Creative Community: What it takes to make Christmas in the Park happen

06 December 2016
Dixon Nacey

Dixon Nacey had never been to Christmas in the Park before last year. A gigging musician, he always found himself working during the peak corporate party season and booked on the same night. As a result, his first introduction to the live event was being in the band on stage in 2015. "Of course, I'd seen the televised coverage in previous years, but you just don’t get a feel for how massive it is,” he says. “You think there’s a lot of people there, and then the sun goes down, and all the glow sticks come out, and it blows you away.”

Nothing in New Zealand entertainment compares to the sheer size of Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park. Now its 23rd year, with shows in both Auckland and Christchurch, the festive event draws crowds of over 250,000 around the country. Following his first foray as a player last year, Dixon, a jazz guitar teacher at the School of Music, took the plunge and stepped up to be the Musical Director for this year's shows. "Last year, I had a great experience; it's so different from any other concert-type gig," Dixon tells of his decision to take on the role. "It's not an 'all about me' gig. It's about being involved in the community, playing for a whole lot of people who want to be there and share an experience with their families. And I really enjoyed the vibe from the show, so I wanted to be more deeply involved this year."

Having previously directed shows such as the New Zealand Film Awards and Lady Sings the Blues at the Auckland Arts Festival, Dixon has the required experience to apply to this grander scale. As Musical Director, on show night he conducts the band, but his work started months beforehand. "There's about a nine month timeline on the whole show – from when it starts to come together conceptually right through to post-show debrief," he says. "From April through to January, the show is moving in some sort of way." Open auditions to find local cast members – amateur singers, dancers and other acts – commenced in June, with each line up confirmed in September. "We get all sorts at those auditions - old, young, students, church groups – and there's some real talent there. The four local acts we had in Christchurch were fantastic, and we have a super strong local cast for Auckland. I love seeing them get out there and give it their best."

For the professional players, while the majority of the 2015 band returned, Dixon's extensive industry connections helped complete the sound. "We need musicians who can play the range of styles included in the show – traditional, classically-inspired carols, big band jazz, party tunes and Top 40 stuff – and I knew exactly who I wanted to be involved," he says. "I know a lot of great players in the industry who fit the brief, so we had the band settled quite early in the process."

Rehearsals with the band and cast started around mid-October, and since then, all involved have been dedicated to polishing their performances. "It has been ridiculously busy," Dixon says. "It surely is a long process, but it’s definitely an experience, a bucket list type thing." He cites time management as his biggest challenge, trying to balance his outside projects with the demands of his roles. Roles, plural. Dixon is not only conductor and Musical Director, but he's also Artistic Director, having overseen the scheduling and logistics of auditions, rehearsals and aspects of the event management in the two cities. "I've been pulling long days, and not seeing my family enough," he says. It's clear the passion for the event drives Dixon through those challenges. "Everyone, from the players, to stage crew, the companies involved and management, is offering their time and services for very reasonable costs, just to make the event happen. It's a great show of community spirit, maybe even the Christmas spirit. They're all of industry standard, and focused on the occasion and festivity of the night."

With the Christchurch show ticked off, Dixon said Aucklanders can look forward to an exciting show this Saturday. "I've had the chance to review the footage from Christchurch and I am really proud of what the band and the cast produced,” he says. His favourite moment of the show? "We do a modified version of Take 6’s arrangement of Hark the Herald Angels Sing. It's a very complex six-part harmony, it's completely vocal driven, but I did decide to put some strings around it too. It's done with just those two timbres – strings and voice." He makes mention of the headline act, Stan Walker, and also the traditional fireworks display, promising a grand finale with a little extra surprise. "We have such a strong professional and local cast – it’s going to be one heck of a party!"

Youthline is the official charity partner of Christmas in the Park. Find out more here.
Visit Dixon’s YouTube channel