Nothing says holiday music like the sound of a brass quintet. In the Tampa Bay area that means the Florida Orchestra Brass Quintet, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season.
"Jubilant, uplifting, the ringing sounds, it lifts your spirits, that's what it's all about," says Dwight Decker of the holiday music the quintet plays, from Sleigh Ride to Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, an ancient Christmas carol. Decker is principal trombone with the orchestra and a founding member of the group.
Not surprisingly, the holiday season is the busiest time of the year for the fivesome, which also includes principal tuba Bill Mickelson, another original member; Rob Smith and Ken Brown, the principal and assistant principal trumpets of the orchestra; and assistant principal French horn Brandon Beck. They are giving half a dozen performances in December, including a recital today in Clearwater and another Friday in Tarpon Springs.
Of course, the quintet has to schedule its gigs around those of the orchestra, which also has a full calendar, ranging from last weekend's masterworks program of Bruckner and Beethoven to its own holiday concerts.
"We have to be versatile,'' Decker says. "Some of us even have to change equipment. The trumpets use rotary valve trumpets in Bruckner. They go back to their normal equipment for the quintet work. I'll use a different size mouthpiece for Bruckner and the quintet. So it's challenging from a physical standpoint just to change from one to another.''
Stylistically, the quintet also has to cover the waterfront. "The arrangement dictates style,'' Decker says. "And the Glory of the Lord, the first chorus from Messiah, will require a completely different approach than later in the program when we play Winter Wonderland, which is in a swing style. We have to be chameleons.''
Decker says he and other group members are always on the lookout for refreshing new arrangements. "One of the pieces we're excited about is a wassail sort of affair, a Puerto Rican version by Louis Moreau Gottschalk that he wrote back in the middle of the 19th century, transcribed for brass quintet. It's an interesting piece because it's got so much rhythm and syncopation to it. It foreshadows early jazz and ragtime. Gottschalk was really ahead of his time.''
At 59, Decker has spent much of his life in the orchestra, joining in 1973. He has become accustomed to the cycle of musical activity throughout the year.
"Much of the year we are underutilized,'' he says. "So I always think that we are like farmers. During the holidays, it's harvest time, and you have to work constantly because now is when the work is. I'm not complaining. I'm a farmer and it's harvest time. It goes with the territory.''
The downside is that the holiday season can sometimes feel artistically stultifying, just one more round of The Nutcracker and Joy to the World and Silent Night, though not to Decker.
"I don't mind the repetition,'' he says. "I think it's beautiful stuff. It'll lift your heart every time.''
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.