Conductor Stuart Malina might be Jewish, but, man, does he love a good yuletide melody.
"Frankly, the songs for Hanukkah just aren't as good as the songs for Christmas," he says with a laugh. The Tony Award-winner will step in as guest conductor at the Fresno Philharmonic's annual "Home for the Holidays" Saturday at the Saroyan Theatre in Fresno.
The concert will have a little something for everyone, actually, including jaunty orchestral arrangements of popular secular holiday songs, big band vocals, sacred tunes and the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale singing the Hallelujah Chorus.
"It's going to be a feast for the ears," Malina says.
Malina is music director of the Harrisburg (Pa.) Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Florida Orchestra in Tampa Bay. He won his Tony Award as music supervisor of the Broadway musical "Movin' Out" featuring the music of Billy Joel. An accomplished pianist, he will conduct some of the holiday program from his piano.
He will be joined by guest artist Karen Marguth, who hosts the weekly radio show "The Vocal Hour" on KFSR and has performed as a featured vocalist at jazz festivals throughout the U.S. and France. She will team with the orchestra on a string of holiday tunes arranged by Malina, including big band-infused versions of "Let it Snow" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
The Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale, under the direction of Anna Hamre, also will be a major presence, with two carols by English composer John Rutter and the tender song "I Saw Three Ships."
Orchestral conducting and arranging are Malina's first loves, but in the early 2000s he took a welcome detour: the world of Broadway. Choreographer Twyla Tharp was putting together a jukebox musical featuring the music of Billy Joel, and through a mutual acquaintance Malina got an interview with her to talk about arranging the orchestrations of the show.
"I flew to New York, met with Twyla Tharp, and she liked me," he says. "That's really how it worked. It turned out to be one of the most exciting times in my life."
He also spent time on the theater road, serving as associate conductor of the national touring company of "West Side Story."
Malina's upcoming Fresno concert is his only planned holiday show this year, which makes him even more enthusiastic about Saturday's event. Holiday concerts are special for a simple reason, he says: Everyone's in a good mood.
"There's a great deal of joy in being with a bunch of happy people," he says.
To that end, he will offer a personal touch at the concert with a song titled "Hanukkah in Santa Monica." Among the lyrics: "Amid the California flora I'll be lighting my menorah."
"Hey, I'm a Jewish fellow," he says. "There will be some Jewish music."
"Home for the Holidays": 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St., fresnophil.org. (559) 261-0600. $25-$80.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.