleagues are still unemployed and have no hope to safely return to work anytime soon. I’ve watched dear talented friends walk away from their craft completely, turning to whatever jobs they can find in order to care for their families and stay afloat, because we really don’t know if and when things will turn back around. I’ve been lucky and have been blessed with opportunities like this one, but the world of the performing arts in America may never be the same. The work we do is important, and other countries seem to understand this fact. It is how we share our human experience. Music and storytelling brings people together and helps us understand the world around us and the different people who live there. It’s an empathetic art form, and I believe empathy is ALL we need right now to help us endure and survive in these hard times. Luckily, I have my family, and they’ve become accustomed to me singing at the top of my lungs as we listen to music while we make dinner or clean the house or bake cookies. This is how I’ve kept the musician in me alive this past year. But I can’t wait to share it with others once again someday.
Have you picked up any new hobbies or skills since the start of the pandemic? What have you been doing to keep busy?
DD: I’ve been keeping myself busy with my 2-year-old daughter. I’ve been forced to watch every Disney and Pixar movie about 237 times over—though I’m not too mad about it, as I love Disney. I’ve learned to play the piano a little bit. I’ve finished somewhere around 20 puzzles, nothing less than 1,000 pieces of course. And my baking skills are on point these days; I’m very proud of several pies I’ve made in the last few months. The year has been full of time with my family, and I wouldn’t exchange that for the world. It’s been awesome for both my husband and me to be around for every step of development in our daughter’s young life, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Sadly, COVID-19 will prevent us from holding A Colorado Christmas in person this year, but we’re thrilled to bring a brand-new version of the concert to the Virtual Stage starting December 18. What was it like to perform and record this concert during a pandemic?
DD: I will forever be grateful that we were able to do something this year. That being said, this has been the most difficult concert to create and produce, but it’s been amazing to see it all come together. All of Summer and Fall was filled with weekly zoom meetings where we tried to figure out the “right” way to make this happen. When I say “we,” I mean the creative, artistic and production staff, programming a virtual concert while considering all the limitations that were placed upon us.
Keeping up with the regulations and protocols set forth by the city was a major feat. The weeks before filming were crazy—I had to quarantine in Denver and get my COVID tests before setting foot in Boettcher. Everyone was wearing masks at all times. Stage Manager Dave Aeling and his brilliant team built me a stage in the audience so I could be socially distanced from everyone else, as I would have to take off my mask when we were recording. Everyone was socially distanced. We could only have a certain number of people in the hall at any given time—the Chorus had to record all of their material on separate days entirely, with no orchestra! We could only be in Boettcher for a limited amount of time every day; we had to record an entire concert in 90-minute chunks spread over several days. That means we could really only rehearse each song once, then do 2 takes and move on. That’s IT! So when everyone sees this final product, it will truly feel like a live experience. We didn’t have the luxury of making everything absolutely perfect or have multiple takes to choose from. And in spite of all of that, I couldn’t be prouder of the concert that will be released.
What can you tell us about this performance and what can audiences expect to see from the virtual Colorado Christmas?
DD: We hope that this virtual concert will feel exactly like the live experience. Audiences can expect all the elements they have come to enjoy in the last few years, and then some. If you’ve missed hearing a full orchestra and chorus and are aching for that holiday symphony experience, then look no further. I’m pretty sure no one else in the country has done something like this—and what’s more, you can be anywhere in country (or anywhere in the world for that matter) to enjoy A Colorado Christmas this year.
I hope everyone enjoys A Virtual Colorado Christmas this season. It was a labor of love. So many people poured their heart and soul into this project. May it bring you joy and happiness and the spirit of the season. Be safe, stay healthy, and don’t take one more moment for granted. There is so much to be thankful for this year. Merry Christmas and a most definite and happy New Year.