On a fall evening in 1988, Dr. Andy Harper, second conductor of the Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra, stepped into the Saenger Theater in downtown Biloxi to conduct a brand new show. Some 60 musicians waited on stage ready to perform for a crowd of 600 people, far more than could ever be seated at the symphony’s former venue at the nearby Biloxi High School auditorium. As Harper took up his conductor’s baton, violins, flutes, oboes, trombones and more filled the theater with the sounds of classical Christmas tunes.
Harper’s show was the first time the Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra, originally founded in 1962, had performed a large-scale Christmas concert. After Harper retired from his position the following year, his successor, Dr. John Strickler, decided to make the show an annual event and formally dubbed it “Holiday Peppermint Pops.” The GCSO has performed the concert on the Sunday after Thanksgiving ever since.
For the concert’s 2022 incarnation, current GCSO Conductor and Music Director Dr. Peter Rubardt teamed up with Dr. Gregory Fuller, director of choral activities for the University of Southern Mississippi, to make that year’s concert a joint performance with the USM Hattiesburg Choral Union, adding roughly 200 choir singers to GCSO’s full orchestral performance.
The resulting concert proved to be so successful that Rubardt invited Fuller and his choir to return for the 2023 show, which will take place on Sunday, Nov. 26, at 4:30 p.m. inside the Immersive Media Performing Arts Center (409 Debuys Road, Gulfport) on the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College campus.
The Program: ‘Complementing the Orchestra and Choir’
This year’s Holiday Peppermint Pops will include a mix of classical Christmas songs like “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” “A Wonderful Christmas Time” and “Sleigh Ride” as well as music from popular films such as “Frozen” and “The Polar Express.” Members of the Gulf Coast Youth Orchestra will join the main orchestra for a number of songs, as will student choral singers from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Rubardt told the Mississippi Free Press that a major benefit of teaming up with Fuller and his choir is pulling off more grandiose pieces such as Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” which features a large piano solo and choral accompaniment in addition to orchestral music.
“Working with USM these past two years has produced what’s turned out to be one of the best sounding and well coordinated shows we’ve ever put out thanks to how flexible they are to work with,” Rubardt says. “Greg and I worked on the program together and picked out touching and thrilling pieces representative of the holiday season that any generation will be able to enjoy that also complement what the orchestra and choir can do together.”
For the grand finale, the orchestra and choir will come together to perform “Let There be Peace on Earth,” a piece originally performed by the International Children’s Choir in 1955.
“When you talk about popular music, you’re talking about feeding the appetite of the public, and I think our joint performance does that spectacularly,” Fuller says. “It’s always thrilling to be able to bring so many people together to make wonderful music.”
Tickets for Holiday Peppermint Pops start at $15 and are available here. For more information on the Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra, visit msgulfcoastsymphony.net. For more information on the USM Hattiesburg Choral Union, visit usm.edu/music/choirs/index.php.