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Holiday tradition returns with Best Brass of Christmas concert

Sacred Heart Catholic Church welcomes group back for 13th year

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Mick Hesse, left, Connie Schulz and Mario Armandariz are part of the Best Brass of Christmas group performing this weekend in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — Between its luminaria displays, parades, Nativity scenes, craft markets and Christmas tree displays, San Juan County has no shortage of holiday traditions vying for attention. But one of those seasonal rituals that never seems to get lost in the tinsel is the annual Best Brass of Christmas concert, which returns this weekend.

The event is in its 13th season this year and annually attracts a crowd of 500 to 600 people, according to one of its founders, Mick Hesse.

"There are people who say this is the highlight of their Christmas music scene," he said, smiling. "That's saying a lot."

The concert has been performed each year since 2007, when it was organized by Hesse and Connie Schulz as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The program of traditional holiday music is performed entirely on brass instruments, offering local listeners a chance to hear some familiar selections in a decidedly uncommon and powerful way.

Connie Schulz says the annual Best Brass of Christmas concert is a special experience for the performers as well as the audience.

Schulz said the concert is just as special to the musicians as it is to the audience.

"Most brass players seldom get the chance to play a group of this size, playing this kind of music," she said, referring to the group's 11-member lineup.

Hesse echoed Schulz's take.

"It's unusual to hear that quality of brass players outside of an orchestra," he said.

Best Brass of Christmas includes Hesse, Don Williams, Chris Nierman and Carl Rowe on trumpets, Mel Freeman and Joel Scott on horns, Paul Bara and Chris Argotsinger on trombones, Don Allen on bass trombone, Schulz on euphonium and Charlie Ortega on tuba. Members of the group hail not just from the Farmington area, but from across the Southwest, including the Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Denver and Phoenix areas.

"It's a unique experience," Schulz said. "I don't want it to ever end."

The Best Brass of Christmas group includes members from the Farmington, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Denver and Phoenix areas.

The musicians convene each year on the Friday before the concert and go through a three-hour rehearsal, then have a quick run-through the morning of the performance before taking the stage at Sacred Heart that night. The professionalism and quality of the players, as well as their familiarity with each other, help the group remain tight despite the limited rehearsal time and the fact that the ensemble does not have a conductor, Hesse said.

"People often ask me, 'How do you do it?' The truth is, when you have (those kinds) of players, it's easily doable," he said.

But the music is technically difficult, and that alone makes the performance challenging. Hesse credited Allen with developing excellent, well-tailored arrangements for many of the selections that will be played.

"He knows what works," Hesse said. "And he knows the players, so a lot of the music gets customized to the players."

The 60-minute program will feature "Christmas Brass," "Shepherds Pipe," "O Magnum Mysterium," "Bells — Carol of the Bells," "Star Carol," "Away in a Manger," "El Noi del la Mare," "A la Nanita Nana," "I Saw Three Ships," "Orient Kings," "Silver Bells," "The Great Jingle Bell Chase," "Silent Night," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Dona Nobis Pacem."

Mick Hesse says the musicians who take part in the annual Best Brass of Christmas concert each year are skilled and professional enough to pull it off despite having extremely limited rehearsal time.

A special feature of this year's concert will be the addition of classical guitarist Mario Armandariz, who will perform on "El Noi del la Mare" and "A la Nanita Nana." Schulz described him as very quiet and humble but said he has an enormous amount of talent.

"We're very excited to have him this year," she said.

Hesse said Armandariz's contribution will be a welcome variation.

"You get 11 brass guys going, and even a soft chord is pretty hard," he said, grinning. "So halfway through, Mario will come out and do his thing, so it's going to be a real nice change of pace."

Other highlights include the performance of "O Magnum Mysterium," which Hesse said features a memorable and inspiring crescendo, and the traditional finale, "Dona Nobis Pacem" — Latin for "Give Us Peace" — which is a three-part round during which the audience is encouraged to sing along.

The concert takes place at 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at Sacred Heart, 414 N. Allen Ave. in Farmington. Admission is free, and refreshments will be served afterward. Call 505-598-0887 or 505-860-8122.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.