Holiday Cheer

Amazon packages arrive by the truckload.  Wrapping paper flies off its rolls.  The sweet scent of once-a-year cookies wafts through the house.  Christmas meals fill every nook of the freezer.  Carefully crafted holiday greetings travel far and near.  It’s easy to get caught up in the trappings and “must do’s” of the season.  I should know – I’m a prime target for succumbing to holiday stress.

But the season has a wealth of feel-good experiences as well, and this year I happily overindulged my love for music and theater.  All in the name of Christmas.

Ben and Mya at the GrinchIt has become an annual tradition to take our older grandchildren to see a Christmas play.  This year we hit the big time, taking Ben and Mya to the Children’s Theater in Minneapolis to see “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  It was Dr. Seuss to the core, and so very true to the book with a very green Grinch whose mouth sparkled redness.  I knew the experience reached the kids when Ben leaned over to me mid-performance, and whispered, “This is really good!”  He took the words right out of my mouth.

Just two days later, Rich convinced me to go see the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train.  Although it travels through the Twin Cities, he insisted we needed to experience it in a small town.  A four hour drive took us to Plummer MN, where indeed we were treated to an energetic community that rallied around the arrival of this brilliantly lit train.  At 6:00pm the train slowly approached the crossing, its holiday colors reflecting against the local grain elevator as it passed.  Once stopped,Holiday Train a draw-bridge like door came down with fog pouring out and laser lights pulsating.  The country music performers where already in place and performing by the time it was fully open.  Pressing against the stage, the crowd bounced to the music, performers hand-bumped the kids up front, and we all sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with the musicians.  Thirty minutes passed Holiday Train Concertquickly, then the train resumed its journey – on to the next town.  Its whole purpose is to support local food shelves, and indeed the evening’s take from locals as well as a generous donation from CP covers half their needs for the whole year.  My heart glowed as brightly as my face in the glimmer of the retreating train.

Returning to Duluth the following day, we turned to home town entertainment.  That very night we had tickets to “A Christmas Carol” at the Duluth Playhouse.  No matter how many times I see that show, it always delights and conjures up the goodwill of the season.  Topped off with wine and Christmas cookies with friends in the light of their decorated tree, it was an evening hard to beat.

East Holiday ConcertOur finale involve another tradition – a school Christmas concert.  This year I insisted on revisiting my past, attending the East High School Holiday Concert.  Memories of my years in choir and the Choralaires came flooding back as I watched from the balcony.  But even more pronounced was the depth of talent and commitment of the young musicians and their directors.  The performance underscored what an amazing opportunity these youngsters have to participate in such excellent ensembles.  I know now that it’s something they may never experience again in their lives.  Shivers ran down my spine as the entire assembly of students closed the evening with “Carol of the Drums.”

Quite a blitz for one week.  An abundance of holiday cheer, certain to propel me through the remainder of the Christmas season.

A Saxy Reunion

They call themselves the Silver Sax. Starting out as a quartet ten years ago, they have blossomed into a robust band of eleven, over half of which are saxophones which range from soprano to baritone. Jo's husband Peter is one of the original members. It was he who explained to me the significance of the name, which refers to the members' hair color. By happenstance, they were to play a charity event while I was there. It was the perfect event for our mini-reunion.

Molly, Mary and Jo after 40 years

Molly, Mary and Jo 40 years later

Mary and Shaun arrived toting a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the occasion. Mary, Jo and I were reunited one more time, now 40 years since we all first met at Durham University. We covered as much ground as we could over drinks and dinner, dragging up old memories and recounting recent updates. But the main event was still to come.

Although we knew Peter played in a band, apart from Jo the rest of us had never heard him play. In his quiet way, Peter made light of his musical endeavors, but we all suspected he underplayed his and the group's prowess. We were eager to hear it for ourselves.

It was an eclectic old building that housed the bar where the event was hosted in the large back room. Arriving early in time for band set-up we carefully selected a table mid-way back, knowing the band would produce a full sound. Procuring our beverages from the bar at the back, we settled in to watch the room fill. All manner of dress and age were represented, although most like us sported the same hair color as the band.

Silver Sax band

With the first note we knew we were in for a good night. The first half was comprised of big band music, and their renditions of Count Basie and Glenn Miller were a solid credit to the original jazz and swing music. What they lacked in trumpets and trombones, they made up for in saxophones, and very effectively so. It was good foot tapping music, and each piece was better than the last. The music was interspersed with tidbits about the music and the band by their leader, who proved to be enlightening and articulate as well as a talented musician.

Peter playing with Silver Sax

After intermission, the second set changed gears entirely. Tackling the likes of the Beatles, Abba and the Beach Boys, the band rocked the house with their lively tunes. Foot tapping gave way to bodies jiving to the music. It couldn't be helped, it was that irresistible. Chicago followed and kept us so entertained that we begged for an encore when the time came. And the Silver Sax graciously (and readily) accommodated with a medley from Earth, Wind and Fire.

