“It’s almost like doing a telethon without asking people for money,” said internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán about the L.A. County Holiday Celebration, a beloved annual event that she will be hosting for the ninth time on Dec. 24.
Held at The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., this free — yes, free — holiday spectacular has been a Los Angeles tradition since 1959. And spectacular it is: The two-time Emmy Award-winning event will feature 21 music ensembles, choirs, and dance troupes from the many neighborhoods and cultures that populate L.A. County. Returning with a live audience for the first time since 2019, this year’s extravaganza will also be co-hosted by professional roller skater, choreographer, and coach Candice Heiden.
Guzmán, who grew up in East Los Angeles and has performed with the Metropolitan Opera and LA Opera, among others, is positively giddy when speaking about the celebration. “The first year I hosted was in 1997. My son was 5 years old, and now he’s 30. Back then, in the old days,” she added, “they used to go for nine hours. But the biggest change of all was when they brought in [producer/director] Ken Shapiro of CDK Productions [in 2001]. The level of the productions jumped a hundred-fold.”
This year promises to be no different. Returning audience favorites include Lorenzo Johnson & Praizum, Mexican folkloric troupe Pacifico Dance Company, world chamber music ensemble Quarteto Nuevo, Grammy Award-winner Daniel Ho with Hawaiian hula dancers of Hālau Hula Keali’i o Nālani, and the all-female mariachi ensemble Las Colibrí.
Guzmán, discussing the technical difficulties of bringing such a large production together, said, “During one remote session, all of the power went out, but they could hear my voice-over because my mic still worked.”
Ah, yes! The joy of live performance, which, Guzmán noted, can be, “a nightmare. Many of the groups are good and professional in their own right, but many are making their debut at the Dorothy Chandler. Every group has to come to a live dress rehearsal, and each group gets 10 minutes. Period. That works, and we slot them in and slot them out.”
Guzmán continued, “[Sometimes] performers get so excited from the audience response, and they will add an extra number. But,” she cautions, “it will be their last time. It is live, so it’s exciting as a host to watch this. We have pick-up scripts, inserts, contingency plans, and our personnel/stage manager, [but] we have to be ready for a group that falls short.”
Guzmán acknowledged, “It’s like every single thing that can happen will happen [at least] one time. Once, Daniel Ho came onstage, and he started playing, but he had no sound. He raised his hand, walked offstage, and I said, ‘He’ll be right back,’ and he was. The audience just loves it.”
This year’s lineup also features a bevy of first-time dance troupes, including hip-hoppers Temper Tantrum, the modern kathak Shivam Arts Dance Company (representing North Indian classical dance), Reverb Tap Company, and Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre, while choral groups new to the celebration include the Vocal Arts Ensemble from the California School of the Arts – San Gabriel Valley.
The celebration, which will be streamed online or can be accessed via the free PBS app, will be rebroadcast later on Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. and on Christmas Day at 6 p.m.
For the Emmy Award-winning Guzmán, who was one of the original associate artists of LA Opera, the caliber of talent in this year’s program is something to be proud of. “They all come from L.A., and they are reflecting the diversity of our community. It’s absolutely humbling. And where else can you see a ukulele group with a tap-dancing group and children in the cutest little choir outfits? The [a cappella group] Squad Harmonix are high school students who have over 500,000 hits on YouTube and two self-produced albums.”
The talent in the L.A. area is undeniably impressive, with one such group, Urban Voices Project, also on the holiday roster. A choir comprised of men and women surviving homelessness on Skid Row, the ensemble amplifies artistic expression to improve well-being, strengthen social networks, and inspire individuals to be their own best advocates. Co-founded in 2014 by Artistic Director Leeav Sofer and Christopher Mack, Urban Voices made its first appearance in 2019 in partnership with Sofer’s rock band, Mostly Kosher.
“I grew up in L.A. and remember watching this on TV when I was young,” said the 34-year-old Sofer, a singer-songwriter, composer/arranger, and multi-instrumentalist who is currently on faculty at the Colburn School.
“We have 20-plus singers, and we’re going to do two pieces. The first is a fun, upbeat big-band kind of song from Jamie Cullum, ‘Hang Your Lights,’ and the second is written by William Bell. It’s a Motown holiday song, ‘Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday,’ that was originally a love song that we adapted to be more about our mission statement. We both humanize and personalize the condition of homelessness to be an outreach form of performance.”
Sofer says he also feels a strong connection with the team at The Music Center. “They were enthusiastic about our work, so they sent out a video team to do a two-minute documentary about who we are. It explains that we’re more than just a choir. And when I came in for rehearsal earlier this month, it felt like a coming home. Ken’s been directing for years, and I feel like we’re colleagues ingrained into the L.A. music community.”
Guzmán, who tackles the role of Principal McGee in Grease at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts beginning Jan. 20, 2023, is decidedly an Angeleno with deep roots in the arts community. She says she’s looking forward to seeing old friends and new groups. “It’s generational and demographically reflects the diversity of L.A. County.
“You’ve got all these incredibly different voices, and they’re incredible musicians. It’s about having fun,” she gushed. “They are having a good time, and they want us to have a good time. Sista Jeans Blue Machine, this is their first year. And we always have someone who represents my generation — our pronouns are senior citizens,” quipped Guzmán, who also lauded the praises of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. “They are Music Center favorites. They’re established returnees who always give us something funny, uplifting, moving, and heartwarming.
“This,” Guzmán said, “is a stunning program that always ends with a group singalong of ‘Silent Night.’ And did I mention that there’s free parking?”
Indeed, The Music Center’s L.A. County Holiday Celebration, now in its 63rd year, is the gift that keeps on giving.