An intimate Christmas: Pending arrival adds new layer to symphony concert

By M. SCOTT MORRIS / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – If everything works as planned, Tupelo Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas concert on Saturday will come with a visual aid.
Tupelo High School choral director Calvin Ellis will lend his baritone voice to the program, and he’ll share the stage with his wife, Jauna Ellis, a soprano.
“I chose songs that I thought would be so tender and touching between a man and a woman. Calvin and Jauna are expecting to have their second child,” said Steven Byess, TSO musical director. “They’ll be singing about the birth of a baby, who happens to be baby Jesus.”
Jauna Ellis is due to deliver the child a week after the concert. Byess said everyone’s crossing their fingers that the baby keeps to the symphony’s schedule.
“We have some contingencies in place,” Byess said, “but we’ll be so happy if Jauna and the baby will be able to hold out until the 12th of December or later.”
The pending arrival was on Byess’ mind when he was putting together the program. He said this year seemed right for an intimate evening focused on the sacred aspects of Christmas.
“I gravitated, I think subconsciously at first, to music that has to do with the birth of a new baby,” Byess said.
Calvin Ellis will sing “God Bless the Ruler of This House” and “Mary Did You Know?” Two of Jauna Ellis’ selections will be “Gesu Bambino” and “O Holy Night.”

‘A beautiful thing’
She’ll also sing a special arrangement of “What Child is This?” that you’ll hear only from the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Byess had searched for an arrangement, but his mind kept returning to one he’d heard on one of the choir’s videos. He made a call to Utah and explained his situation to director Mack Wilberg’s assistant.
“Mr. Wilberg e-mailed me and said the music was not published and was not for sale. It was only used by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” Byess said. “I told him about our mother and her baby.
“It’s an extraordinary gesture by one of the most talented arrangers of vocal music in the country, who basically said, ‘It’s a beautiful thing you are doing. Please perform this with my compliments,’” Byess continued. “That is something that happens too infrequently these days.”
The concert will have secular songs, including “Tintinabulations,” which features four different versions of “Jingle Bells.” Calvin and Jauna Ellis will sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and he will perform a version of “White Christmas.”
“We have a variety,” Byess said, “but this program, perhaps more than any other that we’ve done, is intensely celebratory of Christmas traditions.
“The celebration of the birth of Jesus is most appropriate when we have a man and a woman, a couple, who are about to have a baby. This is a Christmas program, unabashedly.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.