BSO to premiere concert version of 'Christmas Carol'

Composer Bob Christianson is nothing if not versatile.

He wrote a lot of pulsating music that accompanied episodes about several, um, energetic women in New York on the HBO series "Sex and the City." He has provided themes for Travel Channel's "Mysteries of the Museum" and "Inside the Grand Canyon," and the Military Channel's "The Day After D-Day," to name a few more.


His credits also include themes for sports programs and promos on ABC and ESPN. "Which is funny," Christianson said, "because I am not a sports person. I'm missing that gene."

But the New York-based composer does have the soft-heart gene, which will be on display this weekend when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra premieres his latest work, "A Christmas Carol — The Concert."


It's a two-act version of the Charles Dickens classic, scored for narrator, actor/singers, chorus and orchestra. Among those joining the BSO will be Broadway veteran Merwin Foard, as Scrooge, and the Baltimore City College Choir.

"I know all the black-and-white film versions of 'A Christmas Carol' like the back of my hand," Christianson said. "It's such a great story of redemption and catharsis. Scrooge is the archetype of the character who starts out bad and turns out good. I'm always sobbing by the end."

Several treatments of the beloved story about humbug, ghosts and Tiny Tim have featured music prominently, including "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," an instant animated TV classic in 1962 with songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, and the 1970 movie "Scrooge" with a memorable score by Leslie Bricusse.

The legacy of all those previous versions of "A Christmas Carol" did not deter Christianson from trying his own.

"I guess I'm not smart enough to be afraid to do it," he said with a laugh.

The composer already had another large-scale holiday work to his name: "Too Hot to Handel."

This gospel arrangement of the oratorio "Messiah" got its started with a concept by Marin Alsop, who has conducted it frequently, including a performance last year with the BSO at Carnegie Hall. Christianson and Gary Anderson arranged that dynamic score.

"We figured it was going to be a one-off, but 18 years later, it's still being performed," Christianson said.


When he started looking for another Christmas piece to work on, the composer first sought source material in the public domain. After settling on the Dickens story, he tapped Alisa Hauser, a lyricist and actress, to adapt the book.

"We did a lot of searching on the Internet and, as far as we know, 'A Christmas Carol' has never been done before expressly as a concert," Christianson said. "There will be no scenery and very few props. It's infinitely cheaper to produce that way."

Speaking of expenses, Christianson, a seasoned synthesizer player, saved money by playing nearly all the accompaniment heard on the newly released two-disc CD recording of the work. But his goal all along was to see the piece presented onstage with a live orchestra.

"I'm not good at writing string quartets," he said. "I like writing for orchestra. I like it to be an event. In this economic climate, I didn't expect any orchestra to say yes. To their credit, the BSO did."

The score of "A Christmas Carol — The Concert" is eclectic.

"I beg, borrow and steal from as many styles as I possibly can," the composer said. "It ranges from blues to Broadway to quasi-classical to film scoring."


Christianson settled on specific genres for some of the main characters.

"I figured Scrooge is very angry, at least in the beginning, so he can do rock," the composer said. "When I thought of Marley, the first thing that came to mind was blues, because this guy's in bad shape. And it seemed like gospel would be a good way to end the piece, since Scrooge has become such a different person by then."

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Christianson saved his most lyrical music for the Ghost of Christmas Future segment, where a gentle ballad is sung by Bob Cratchit after the death of Tiny Tim: "He was no trouble, good as gold … 10 years old, he was no trouble at all."

"I tried to write the kind of a song that bypasses the brain when you hear it, and goes right to the heart," Christianson said. "I want people to be moved by the story."

The composer has another goal for "A Christmas Carol — The Concert."

"It gives an audience a reason to see an orchestra at Christmastime," he said. "And orchestras are the most wonderful things in the world."


If you go

The BSO performs "A Christmas Carol — In Concert" at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. $32-$57. 410-783-8000,