Clarion Brass concerts to feature world premieres of two holiday arrangements

December 14, 2018

Every year, brass ensembles around the country perform holiday concerts, often featuring programs that contain not-so-traditional takes on holiday classics.

What many may not know though is that some of those nontraditional takes come from right here in Spokane.

William Berry, artistic director of Clarion Brass, has composed holiday arrangements for years and sells them to groups like the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Bay Brass.

But before those groups can get their hands on the arrangements, Berry and Clarion Brass premiere the works for Inland Northwest audiences.

At this year’s “This Is What Christmas Sounds Like” concerts, Tuesday at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene and Wednesday at St. John’s Cathedral, Berry and Clarion Brass will premiere two new works.

One is a mariachi/cumbia-influenced take on “Winter Wonderland.”

Berry was hearing a lot of cumbia music on the radio and thought the brass ensemble should do something in that style.

He jotted down a bassline a couple years ago then set the piece aside. He eventually spent about two weeks working on his arrangement of “Winter Wonderland,” which features Mexican polka and modern mariachi rhythms.

“There’s a lot of things like the old Medieval things that maybe aren’t as familiar, we do a little more straight just to introduce them but since everybody already knows ‘Winter Wonderland,’ why do you need to hear the same version again and again?” Berry said. “It doesn’t have to be your favorite version of all time but at least it’s something different than you’ll hear in the mall.”

The other new arrangement is a mash-up of sorts of “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish song, and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Over the years, Berry has quoted “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in other arrangements, but he’s never focused solely on the song itself.

Berry said both “The Parting Glass” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” are drinking songs and are both used to end performances or gatherings.

“I start with ‘The Parting Glass’ and a fairly simple version and then pick up tempo and pick up tempo and eventually combine the two songs so they’re both going at once,” Berry said.

Along with the world premieres of new arrangements, Berry tries to keep the rest of the program fairly fresh.

This year’s concert features only one song from last year, “Joy to the World.” Three songs on the program have only been featured once before and two, “Let It Snow” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” haven’t been performed in years.

“ ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ you think as cute and small but this is fairly much a rock ’n’ roll version,” Berry said. “It gets really, really loud and we start with offstage fanfare and by the time it’s over, everybody’s picking themselves up off the floor.”

Over the years, Berry has enjoyed the opportunity to take the holiday songs we hear over and over again and turn them on their head, “Clarionizing” them, if you will.

He sees it all as a way to spread a little holiday spirit, while also showing the range of the brass ensemble.

“It’s fun to do, spreading the joy all over the world,” Berry said. “Everything’s different. If you listen to one thing, the next one will be a totally different style. That’s the point. Instead of finding a style and doing everything the exact same treatment, exploring what brass can do.”

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