When Victoria Gau was searching for a singer who could handle different musical genres and styles for a concert, Iyona Blake fit the bill.
“You’re everything I’m looking for,” the associate conductor of the National Philharmonic Orchestra (NPO) told the soprano.
The performer had to be someone special, since the upcoming concert – set for the evening of Friday, Dec. 7, at the The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda – will be the NPO’s first Holiday Pops in its history, the start of a “new family tradition.”
Blake received Gau’s invitation in an e-mail while in New Orleans, on her first vacation after “gigging for three years straight.”
Blake, in fact, defines versatility. She can go comfortably from opera to jazz to blues to Gospel. “I definitely cross genres,” she said. “I do a little bit of everything. A lot of my gigs come from being able to sing everything.”
The singers Blake most admires — including Whitney Houston, Leontyne Price, Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand — have similar versatility. Moreover, Blake, who first sang a solo in church at age 9, is also a theatrical performer: she won the 2017 Helen Hayes Award for Lead Actress in the Creative Cauldron production of “Caroline, or Change.”
A freelance performer, Blake also was seen in Signature Theatre’s “Titanic” and “Jelly’s Last Jam.” Most recently, again at Creative Cauldron, she starred as blues great Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grille.” The performance followed six months of researching “everything” about Holiday, the singer/actor said — her “gestures, voice, mannerisms, her triumphs and downfalls. I literally fell in love with her.”
Music surrounded Blake from an early age. “My grandmother was a singer, but everybody sings in my family,” she said. “We’d sit around the table, and someone would strike up a few songs.”
Above all, Blake considers herself a storyteller. “Regardless of the genre, there’s always a story to be told from the lyrics” of a song or aria, she said.
Blake earned a degree from Shenandoah Conservatory where she studied opera. She played the Countess in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in New York City. “I fell in love with opera at the Conservatory,” Blake said. “Opera is my home base. But I stumbled into musical theater, and I love that. You take the cards you’re dealt.”
Her focus as a private voice instructor and coach is classical music. “It’s like ballet to dancing; it’s the fundamental foundation,” she observed. “If you can master ballet, you can do other things. If you have opera technique, you can sing anything.”
Also performing in the Holiday Pops concert will be the National Philharmonic Orchestra Chorale, under the baton of Ms. Gau.
The Holiday Pops concert means more than artistic value and enjoyment. It supports military families through an association with USO-Metro, a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress and dedicated to keeping service members in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia region connected to their families, homes and country. USO-Metro offers programs and services at area military hospitals through its Mobile USO, five USO Centers and four USO airport lounges.
This is the first time NPO and USO-Metro are partnering, said Ashy Pallliparambil, USO-Metro’s Senior Manager, Resiliency Programs. “We’re very excited for the opportunity.”
From the perspective of USO, the concert has a dual purpose: it gives some service people tickets to attend free of charge, and a portion of the proceeds from the concert will go to USO.
Leanne Ferfolia, president of the National Philharmonic, said the USO-Metro partnership is “not only rewarding, but so important to share the holiday spirit with many of our military families. We honor and thank the military for their service on these meaningful appointed days of the year, but it’s easy to forget how important the holidays are because of their sacrifice.”
The concert program will consist of holiday favorites played by the orchestra; seasonal solos by Blake, including “Oh, Holy Night” I Wonder as I Wander” and “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” carols and other well-loved holiday tunes for all to sing together.
“Highlights will include ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Silver Bells,’ ‘Polar Express,’ ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ and ‘White Christmas,'” said Gau, who is conducting. (Gau also helps prepare the 150-voice National Philharmonic Chorale, is co-director of the National Philharmonic Singers, and director and co-conductor of the NPO Summer Choral Institutes.)
The NPO will add a classical touch by performing selections from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”
Despite the orchestra’s excitement over its first Holiday Pops concert, Gau wants to reassure audience members and fans of NPO that it is not displacing the long-time tradition of an annual production of “The Messiah.” (This year Handel’s holiday-oriented oratorio will take place on Saturday, Dec 22 and Sunday, Dec. 23 at Strathmore.)
“We just wanted to take advantage of a different character of holiday programming and fill a gap in the area,” Gau explained.
Before the concert begins, audience members can view the Polar Express Train, decorate an ornament and hear carolers – and enjoy a hot chocolate bar.
National Philharmonic’s Ferfolia noted that many military families are separated by miles during the holidays. “Many are impacted by depression this time of year, and many don’t have a family or a place to call home. The Philharmonic wants to give the gift of music and also show these families that we care and are blessed by their gift of freedom to us … I hope the community will come out to support them by attending.”
The National Philharmonic Orchestra presents its first Holiday Pops concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets start at $18 – and are available at www.nationalphilharmonic.org or by calling the Strathmore Ticket Office at 301-581-5100.