By Jenny Neyman
From the ethereal opening strains of “Silent Night” to the sweet, sentimental melody of “White Christmas,” the telltale bell jingling of “Sleigh Ride” and the snazzy beat of “Jingle Bell Rock,” holiday songs are as instantly recognizable as they are omnipresent this time of year.
Love them, hate them or start the season loving them and end it hoping for a power outage to avoid having to hear — yet again — about Grandma’s run-in with the red-nosed branch of the deer family, the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is unmatched in the musical tradition it inspires, and in how inspired people are to cozy up to the soundtrack of December.
“There’s just so much great Christmas music and holiday music this time of the year, so people want to be singing and playing that kind of stuff. And then, because people are getting together to do this kind of music, they think, ‘Well, let’s do some festive music.’ And I think people are really wanting to do social things this time of year — get out and see friends and celebrate the season, go to concerts, go to plays and all that kind of stuff,” said Maria Allison, pianist, who accompanied violinist Emily Grossman in a concert Friday at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.
As December bustles on, there’s ample opportunity to listen to live holiday music, from school concerts to church presentations and community events. Last weekend had a variety of musicians performing holiday music Saturday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, and Kenai Central High School’s choir had its annual holiday concert Sunday. Next week, the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra will perform an Evening of Christmas concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 17 at Kenai Christian Church in Kenai.
Much of the popular holiday music repertoire is decades to over a century old, although a few newer tunes have reached the status of yearly airtime. Listeners today may not be familiar with donning gay apparel, affixing bells to bobtails or the popping of roasting chestnuts. But singing about such things is a chance to reconnect with songs only heard once a year, and the traditions with which those songs are linked.
“The singing tradition is lost every other time of the year. The songs that we sing at the holidays have been passed down for generations and generations. And the holidays are a time when families get back together and they continue that tradition,” Grossman said.
Of course, December can also provide a good impetus to seek the warmth of a concert hall, not to mention the cocoa, cider and cookies that often accompany holiday gatherings.
“It’s dark and cold and you want something to cheer you up and remind you of life,” said Laura Bosela, a violin player herself, who attended Grossman and Allison’s performance Friday with her parents, Tony and Carolyn Bosela.
Grossman’s program wasn’t holiday music, but it did capture a spirit of seasonality and congregation that often draws attendance to holiday events.
“This was actually a bad weekend to do this, since there’s so many other things and concerts going on. But oh well, we figured, pile it on,” Allison said. “So many people know Emily and have heard her play at coffee shops and here and there around town, and she’s gotten to know so many people with her artwork. I think there’s a group in this community that, it doesn’t matter when it is, if it’s live music, they’re going to show up.”
The Boselas are in that group, regularly attending performances. Although, with Laura being one of Grossman’s violin students, this wasn’t simply a show-up-just-because-it’s-happening event. Grossman’s performance was well worth attending, even if attendance wasn’t habitual.
“I thought it was very good, especially the last piece,” Laura said.
That was Sarasate’s “Caprice Basque,” a vibrant, quick-fingered gambol showing off just about everything a violin, and violinist, can do. If Grossman’s program had been a holiday theme, this would be the colorful flashing twinkle of a hall decked to its finest.
Grossman’s opening piece was Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata,” with the quirks and eagerness of the first ebullient blush of April green-up, which provided a foil to the middle of her program, Brahms’ “G Major Sonata.”
“The ‘Spring Sonata’ is nice, simply because it’s so easy to adore. It’s just pleasing. It’s a bright, sunny song. It’s a nice contrast to Brahms. And Brahms was good for me because he’s so heavy and dark and he lets me express that part of me that needs to come out. So I’ve enjoyed getting to know that piece better,” Grossman said.
Allison also found the Brahms piece to be a consuming, but rewarding, selection.
“Every time you play it you just feel like you’re digging down deep inside of yourself and finding things in the music and in yourself. I felt like I was learning a lot about Brahms and I was learning a lot about myself through this piece as I played it,” she said.
Grossman chose pieces at the upper end of her ability level and worked on them for a year, practicing five hours a day leading up to the concert. But they were pieces that involved her heart, as well as her fingers.
“I wanted something that would stretch me and something that would keep me busy for a year. Beethoven and Brahms are the two that came out of the crowd,” she said. “I don’t like all violin repertoire. I’m kind of choosy in that regard. I won’t stick with learning something if I’m not absolutely in love with it, because I know I’m going to be stuck with it for a year.
“I’ve always had the songs in my head and I’ve always wanted to be able to play them, so that was what drove me to pursue the violin further.”