Best Brass of Christmas back for 10th year

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — As a euphonium player, it’s hard for local musician Connie Schulz to find work in brass ensembles.

Euphonium player Connie Schulz will be featured during the 10th annual Best Brass of Christmas concert this weekend at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Farmington.

That’s because most arrangements crafted for such groups don’t include the euphonium — a large, baritone-sounding instrument — despite the sweetness of its sound.

“The basic ensemble, which is the brass quintet, does not use the euphonium,” Schulz said, describing her plight.

Schulz’s friend, fellow local musician Mick Hesse, points to the best-known brass ensemble of the recent era — the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, a British group that performed as a quintet or as a 10-piece band — for that situation.

“There has been a ton of music published and arranged for 10 players,” Hesse said. “But none of it included the euphonium. ... It’s not an unusual instrument, it’s just that it’s not often used (in brass ensembles). But it’s a beautiful, melodious instrument. It’s in the same range as a trombone, but it has a much more mellow sound. And Connie is a superb player.”

Schulz will have the opportunity to share her talent on the instrument with local listeners this weekend when the 10th annual Best Brass of Christmas concert is performed at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The 11-piece ensemble’s arrangements, many of which have been crafted by member Don Allen, include the euphonium.

Those rare arrangements have served as a blessing for her, she acknowledged. Otherwise, “I’d be out of a job,” she said, laughing.

Schulz and Hesse have served as the organizers of the Best Brass of Christmas since its inception. The ensemble, which is made up of professional musicians from around the West, will perform a 90-minute program of holiday music just as it has done for the past nine years.

The group is made up of Farmington’s Allen on bass trombone; Mel Freeman of Albuquerque and John Hargreaves of Los Alamos on horns; Aztec’s Paul Bara and John Neurohr of Ellensburg, Wash., on trombone; Charlie Ortega of Woodland Park, Colo., on tuba; Hesse, Don Williams of Littleton, Colo., Chris Nierman of Santa Fe, and Marc Reed of Durango, Colo., on trumpet; and Schulz on euphonium.

Hargreaves and Neurohr are new to the group, which manages to pull off the concert each year despite a dearth of rehearsal time. Ensemble members will get together the night of Thursday, Dec. 8 for a lengthy practice session, then perform the next night.

Trumpet player Mick Hesse says the annual Best Brass of Christmas concert is a treat for performers and audience members alike.

Hesse said that’s possible because the musicians are of such high caliber, they can rehearse the pieces on their own after he and Schulz sit down in advance and map out the program.

This year’s concert will feature four short movements from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine and “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen. The latter is a staple of the Best Brass of Christmas performances and will kick off the program.

The concert also will include the “Linus and Lucy” jazz composition by Vince Guraldi that made its debut in the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” TV special, “Gesu Bambino”by Pietro Yon, “O, Tennenbaum, O, Needlesfall!” arranged by Paul Chauvin and “Prayer” by Rene Clausen. Schulz said the latter is an homage to the recently canonized Mother Teresa.

“It’s a slow, beautiful, expressive piece,” she said.

The program will be filled out by a performance of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” featuring an arrangement by Hesse’s college friend Lou Buckley, a duet on “Ave Maria” between Schulz on euphonium and Hesse on cornet, and the finale, which features an audience sing-along.

The church’s youth group will serve cookies and hot chocolate afterward.

Hesse said the musicians look forward to the annual performance as much as many of the audience members do, noting that the chance to play in a large brass ensemble doesn't happen often.

“We’ve been fortunate to do this all these years,” he said. “It’s a really wonderful experience. It’s easy to get players to do this. It’s been a great opportunity for all of us, and we’ve been lucky to find guys who are willing to drive a long way to do it.”

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

If you go

What: The 10th annual Best Brass of Christmas concert

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9

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

Admission: Free, but a goodwill offering will be accepted

For more information: Call 505-860-8122