“I’m very, very excited,” Maliakel says. “It’s been part of the prize for the last three years.”
Maliakel struck gold on his very first try in the competition.
“I had a few friends who had done it before,” he says. “It’s one of those things that is known about from its reputation.
“Schedule-wise, I couldn’t get my stuff together until this past year,” Maliakel says. “I’m very glad I did.”
One of Maliakel’s friends is Mikki Sodergren, who won the gold medal in 2014 after previous tries.
“I found out about the competition through her and got to know it a little bit better,” he says. “I was able to pick her brain and she convinced me to finally go.”
Each contestant must prepare nine songs.
“They didn’t make it easy,” Maliakel says. “The way the competition is structured, there are three rounds.
“The preliminary round is how they select people to come down to Savannah. All three rounds take place in Savannah, which in and of itself is pretty unique.
“Each round requires you to prepare a program of three songs, each from a distinct genre of American music,” he says. “You’ve got to nail nine different genres in one program.”
Because he’d been thinking about doing the competition for a few years, Maliakel already had a list of songs on his computer. He works as a freelance singer in New York City.
“I’m always thinking of songs I would love to sing,” Maliakel says. “I’m always preparing music for the next performance. There’s not a lot of time to learn music for fun. There are songs I loved and never had time to dig into, and the competition was the way I could finally prepare them.
“What was hard was narrowing it down,” he says. “Like many singers interested in competitions, I love so many types of music, even though my background is in classical music.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Maliakel sang in the church choir.
“I started probably when I was 8 or 9 years old,” he says. “I’d taken piano lessons before then.
“My mom was eager to put me in sports, and choir was another one of those things she liked to keep me busy. It stuck.
“It was clear early on that music was something I could sit down and focus on,” he says. “I would get carried away for hours.”
In the fifth grade, Maliakel attended the American Boychoir School in Hopewell, N.J.
“It was a life-changing experience for me,” he says. “I got training and exposure to high-level, high-caliber singing and teaching.
“That’s when I started getting pretty serious. I went to a regular high school and sang in shows and choirs. I realized it was my real calling in my sophomore year of college and decided it was something I needed to be doing.”
After finishing undergraduate work at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore four years ago, Maliakel moved to New York City, where he works in the professional choral and church music scene.
“I’ve performed with several ensembles and choirs,” he says. “I sing at weddings, funerals and all kinds of services.
“There’s a lot of fantastic music-making in the church scene in New York. Contributing to that has built a strong network for me.
“Music is what I do full-time, and I’m so lucky to be able to say that,” Maliakel says. “Every week is different, but I love it. I see more faces, in different environments, tackling new and exciting repertoire in beautiful spaces in New York.”
Christmas is a busy time for singers in New York.
“I call it ‘the Christmas Crazies,’” Maliakel says. “Being busy is good.”
To prepare for the performance with the Savannah Philharmonic, Maliakel sent a list of songs to Peter Shannon, conductor and artistic director of the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra.
“We agreed on a set of three songs,” Maliakel says. “Some are really holiday songs, including ‘Oh Holy Night,’ which is one of my favorites.
“Then I’ll do Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria,’ which is another favorite of mine. I sing it pretty frequently for church services.
“I’ll sing ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ which is hands down my favorite Christmas song,” Maliakel says. “Trumpet player Robin Beauchamp sent me some audio clips for what he’s put together. What’s really special is that it’s tailored around my voice.”
While in Savannah, Maliakel plans to visit Mary Lee and Ken Winnert, who were his host family during the ATC.
“Savannah is a beautiful town, and if I could spend a whole week, I would,” Maliakel says. “But I have rehearsals I’m trying to fit in, so I’ll be here Thursday morning to Sunday. Hopefully, I’ll have time to get down to the water and get to the candy store I love.”
In addition to the evening concert, there will be a family matinee concert at 3 p.m. with the Savannah Children’s Choir.
Both concerts will feature traditional tunes, holiday classics and sing-along songs.
“The Holiday Pops concert is a huge favorite with so many of our audience,” Shannon says. “It’s easy to see why, because it gets everyone in the holiday spirit — even if it is 80 degrees outside.
“The full orchestra, chorus and soloists playing and singing their hearts out with the best of Christmas music will make anyone smile. The afternoon family concert is such fun.
“I love to see families with young kids making memories with the Savannah Philharmonic,” Shannon says. “That’s a great Christmas gift for me.”
IF YOU GO
What: Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus Holiday Pops Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17
Where: Johnny Mercer Theater, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
What else: Holiday Pops family matinee concert; 3 p.m. Dec. 17; Johnny Mercer Theater; $10 or four for $25