Tuba player Daryl Johnson plays with the Louisville Orchestra. This is his eighth year performing with the Holiday Brass — and now he vacations here in summer. “I can’t get enough of Sitka,” he says. “I started the tuba in the 6th grade, because I was the big kid. But it’s paid for my schooling and allowed me to play all over the world.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Musicians from orchestras around the country have gathered in Sitka this week for the 10th anniversary Holiday Brass Concert.

As performances go, the music is top shelf and so is the venue: The Sitka Performing Arts Center opened a decade ago with Holiday Brass — a decision designed to showcase the publicly-funded facility’s capabilities as a concert hall.

While this may sound like a very grown-up strategy to increase appreciation for the arts in a community, it actually started with three kids in the Sitka High band room about 30 years ago.

Downloadable audio.

Note: The 10th Holiday Brass Concert will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 21, in the Sitka Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available at Old Harbor Books.

Sounds: Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei in rehearsal.

“I love this theater. This is a beautiful place to play,” says Paul Cox.

I’m standing among timpanis, glocks, xylophones, and chimes — the habitat of the orchestral percussionist. Paul Cox is the full-time Dean of Creative Arts at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, and a part-time performer.

He grew up right here in Sitka.

“When Wade and Roger and I were in high school we played in a large brass group. It was timpani and brass. My freshman year of high school. And then we went to the music festival and we got a command performance, and we got to play in Juneau on the big stage there.”

Wade Demmert (center) rehearses with the Toronto Orchestra’s principal trombonist Gordon Wolfe (l), and Louisville Orchestra tubist Daryl Johnson. When he wasn’t playing music in high school, Demmert says he and his girlfriend cruised around Sitka in his car — with percussionist Paul Cox sitting between them. Says Cox, “I was the little nerd.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

And that set the stage for the Holiday Brass, the annual reunion of three Sitka students who met in middle school, took up instruments together, and never put them down.

“So coming back here I always hearken back to 1985 when we all first played together as a group. So I just see it as a continuation of how our lives have been intertwined over the years. So yeah, we pinch ourselves.”

On stage are ten brass players rehearsing Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei — or Adagio for Strings — one of the most iconic pieces of American music. It was played at JFK’s funeral, and at the 9-11 Memorial. The performers include principal players from some of the country’s major orchestras. They’ve had the sheet music for several weeks, but this is the first of three rehearsals they’ll hold together before the concert.

Like Cox, Wade Demmert is home-grown.

“I’m Wade Demmert. I grew up here in Sitka…”

Demmert and Roger Schmidt were neighbors on Japonski Island, where Demmert’s father worked for Mt. Edgecumbe High School, and Schmidt’s father was a doctor at SEARHC. They’ve known each other since elementary school.

Demmert – I’m a year or so older than Roger and started in the band and ended up playing trombone. When it came time for Roger to get to 5th grade he told me he wanted to play the flute, and I persuaded him to play the trombone, and we’ve been playing music together ever since.
KCAW – What a close brush! If Roger had become a flute player…
Demmert – History would be different, yeah!

Demmert teaches music in Seattle, and plays professionally on “everything that comes along,” from orchestras, to video-game soundtracks.

He and Schmidt and Cox were the kids always walking around with their instrument cases. Maybe they were teased, but this is how it begins when you want to play music in the big leagues.

“I remember getting together with Paul and Roger in the band room after hours somehow — I don’t know if we were let in or what — and we would do things like free improv and stuff. Percussion and trombones. And from there it went to playing together in bands in high school, and ended up with Paul at Rice University in Houston at the music school there. Yeah, we had a close-knit group of musicians in high school.”

“Mild panic fits,” says Roger Schmidt (center). A full-time arts administrator with serious performance chops, he still has to up his game to play with full-time musicians like Vanessa Fralick (l.), associate principal trombone of the Toronto Symphony. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

And the guy who’s is pulling together all the strings of this close-knit group?

“I’m Roger Schmidt, and I’m the organizer of the Holiday Brass tradition.”

And while Schmidt is an accomplished trombonist who trained at the Oberlin Conservatory, he’s not full-time performer. He’s the director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, and he’s pushing the envelope — with his lips.

“Mild panic fits. Yeah, there’s a lot going on.”

Schmidt is a multi-tasker. He’s created the musical program for all the Holiday Brass Concerts, and he arranged this piece by Samuel Barber for brass.

Before The Holiday Brass became an 11-piece ensemble to open the Sitka Performing Arts Center in 2008, it was a quartet in Sitka’s Centennial Building. This photo from the 2005 show features Don Immel, Nathaiel Dickey, Roger Schmidt and Wade Demmert on trombones. (Wade Demmert photo)

Still, it’s a little unsettling to be on stage with Gordon Wolfe, the principal trombone of the Toronto Symphony on his left, and Vanessa Fralick, the associate principal on his right.

“I’m going on so many different levels. To try and keep track of what’s going on. Trying to tune with this chord. Trying to move my slide as fast as the other people are around me. It’s not something I do every day. I definitely feel very engage trying to keep up with the band.”

Schmidt was fairly confident he would lose money on the Holiday Brass Concert when he first staged it in 2008 — but that proved not to be the case, and the concert remains one of Sitka’s hottest tickets. The Fine Arts Camp manages this space on behalf of the Sitka School District. He knows that not every student who performs on this stage will launch a career in music.

That’s not really the point, is it?

“It doesn’t matter what you end up doing with your quote ‘career’ or your livelihood. Any investment you make in music is going to pay many times over whether it’s brain development, whether it’s an ability to make music with other people, or to get a chance through history to connect with some of the greatest creations that humans have ever made. Tell a kid, by playing this instrument you might get to play Beethoven someday. Who would you not want to have a chance to play Beethoven someday?”

Or a chance to jam after-hours in the band room with your best friends, like Roger Schmidt, Wade Demmert, and Paul Cox.