To say it has been an unusual pair of concert seasons for the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra might be an understatement.
Shortly after successful performances of "Peter and the Wolf" with the Heartland Ballet in February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic came knocking, wiping out the rest of the DSO's 2019-2020 season. It also resulted in an abbreviated 2020-2021 season that included smaller ensembles and limited audiences.
Although the DSO opted to delay the start of its current season, music director and conductor William Intriligator said he and the rest of orchestra are more than ready for a little fanfare.
"This year will be the return to our tried and true tradition," he said. "It will be as people are used to seeing the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra."
The tradition will continue with its season-opening holiday concerts, set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5.
A holiday family concert also will take place at 1 p.m. Saturday, featuring a one-hour performance with no intermission. It will include sing-alongs, performances by guest artists and ensembles and a free socially distanced photo with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
All concerts will be performed at Five Flags Theater, decorated by DSO staff especially for the season. All seats will be open, but masks will be required of DSO musicians, staff and audiences.
While last year's DSO holiday offering was delivered virtually and featured 19 of its brass players, this year, 46 instrumentalists will perform live on stage, opening the concert will the festive "Christmas Overture," by African-American composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Also included on the program will be members of the Heartland Ballet performing selections from Tchaikovsky's beloved "Nutcracker" and the return of the Dubuque Chorale and the Dubuque Chorale Children's Chorus. Both will join the DSO in several pieces.
"It will be so thrilling to hear that big sound coming from the stage again," Intriligator said.
Also featured will be soloist Jennie Wengrovius, a Boston-based vocalist Intiligator came to know during the pandemic.
"My sister-in-law is a minister in Boston, and when they were presenting virtual services, I decided to watch," Intriligator said. "Jennie was a frequent soloist and was just so good. I probably heard her 10 or 15 times, and she was always very passionate when she performed. She had a very distinctive style in her music making. It's very heartfelt and folk like. I thought, 'This is someone we need to bring to Dubuque.'"
Among the musical selections Wengrovius will perform are several highlighting the work female composers, including a tune titled, "Snow," by Laura McKennitt.
"It's absolutely beautiful and just perfect for Jennie's voice," Intriligator said.
Other highlights will include "This Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "A Cradle in Bethlehem," best known as performed by Nat King Cole.
The program will feature familiar classics, such as "O Holy Night" and Gustav Holst's "Christmas Day," featuring a medley of old English carols.
More contemporary carols also will be included, such as "Sing Him to Sleep," by Abby Burt Betinis. She is the niece of jazz trumpeter Alfred Burt, who penned a collection of carols that have been passed down and added to for three generations.
And rather than Handel's highly performed "Hallelujah," Beethoven's "Hallelujah" instead will round out the program.
"You can't beat Beethoven," Intriligator said.
While it might seem as though happenings have been slightly silent for the DSO amid the pandemic, they have been anything but.
In September, the DSO hosted auditions for vacancies within the orchestra, including strings, brass and woodwinds. The auditions drew hundreds from coast to coast, resulting in 17 new players that have been added to the symphony's roster. Several will make their debut during the holiday concerts.
Intriligator said it's aligned with the struggle working musicians are facing as the pandemic continues. But it also speaks to the quality, caliber and support for the DSO.
"We've been lucky to continue having the great community support we have, as well as the support of our donors and sponsors," Intriligator said. "We're happy to be able to offer a slight return to normal with these concerts and to bring that sense of joy and upliftment to our audiences."