Best Brass of Christmas concert planned

Mike Easterling
Connie Schulz and Mick Hesse of Best Brass of Christmas pose for a portrait Dec. 4 at the Farmington Civic Center.

FARMINGTON — Imagine the difficulty of pulling together a group of brass musicians each year from territory ranging from the Four Corners to Denver to Albuquerque to perform a series of concerts of holiday music with the benefit of only a few hours of rehearsal.

That’s the task that Connie Schulz and Mick Hesse of the Best Brass of Christmas group have faced every year for the last nine years. And every year, they manage to pull it off.

“When you get players who are dedicated to quality, it actually doesn’t take that much rehearsal,” Schulz said last week ahead of the group’s performance this weekend at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. “The main thing is, you have to get the tempos perfect. … It might appear to be a thrown-together group, but it does not sound like that at all.”

Of the many holiday events that take place in the Four Corners, the Best Brass of Christmas concert at Sacred Heart is one of the most widely anticipated. Schulz said the concert draws a crowd of between 400 and 500 people each year.

Many of those audience members are eager to hear a kind of music that doesn’t have much of a presence in the area.

“The reason they don’t often hear it is it’s so difficult, and there are not a lot of players who can do it,” Hesse said. “It’s a thrill to pull it off.”

The annual Best Brass of Christmas concert at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Farmington takes place Friday, Dec. 11.

The 11-member group features a four-part trumpet section of Farmington’s Hesse; Don Williams of Littleton, Colo.; Chris Nierman of Santa Fe; and Marc Reed of Durango, Colo. The horn section features Mel Freeman and Blair Hamrick of Albuquerque, while Paul Bara of Aztec and Kiel Lauer of Longmont, Colo., make up the trombone section. Don Allen of Farmington plays bass trombone, and Farmington’s Schulz plays the euphonium. Charlie Ortega of Woodland Park, Colo., rounds out the group on tuba.

Nine of the 11 members have returned from last year’s group, Schulz said, explaining that year-to-year turnover is usually low. Both Schulz and Hesse believe most members of Best Brass of Christmas make a high priority of their participation, scheduling their opportunities to perform with other ensembles around this group’s schedule.

“This is a really unusual group in that the quality of the players is top notch,” Hesse said. “It’s hard to call musicians around here professionals, because there’s no work, but they are of that quality.”

Schulz said members begin preparing for the concert four weeks in advance when they receive in the mail the sheet music for the songs that will be played. On the Thursday before the first performance, they all convene here for a three-hour rehearsal. On the morning of that first performance, they rehearse again for 90 minutes, giving them four and a half hours together before they take the stage.

That’s enough for the members — many of whom have been with the group for several years — to tighten up their performance. Hesse said that while the music is technically challenging, it isn't so difficult that a conductor is required.

“Music with a lot of stops and starts or that changes tempo requires lots and lots of rehearsal time or a conductor,” Hesse said. “Most of the music we do is not that complicated.”

Mick Hesse is part of the four-piece trumpet section for Best Brass of Christmas.

He said members of the group have learned over time to rely on visual cues from each other to find the right tempo or to remember when those stops and starts loom. He also said the group benefits enormously from the talents of Allen, who has arranged several of the pieces specifically for this ensemble.

“That’s a real art in itself,” Hesse said. “He has great expertise at that, and his arrangements are spot-on beautiful.”

The Best Brass of Christmas performances began almost a decade ago when Father Tim Farrell approached Schulz, the church’s music director, about performing such a concert to help celebrate Sacred Heart’s 100th anniversary. Schulz, Hesse and Bara had been playing in a local brass quartet, the Brassworks Four, since the middle 1990s, and they quickly agreed to try to put together a larger group for a Christmas show.

As Schulz recalled, that first show was very well received by the community.

“It was so popular, people asked, ‘Will it be back?’ So it’s become an annual thing,” she said.

Hesse said he is gratified to see many of the same faces each year.

“They keep coming back for us, and that’s the best reaction,” he said.

Later, the group would add shows to its schedule, opening with a performance in Farmington before playing elsewhere that same weekend, including such locales as Cortez, Colo., and Los Alamos. This year, Best Brass of Christmas will perform in Durango on Saturday, Dec. 12 and Santa Fe on Sunday, Dec. 13.

There is an admission charge for the latter two shows, but the local performance is free and always has been.

“I think it perpetuates Father Tim’s idea of this being a gift to the community,” Hesse said. “It’s a very nice thing the parish is doing.”

The musicians in Best Brass of Christmas are paid for their efforts, and an offering will be collected at the Sacred Heart performance to help offset that expense, Hesse said.

As for the material itself, a 16-song program is planned with an intermission. Schulz said he expects the concert to last for approximately 90 minutes.

Hesse emphasized that while the material is oriented toward Christmas, it is not pop music, so listeners shouldn’t expect to hear “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Instead, they’ll be treated to such classics as Handel’s “Joy to the World,” “ Pachelbel’s “The First Noel,” Mendelsohn’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and Gounod’s “Ave Maria.”

Connie Schulz says the Best Brass of Christmas concert attracts 400 to 500 people each year and was a success from the beginning.

As there is, there also will be a performance of Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium.”

“The first year we played that, it became a favorite,” Schulz said. “It’s a slow, difficult piece with a precise intonation. It’s not exactly our theme song, but it is a beautiful work for a brass ensemble.”

The penultimate selection is the traditional “Dona Nobis Pacem,” which Hesse said is Latin for “Give us peace.”

“It’s a very quiet ending, and I’m not going to say it’s religious because ‘Give us peace’ is something that a lot of people can interpret ... in a different way,” he said. “But it gives people something to think about.”

The concert will conclude with an audience sing-along to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” before a reception is held with free hot chocolate and cookies.

There’s enough populist appeal in the Best Brass of Christmas concert to attract a large audience, but Hesse believes it’s an experience that brings with it a certain level of sophistication. He and Schulz both enjoy having the opportunity to meet that demand.

“Music can really be a cerebral thing,” he said. “I think enough people can enjoy being challenged. … If they want more of it, that’s a good thing for us.”

For Schulz, much of that feeling of satisfaction stems just from the experience of performing such classic, enduring music.

“Playing in a brass ensemble with quality musicians is a feeling you really can’t describe unless you’re a brass musician,” she said. “This really has been my favorite gig of the year.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

Connie Schulz and Mick Hesse share a laugh Dec. 4 outside the Farmington Civic Center.

If you go

What: The Best Brass of Christmas concert

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11

Where: Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 414 N. Allen Ave. in Farmington

Admission: Free