“I’m just throwing everyone under the bus,” says conductor Brad Hogarth during a difficult section of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The well-known piece was written for organ in the 18th Century, long before the invention of modern, valved brass instruments. “Still,” says percussionist Paul Cox (originally from Sitka), “the pipe organ could sound like brass!” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Among all the hot tickets in Sitka in December, the Holiday Brass remains one of the hottest. The concert is a major fundraiser for the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, and has been at-or-near sellout for the last several years. But it’s not just the fans who are devoted to the show — the musicians are too. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey went to learn what keeps the country’s top brass players coming back year after year.

Note: The Sitka Holiday Brass performs 7 P.M. this Saturday, December 21, at the Sitka Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available online at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp website, or at Old Harbor Books.

At the Sitka Performing Arts Center…

It’s the Thursday morning before the Saturday performance of the Holiday Brass, and the ensemble is working its way through an arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor — which was written before the invention of modern brass instruments.

By Saturday, these 14 players (actually, 11 brass, 3 percussion, 3 vocalists, and a pianist!) will have brought this difficult piece to heel, but right now it’s taking all their concentration under the direction of conductor Brad Hogarth, a professor of music at San Francisco State University.

Not a boys club anymore. Mary Elizabeth Bowden (r.) is one of three female brass musicians who perform in Sitka. Bowden was the first prize winner in the 2012 International Women’s Brass Conference Trumpet Competition. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

I take a couple of pictures and leave them to it. The interviews will have to wait until the afternoon at the Highliner Cafe.

The group has just come back from lunch and a chilly boat trip around the islands of Sitka Sound. No horn player on earth can pass up espresso under these trying circumstances.

In the Highliner Cafe…

KCAW – Decaf Americano is my drink by the way.

Macomber – Yeah, can’t have the caffeine before rehearsal.

Scott Macomber plays trumpet with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. This is his tenth performance with Sitka’s Holiday Brass.

Macomber – It’s a great experience. It’s like a family that gets together once a year. We’re all really good friends and love hanging out together, and playing together. And Roger (Schmidt) puts together a really beautiful program every year. There’s usually a blend of standards and classics that everyone would expect to hear, but then usually a lot of other beautiful Baroque works. He has a real talent for matching pieces together and shaping a program. So I love to come back for that, and they feed us really well.

Good food comes up over and over again talking with the Holiday Brass musicians. We all eat a lot over the holidays, but these people are sometimes playing a church service by day, and a performance of the Nutcracker by night — night after night — through Christmas day.

December for brass players is like April for accountants.

“You’re going to find me on a beach right after Christmas. My family’s going to Mexico for five days. It’s the longest break I’ve had in quite a while,” said Macomber.

Craig Mulcahy (l.) is the principal trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra. Sitka Fine Arts Camp director Roger Schmidt — a trombonist himself — often touts the high caliber of the artists who perform for the Holiday Brass. It’s no idle boast: The musician bios take up 5 pages of the program — single spaced! (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The Holiday Brass started a couple of decades ago, with Sitka Fine Arts Camp director Roger Schmidt and his boyhood next-door-neighbor Wade Demmert playing a Christmas concert as a duet on their trombones. Its days as a boys club are long since past. Three women also now regularly perform in the group, and travel great distances to play in Sitka.

Donna Parkes – I’m Donna Parkes. I live in Louisville, Kentucky. And I play with the Louisville Orchestra.

KCAW – But you’re not from Louisville?

Parkes – I’m most definitely not from Louisville. I’m from Canberra, Australia.

KCAW – What brings you back to Sitka?

Parkes – I have been coming now — I think it’s 10 years — for this concert in December with the Holiday Brass. And I absolutely love it here. I love the group that we play with. The group of musicians we have. We play a wonderful repertoire, but I now just love coming to be in Sitka. I also teach here in the summer at the arts camp, so I find a way to get here two times a year. It’s gorgeous and the community is wonderful, one of a kind. I love every minute of being here.

KCAW – Louisville is not the biggest city in the US, but it’s got to be a lot more hectic than Sitka?

Parkes – Absolutely. Just being able to be this close to genuine wilderness and be in an environment like this is so wonderful. We were on our boat ride and just saying that to have this opportunity is a complete gift: To really take a breath and unwind and let your body restore a little bit — it’s wonderful.

That theme comes up often too — Sitka’s Holiday Brass is a chance to perform in a concert that demands much, but also gives “Bach.” 

Bach rehearsal…

Despite the challenging repertoire, each one of the Holiday Brass players sees this concert — and even the long days of rehearsal — as a respite,  before returning to their own orchestras for the home stretch into Christmas.