The Boston Pops annual holiday concerts rank among the city’s most enduring Christmas traditions. They began in 1971 under the baton of venerable Arthur Fiedler with a three-concert series at Symphony Hall. Those initial performances, titled “A Pops Christmas Party,” were enthusiastically embraced by the public.
More than four decades later, the tradition continues stronger than ever. The 2016 holiday series at Symphony Hall, featuring The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, encompasses 40 evening and matinee concerts, including seven special Kids Matinee performances, through December 24.
Loyal fans attend every year, applauding the festive mix of carols, sing-alongs and a visit from Santa. However, there’s one young woman, new to Boston, who’ll be experiencing her first Holiday Pops this year. And she’ll be doing it from center stage.
Viola player Leah Ferguson joined the BSO this past September. Doing double duty, she’ll also be playing with The Pops throughout the month of December.
Originally from Chicago, Leah earned her bachelor’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music and subsequently earned a diploma from The Juilliard School.
Her impressive list of credits include being a guest artist with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble and a guest associate principal of the Montreal Symphony; playing concerts at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and New York’s MoMA; and ensemble performances with the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic.
All of this by age 22, which ranks her as one of the BSO’s youngest musicians.
Leah’s parents are wind musicians and she was surrounded by orchestral music throughout middle and high school. She also joining a musical youth group in Chicago.
In an interview with the BIR, she said she decided to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music because “I really wanted to work with Robert Vernon, who is the just retired principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra. He’s a renowned and very incredible teacher.”
Her relocation to New York to study at Juilliard came with a stepped up pace of life. “Cleveland is a very kind of calm place,” said Leah. “It’s easier to focus there. In New York, there’s just so much going on . . . It’s very hectic . . . But once I got used to it, I felt, if I can do this, I can live anywhere.”
When she learned last winter that the BSO was screening new musicians, she was very much interested. Describing a possible viola position as “absolutely incredible,” she said, “It was definitively a no brainier that I wanted to audition for them.”
Auditions involved musicians being asked to perform selections from a predetermined list of 10 to 15 standard orchestral excerpts. “Sometimes there are whole pieces that you have to know,” she said. “They usually leave a concerto movement up to you . . . You can choose a movement of Bach, any solo Bach piece. But aside from that, it’s kind of a set list that they give you.”
After four rounds of auditions last February, she was hired along with two other tryout colleagues. “It was just the three of us in that room . . . Usually just one person gets the job and that’s not the best feeling . . . But all of us won. . . . It was unique and nice to share that with them.”
Before beginning her first BSO season, Leah had the opportunity to visit Ireland last summer. Her father’s ancestors are Scotch Irish from Belfast. She called it “easily the best trip I’ve ever taken. Unbelievable. So gorgeous. We went all along the west coast to all those little towns. A lot of fishing villages, and the Aran Islands, and the Cliffs of Moher. It was just too much to describe.”
When she returned to Boston, her official debut came in the fall. “It was amazing,” she said. “The first concert we did was the Gala toward the end of September. It was really special and my parents were able to come out for that. So that was really nice.”
Leah plays a viola made by the renowned German-born, London-based craftsman Stefan-Peter Greiner. “I had known for a while that I really wanted to try one of his instruments,” she said. “And often times, they’re not easy to get. He doesn’t make a lot of them and they’re in demand. … They are beautiful to look at and they sound great.”
One of her favorite BSO performances so far was a concert showcasing the Brahms Requiem. “It was an amazing performance and the two soloists we had [soprano Camilla Tilling and baritone Thomas Hampson] were just unbelievable. Really beautiful singers.”
Knowing how equally respected the Boston Pops is nationwide, she has been excited about the holiday shows and admits she loves playing Christmas music.
Her favorite selection? “I like “Sleigh Ride” she said, which, no matter the mix of music at the holiday performances, has been a mainstay with the Pops since the very beginning. Arthur Fiedler and The Boston Pops introduced the Leroy Anderson classic to the world in 1949.
Beyond the holiday concerts, she’s looking forward to the BSO’s upcoming winter schedule. “In 2017 we’re playing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, which has been on my ‘favorite piece’ list for a really long time.” She’s particularly excited because the piece is “not commonly done. We’re playing it here in Boston and also at Carnegie hall, so that will be really fun.”
In the meantime, it’s all about those sleigh bells jinglin’ at Symphony Hall.
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
Holiday Pops, through Dec. 24, Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave. Info: bostonpops.org or 888-266-1200.