Good evening, everyone. I'm Governor Jennifer Granholm, and I want to congratulate ABC12 on 25 years of bringing the sights and sounds of the holiday season to all of Michigan. Through their unique partnership with Michigan Public Broadcasting, everyone in our great state can experience the joyous and diverse music associated with this special time of year.
From my family to yours, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!
Bill Harris interview with Leo Najar, former conductor of the Saginaw Symphony.
Bill Harris: We are at the Silent Night Chapel in Frankenmuth at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland. We'll explain why we're here in just a couple of minutes. Our special guest just happens to be the conductor of our first 15 Christmas Pops shows from the first one in 1986. Leo Najar is now the artistic director of the Bijou Orchestra in Bay City.
Bill Harris: You know, Leo, looking at that very first concert back in 1986, it's in stark contrast to the 23 concerts that followed. Take us back to that first year, 1986, if you can.
Leo Najar: Well, there are two things that I remember about it. First is, it was a Saturday afternoon concert, which was a very different kind of thing. Yes, it was a Saturday afternoon, and so we rehearsed in the morning, and suddenly, we're in the middle of making TV. And what I recall about it that's most interesting, in retrospect, is, first of all, it was just the orchestra. And that's hard with Christmas music because mostly Christmas music is composed of music we sing. But we didn't. We had music that was just instrumental. So we're trying to find a piece. That was the first problem.
Leo Najar: Second problem was the next day when we went in to begin the edit, and you had a list of all your favorite shots and I had my list of all my favorite tunes. And between us we had a 90-second show because I didn't want any wrong notes and you didn't want any bobbled cameras. But we did. We did come up with it, but it wasn't easy, it was difficult. We needed that variety. It was impossible to conceive of a successful Christmas show that was without any singers.
Bill Harris: Well, that brings us to step two. I remember the post-production session. We did it back on tape back in those days, and that first session we had together, it was like 13 hours long. We went out to a local restaurant, had food and drink. Jane, my wife, was with us, and when I look at this clip from years ago, 1986, it was like the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. There was something missing. Janie suggested "how about, how about a chorus?" Well, you took that and you ran away with it.
Leo Najar: Right!
Bill Harris: And that was the beginning of...
Leo Najar: Because I wasn't really clear at the time. You know, this is nice but, you know, I was an orchestral musician, orchestral conductor, and I was playing all the greatest hits of the orchestral Christmas.
Bill Harris: Leo Najar's greatest hits.
Leo Najar: But sooner or later, you were down to doing familiar carols and people would be humming along and singing along all the rest of it. But it was all strictly instrumental, and so, yes, when she said "chorus," ahh, yes. All we need is a chorus that's willing at Christmas time, when everybody's already very busy with their Christmas concerts. The schools have Christmas concerts, the churches have Christmas concerts, the big choral societies have big Christmas concerts, and what I want them to do is to set aside time to rehearse an extra Christmas concert.
Bill Harris: In 1987, you ran away with it, so to speak, took the ball and ran with it. Hence, the Saginaw Symphony Christmas Pops Honors Chorus. And that was something very special, something you were very proud of.
Leo Najar: Well, the solution of trying to find that chorus turned out to be yes, we can get some students, but we can only get the busiest and best of the busiest and best. So we went to the Honors Chorus. We went to, at that time, I don't know, maybe 15 high schools that were in the TV12 listening area, viewing area. And we said please send us a quartet of your finest singers. Some schools sent seven or eight, some schools sent one or two, but we did succeed in getting a chorus that had three or four rehearsals, only they had to learn maybe 20 minutes of music, but they had to learn four-part music in 20 minutes. We met on Sunday afternoons, we always did at Bridgeport High School.
Leo Najar: So they had a long rehearsal and then when it was time to build TV. They had one rehearsal with the orchestra that night, and the next night they were on TV. So it was a very professional experience for them. And I think over the years we had some of the best musical time we ever had with them.
Bill Harris: Well, the chorus didn't stop with the Honors Chorus. Once we got into the mode of having vocal as part of the orchestra at Christmas Pops, you took it up another step quite often in the 15 years, such as this memorable night with the Flint Area Gospel Chorus. Talk, if you will now, a little bit about the addition of more choral groups.
Leo Najar: Well, for example, the Gospel Chorus was an outgrowth of concerts I did for several years with the "Flint Symphony In The Parks," where we had gospel choirs performing with the orchestra. And so I was very pleased to have that group join us on stage. They were one of many different kinds of ensembles. By the end of the 15 years that I did this program, we had about 1,000 people who appeared with the Saginaw orchestra on the stage.
Leo Najar: Everything from steel drum bands, we had the Mexican Posadas dancers, we had...
Bill Harris: The drummers from the area high schools.
Leo Najar: That's right. One year when we brought in all the marching drummers, and I discovered that high school marching band drummers know one cadence and you better be playing in that tempo or you're out of luck.
Bill Harris: It was not all serious works. We had a lot of fun. And one memorable moment that I recall, and anybody who watched any of the 15 years, was Brad Bodary. Now that brings us to the introduction of how much fun we had also on stage.
Leo Najar: Absolutely. There were comic moments. The were unusual moments. There were moments when we had unusual instruments like the accordion. Peter Suave performed for us. We had some great times with the New Ref Band. We had some sort of comic moments in that. And then there were moments when we brought, for example, the TV12 talent forward to play instruments. I'll never forget that when we did the Toy Symphony.
Bill Harris: We did that twice.
Leo Najar: Yes, yes. And I think the second band was better than the first.
Bill Harris: A little better?
Leo Najar: Experience, yes. But, yeah, we tried to do that. We were always trying to bring a different element. Again, the idea was to make a community celebration of Christmas joined with the orchestra. It wasn't just about the orchestra.
Bill Harris: Now, the reason we are here at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland. Mr. and Mrs. Bronner were so much supporters of Christmas Pops. They were our broadcast sponsors for at least 15 years. But the Silent Night connection. Let's give a listen to one.
Bill Harris: There is something unique about this particular version of Silent Night. Fill us in.
Leo Najar: Well, Wally Bronner, of course, was passionately devoted to the original version of Silent Night, which is why he built this beautiful replica chapel of the chapel in Austria, which marks the performance, the first performance of Silent Night. It's the original version, which was almost completely unknown. But it became our trademark. Every Christmas Pops included this from the time. He gave me that score and it spread to other places who now perform the original version, thanks to Wally.