We all agreed that Peter had kept his musical skills and fellow musicians a good secret for far too long. But now that we knew better, we'd be back for more performances. To me sounds like a good excuse to return to England. I'm sure I could be talked into seeing my Durham friends again for another saxy reunion.

Jo, Peter, Molly, Mary and Shaun

 

Why we do this

You just can't predict when those priceless moments will arrive. But when they do, it is oh so sweet. Tonight was one of those occasions.

The day was a trying one. Despite the expectations of “spring showers” we managed to stay dry on the first 15 days of this trip. And even today, we were sure we'd dodge the storms. We cycled through some beautiful farms and horse country. We enjoyed the mural in Mineaola, which reminded us of our daughter, Karen. And we lingered at the Kitchen's Restaurant, with their decadent cinnamon rolls, to let the rains pass. We kept our eyes on the weather maps. But eventually it all caught up with us. And yet, we still outwitted the downpour by sheltering under an unused carport.

Trying to beat the rain

At the end of the day, all we wanted was to escape our cheap motel in Winnsboro and find a good meal. The nearest restaurant was Richie's Grill and Cafe. As we wandered in to check the menu, we noticed the sandwich board outside promoting a live jam session that evening. Since the offerings looked reasonable, we gave it a try. Seated near the music, we couldn't help but hear the tunes and inquired about it. They are locals, we were told, who gather every Tuesday evening to play their accoustic guitars and take turns leading the songs. From what we could hear, it was mighty good. So once we finished our meal we wandered into the next room to have a listen.

We were warmly welcomed by the groupies already gathered, and were soon seated and mesmerized by the ten or more guitar players plus additional singers and musicians who made up the group. We couldn't help but be a bit obvious in our synthetic wear among the denim and cowboy hat population there, and we easily struck up conversations with those around us. Soon musicians came over to welcome us as well. They even managed to get us into the act!

The group rotated the lead among themselves as well as mentoring less experienced players, which was nice to see. And every so often they played something familiar enough that even we could sing along. It was wonderful to hear that their numbers swelled to 18 guitars on the first Fridays when they played at the local nursing home.

Sitting there listening, appreciating and just enjoying I couldn't help but think what a fun and unique experience it was. Sure, It could have happened if we were traveling by car. But chances are wwe wouldn't have been open to it the same way. This is why we bike tour. You can't beat offbeat, unplanned evenings like this.

 

 

Music in the Park

We’d seen the signs all week long.  Music in the Park on Sunday evening.  It was an alluring invitation – right in the development, a warm summery evening, and only a bike ride away.  With Dad feeling tired and interested in going to bed early, we decided to treat ourselves to a night out.

Approaching the park, we were amazed to see the line-up of cars.  And even more surprised by the golf cart that passed us, with a glass of wine in the hand of the passenger!  Realizing that the event was in a private venue, it suddenly dawned on us that anything was fair game.   Indeed, all around us were gourmet picnic spreads, bottles of wine, and even tables with balloons.  We arrived with two cans of pop and the remnants of a bag of pretzels in hand.

Without lawn chairs, we settled Concertourselves on an open patch of grass and flipped open our pop.  Clearly we were a pitiable site, as we soon had offers of a blanket, food and wine from the friendly people around us.  Being good Minnesotans, we politely declined several times.  But we could hold out only so long, and ultimately succumbed to glasses of very nice red wine.

The music turned out to be lively and fun.  While enjoying the doo wop rock, blues and classic country music of the 50s and early 60s, the concert was suddenly interrupted by sirens.  The Blues Brothers arrived via an old police car with a classic Bellaire sheriff’s vehicle in pursuit!  They joined the musicians and doubled the entertainment.  Between the music and the warm evening, it was a great time.

Blues Brothers and MollyWe decided it was best to leave before dark, which just happened to be when the Blues Brothers made their exit.  Naturally, they clamored for a picture with me, so I graciously obliged!

In the words of the musicians, “Oh what a night…”

 

Holiday Music Traditions

Christmas is a season rich in musical traditions.  Coming from a family steeped in music, I have fond memories of Christmas caroling out in the cold with family and neighborhood friends.  I sang in countless Christmas concerts, and mustered family members to play musical instruments in church for Christmas services.  It was a joy to see the tradition continue when our children were old enough to sing in Christmas concerts of their own.  And when they went on to sing in college choirs we were treated to some of the finest musical tributes of the season.

With college graduations behind us, we decided the trips to distant campuses were no longer necessary.  Instead, we have visited local colleges to sample their Christmas music.  It’s amazing the talent we have in our midst.

This year, however, I was drawn back to the past.  In middle school and high school, our daughter Karen spent five magical years singing under the direction of Julia Fahey in the Partners in Praise Girls’ Choir.  It was an experience that would shape her life, both musically and personally.  The music that the choir produced, the discipline that it required, and the mutual respect that each member had for each other were of the highest standard.  They traveled internationally, performed spontaneously in public places and sang in prestigious venues, but more than that, they won the hearts of all who heard them sing.  As Karen put it, Julia taught them so much more than just music.

