To honor the spirit of giving: holiday brass concert in Amherst celebrates 30th anniversary

  • The Valley Festival Brass continues a 30-year tradition in Amherst with a Dec. 15 concert of holiday music that aims to raise funds for the Amherst Survival Center. Photo courtesy of Sheldon Ross

  • The Valley Festival Brass continues a 30-year tradition in Amherst with a Dec. 15 concert of holiday music that aims to raise funds for the Amherst Survival Center. Photo courtesy of Sheldon Ross

  • The Valley Festival Brass continues a tradition begun in the 1980s by Ron Bell, a trumpet player and a former assistant superintendent of schools in Amherst. Photo courtesy of Shedlon Ross

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 05, 2019

Among the traditions in Amherst, there’s one that involves holiday music, the bright sounds of a brass ensemble, and donating to a worthy cause — and this year marks the 30th anniversary of that event.

The Anniversary Holiday Brass Concert and Carol Sing, begun in the 1980s under the direction of Ron Bell, former assistant superintendent for Amherst schools, returns on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. to the First Congregational Church, in a concert that will benefit the Amherst Survival Center.

It’s the 30th year of the free concert, which is the work of an all-volunteer group: musicians and supporters from throughout the Valley (and a few from Connecticut and New Hampshire) who come together once a year for this occasion. The show includes a range of holiday and seasonal music, including carols and traditional songs from other countries.

“It’s a really good group of people who find time in their schedules to carry on the tradition,” said Sheldon Ross, a veteran trumpet player who teaches music in Belchertown schools, the Northampton Community Music Center and in private lessons. The 25-odd musicians in what’s now known as the Valley Festival Brass are nearly all professional performers and/or music educators, Ross notes, and some have played for years in the annual concert.

Ross is the group’s coordinator, taking over from Bell, a trumpeter who began the concert series in the 1980s and headed it for some 16 years until he was forced to step down around 2000 after suffering a stroke. Ross, who had played in the holiday concerts for a few years when Bell directed it, then took over in 2006 after the players had been on hiatus for about five years.

“It was a bit of a challenge to get things up and running again and get back in touch with people, but it was worth it,” said Ross. “I think we all wanted to carry on in honor of Ron and because this is a good cause, it’s fun and a nice time of year to do it.” (He notes that Bell had initially started the concert series in part to restore a brass band series in Amherst that originally dated to the early 20th century.)

The band includes trumpets, trombones, French horns, tubas, and euphoniums, as well a percussionist and a drummer. Ross says he’s divided the ensemble into a “choir” of sorts, with the soprano parts played by the trumpets, the altos by the French horns, and the tenors by the trombones, with the baritone and bass parts voiced by the euphoniums and tubas, respectively.

Also part of the mix: the First Congregational Church’s organ, played by Minister of Music Richard S. Matteson, who came to the church in 2008 and, after listening to the holiday concert for a number of years, asked if he could join in on organ for a part of the show in which audience members participate in singing carols.

“I just thought ‘This is great — I’d like to be part of this tradition,’ ” said Matteson, whose past work includes, among other things, directing a children’s chorus at the Community Music School of Springfield; he also serves as a board member of the South Hadley Chorale.

Ross says he’s expanded the geographical range from which the participating musicians are drawn, as the band was previously more Amherst-centered. “I wanted it to be a little more inclusive,” he noted.

But in other ways, the band and the holiday concert still have vital Amherst connections, in particular with the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A number of guest conductors for the concert, as well as players, have been drawn from UMass, including the late Walter Chesnut, a longtime music professor at the school and former Springfield Symphony Orchestra trumpet player who was celebrated for his trumpet fanfares at UMass commencement exercises.

Another past guest conductor was Dave Sporny, a former trombone professor at UMass and the founder and director of the Amherst Jazz Orchestra. This year’s concert will be conducted by Dr. Matthew Westgate, the director of wind studies at UMass.

Musically, the concert, which runs about one and a half hours, will include a variety of holiday music, Ross says, including some swing- and jazz-flavored tunes (he mentions the music of Mel Tormé) as well as some international songs, such as “Carol of the Russian Children.”

“We really want to honor Ron at these shows and the great spirit of community he created,” Ross said. He notes that Bell served in the Peace Corps for a number of years in the 1960s and at one time taught music in Ethiopia, and he originally got the brass band involved in playing music from other countries.

For this year’s show, Ross has composed some short passages for each of the different instruments that they’ll play in sequence to “introduce” themselves to the audience.

Because of their busy schedules, and because they get together just this one time each year to play the benefit show, band members don’t have time to rehearse beforehand — until the day of the show, when they meet at the church in the afternoon to go over the music before the 6 p.m. concert begins.

“But these are all professional players — they’ll be ready to go,” said Ross.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Amherst’s Annual Holiday Brass Concert and Carol Sing takes place at the First Congregational Church, 165 Main St., at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 15. Donations for the Amherst Survival Center are strongly encouraged.