December is sometimes called “Brass Players Get To Eat Month” because of the relative abundance of performance opportunities in general, and gigs for brass players in particular. For whatever reason, brass music is associated winter holidays. On the one hand, it’s very nice to have a few extra dollars to help fund holiday travel. On the other hand, there’s always an undercurrent of resentment about playing Anderson’s Sleigh Ride dozens of times in a month or Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker nonstop for weeks. In December, this attitude is kept in control by holiday spirit and a general thankfulness for any work, but it’s reflective of an underlying perspective that pops concerts aren’t “real” work for orchestral musicians.
I share the profound love for “serious” classical music that inspires that sentiment, but I tend to take a more tolerant view of pops concerts. A Wagner opera or a Mahler symphony offers a full menu of musical stimuli, from grief to elation, and the great composers have designed the journey to be satisfying on many levels. This depth and architecture is why we as musicians prefer that repertoire to simpler options. Our primary responsibility as performers, however, is to evoke an appropriate emotional response in our audiences regardless of what we’re playing. The definition of “appropriate” depends on both the occasion and the repertoire, but the occasion has precedence and often dictates the repertoire.
He stared down at Whoville! The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
As Dr. Seuss so eloquently describes, music is a fundamental part of creating a festive atmosphere for the holidays. Egg nog and cookies just don’t go as well with Shostakovich’s fourth symphony as they do with Waldteufel’s Skater’s Waltz. It’s not that Shostakovich isn’t great music, just that it’s not right for the occasion. My highest job satisfaction as a trombonist doesn’t come from playing the high notes in Schumann or the loud notes in Strauss, but from making a positive change in the life of somebody in the audience. If Mahler’s 2nd helps someone cope with with the senseless violence in the world, it was a successful show. For the same reason, if a Grinch’s heart grows three sizes in response to yet another performance of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, the performers should be proud.