So when I realized that I would be in the Twin Cities close to the time of their annual Holiday Benefit Concert, it was no decision at all to extend my stay long enough to attend.  As always, it was an evening that filled my heart as well as my holiday music quota.  The girls looked so young and I didn’t recognize a single one, but it was the same choir.  They still had the that special sound, the spirit, and they owned the music. When alumni were invited up to sing, I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face as Karen took her place among the other singers.  They all still sang like angels, just with richer more mature voices.

I couldn’t get enough of the music that night.  This was one holiday music tradition that was well worth going back to relive.  I just may have to do it again next year.

 

Singing The Messiah with Mabel

I’ve always wanted to do a Messiah Sing.  It sounded like great fun – the audience and the performers are one and the same.  An orchestra is provided, and singers come together to sit in the auditorium and sing Handel’s Messiah from beginning to end.  So when I saw that St. Scholastica had a Messiah Sing, I decided I’d go.

I’d sung a number of pieces from The Messiah in my high school and college choirs, so I knew some of the sections would be very familiar to me.  In fact, I doubted I needed the music for “For Unto Us” and of course the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Something that monumental sticks with you for life.  I knew there would be pieces of music I’d never seen before, but I was counting on my rusty sight reading skills and the more experienced singers around me to carry me through.  I recruited a friend to go with me, and I was ready for the challenge.

But I had another reason for going.  Back last summer when we were cleaning out Mom’s house, we went through all her old music.  I found a score for The Messiah that had belonged to her mother, Mabel, with her name hand written on the cover.  It felt like a treasure and I claimed it for my own, hoping for this very opportunity.

Mabel was a music teacher and the first music supervisor for the Iron River, Michigan public schools in the first quarter of the 1900s.  She was known for loving “show business” and the musicals she put on, both in the schools and in the community.  She also greatly enriched the music program to serve all students in the schools.  We found a tribute written about her for the town’s centennial celebration.  One phrase jumped out at me, “Surely no one belonging to the mixed chorus could ever forget rehearsing ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s famous oratorio, ‘The Messiah.'”

The score sat on my bookshelf until last night.  So as we progressed through the music singing, I found Mabel’s notations for the first time.  It felt so deeply personal to see her markings for expression, for breathing, for dynamics.  I loved turning the brittle yellowed pages, knowing she had turned them, probably directing that school choir.  It made the evening special, bringing back my musical roots and reminding me of my own musical training starting from a young age.

I never knew my grandmother, Mabel.  She died when my mother was 16.  But she left behind a musical legacy that lived on through my mom and on down through me and my own children.  I am so very thankful to her for that.  And I look forward to next year, when I will again bring her score to sing The Messiah.

Finding Inspiration

I’ve been displaced this week.  Voluntarily.  I’ve been spending my days in the home of my daughter and her husband, taking care of their new baby and her older brother while my daughter returned to her 2nd grade classroom to complete the year with her students.  As a result, I was in a “foreign” environment, without access to my own familiar resources.  But what a benefit – I made some wonderful discoveries and came away with new sources of inspiration.

My first find was a book called Heroes for My Son by Brad Meltzer.  It was a small book, lying on the coffee table, almost disguised among the assortment of children’s books.  I picked it up and was immediately taken with the premise and content of the book.  It is a collection of 52 individuals, hand selected by Meltzer for their virtues and talents, as life examples for his son.  Its beauty is in its simplicity.  Each entry is comprised of a single black and white photo, and a few concise sentences that capture the qualities that define the individual.  And finally, a quote by or about the hero.  Many, not all, are famous, and each is selected for a character trait not a specific accomplishment.  It is a book to be savored, but I found myself wanting to read on to the next, and the next.  The inspiration it contained was heart-warming and lasting, as the stories were so memorable.

Next was music.  Thumbing through the iPod connected to the music system, I selected the album Just Relax: Mexico by Lifescapes.  The music was calming yet with nice variety, unlike some of the other more boisterous selections on the device, and made for good listening.  It turns out that Lifescapes is a series of music CDs developed for Target Corporation, which in all honesty was a bit of a turn-off for me.  But reading more, I discovered that it started with a small group of musicians from the Twin Cities area, who “came together with one mission in mind… to create a fresh and authentic music collection tuned to everyday life.”  Where the inspiration comes in is their message that followed: “Think of your life as a film where you’re the lead character in your movie. Every day you live your life in big and small ways, through seasons of change, through good times and hard times, through passing moments and memories that’ll last forever.”  I scoured the website, trying to discern just who those original artists were, and which were the initial CDs, but they left no clues.  Still, I’m interested enough to check out other titles and artists in the series.

Not bad for a week spent largely in the absence of other adults!