Holiday Pops concert aims to spread hope and the holiday spirit

Five Washington and Lee ensembles come together for two nights to perform classic holiday songs and give back to the community

Bri Hatch

Five ensembles from the Washington and Lee Music Department shared the stage last week at the first in-person Holiday Pops concert in two years. Reindeer antlers, pops of red in scarves and socks, and Santa hats (including one placed on top of a bassoon) added to the joyful holiday music shared with a full audience of local community members and university students. 

“The Holiday Pops concerts signify a kickoff to the holiday season for the Lexington community. It’s been an event that has brought the Lexington community together for decades, probably longer than that,” said Shane Lynch, director of choral activities and music department head.

Christopher Dobbins, director of instrumental activities and conductor of University Orchestra and University Wind Ensemble, said this year’s concert is especially important for the community in light of the pandemic. 

“I hope that [the audience] left not just joyful and excited for the holiday season, but hopeful,” Dobbins said. “It’s been a long two years for everybody. So I hope this year there was some hopefulness that came out of it as well, and some looking forward to the future.”

The Holiday Pops concert is the only time the university’s many ensembles perform on the same night. Washington and Lee’s Glee Club, Cantatrici, University Jazz Ensemble, University Orchestra and University Wind Ensemble all took the stage on the nights of Dec. 6 and Dec. 7.

Dobbins said that Wilson Hall lacks the facilities to put on these large-scale productions all the time. And there is a lot more logistical work that goes into planning setup and transitions. 

“It’s fun once a year to sort of make the sacrifice of packing into rooms like sardines and having the sort of awkward big transitions as we have to move between groups,” he said.

This allows different ensembles to collaborate on pieces. The Glee Club and the University Jazz Ensemble performed “White Christmas” together, featuring Glee Club soloists Michael McLaughlin, ’23, and Ellett Miller, ’25, on the memorable melody. 

“Everyone can vibe with ‘White Christmas,’” McLaughlin said. “It’s a really communal piece.”

“White Christmas” was also directed by first-time student conductors Annie Thomas, ’24, and Adele Roulston, ’24, on Monday and Tuesday night respectively. 

“And of course, they did literally the hardest thing, which was conducting both the jazz band and the glee club at the same time,” McLaughlin said. “Dr. Lynch joked about throwing them into fire, and that’s kind of what he did. So it was really great seeing them pull that off successfully.”

Roulston, who also sang in the Cantrici choir, said that while she did not expect her conducting debut to feature multiple ensembles, she felt both nervous and powerful. 

“All my peers who I conducted wanted me to succeed, and I could feel the positive energy from them as I stood in front,” Roulston said. 

While students in the university conducting program are able to conduct at other concerts, Dobbins said the Holiday Pops concert is when they “do it all.”

“Even the process of picking the music is a little different, because the students have a lot more input, since they’re going to be the ones preparing and conducting the ensembles for the performances,” he said. 

The pieces performed included holiday classics, like “Sleigh Ride” performed by the University Wind Ensemble and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” performed by the University Orchestra. And, with students conducting, directors are able to spend the concert performing alongside the ensembles instead. 

“They pay me to come and wave my arms around, and that’s been my life for decades,” Lynch said. “And I mean, I love conducting, but it is nice to get back to my singing roots a little bit.” 

The Holiday Pops concert is so popular among members of the community that it is performed for two nights. 

“We probably had as many musicians as people sitting in the audience,” Terry Vosbein, conductor of University Jazz Ensemble, said. 

Student performers enjoy the opportunity to perform twice in a row. 

“It gives us a chance to improve the music a little bit, but also to just enjoy that music for two nights,” said Truman Chancy, ’22, who plays the alto saxophone in the University Jazz Ensemble and Wind Ensemble — and also serves as a student conductor. “I just love the energy in the room.”

In lieu of ticket sales, the Holiday Pops concert collects nonperishable food items or monetary donations to Washington and Lee’s Campus Kitchen. 

“We just want to be able to help out,” Lynch said. “That’s been the case for this concert since I’ve been at W&L. This is my 13th year, and it predates me. So it’s definitely something that’s a long tradition.”

Performers also hope the concert is a chance to give back to the larger community by spreading holiday spirit and optimism even in times of stress about finals, the flu or COVID-19. 

“Music is a chance to escape those pressures and fears and celebrate and be together and find joy,” Kiera Stankevich, ’25, who plays clarinet in the University Wind Ensemble, said.