Austin Chamber Music Center’s lessons in developing a holiday tradition with A Charlie Brown Christmas
By Robert Faires
Friday, December 5, 2014
“It just doesn’t feel like Christmas until we ….”
Most Austinites who don’t “Bah! Humbug!” the holidays have a ready phrase to finish that sentence: “spin under the Zilker tree,” “see the lights on 37th Street,” “hit the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar/Blue Genie Art Bazaar/Junior League A Christmas Affair.” For some, the tradition is a cultural event – The Nutcracker, Handel’s Messiah, Conspirare Christmas – which arts organizations count on. When audiences find an entryway to the season through an annual production, they’ll return every December, and that not only builds community during this season of goodwill but adds a welcome boost to these arts groups’ income streams.
In 2012, the Austin Chamber Music Center joined the throng of yuletide shows with its live concert of music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. ACMC Artistic Director Michelle Schumann – who handles keyboard duties on the beloved Vince Guaraldi tunes – hoped to make this a seasonal tradition, and with the third round of the Peanuts shindig upon us – Saturday, Dec. 6, 3:30 & 7:30pm – Schumann appears to be getting her Christmas wish: Tickets sales for this year’s shows at the Stateside have doubled those for the 2013 shows at Antone’s. But there’s more to establishing a holiday tradition than repeating it in successive Decembers, she says. Here, Schumann shares the key lessons on this journey:
1) Location, Location, Location
Michelle Schumann: I think venue has a lot to do with why things are going well this year. We’re at Stateside at the Paramount, and we made that shift because we wanted to [be] more centrally located. When we think about other holiday happenings, so much happens Downtown, so a Downtown venue just seemed like the right thing for us to do. And it happens to be on the same day as the Holiday Stroll, so it really ties in with the idea of holiday tradition.
2) Event Horizon
MS: The first two years were very similar programs. This year, we’re expanding the program a bit, adding songs from other Charlie Brown specials, like “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” and the “Thanksgiving Theme.” We have kids from Lamar Middle School singing “Christmas Time Is Here,” and we have dancers for some tunes. [We wanted to create] more of an event, more of a Christmas event, that feels worthy of a long-term tradition. It’s going to be our job to make it feel like an annual thing and people know what to expect, while changing a few elements so people won’t want to miss something from [year to] year. ‘Cause you never want that feeling of, “Oh, we saw that. We don’t need to see it this year.” You want that feeling of, “Oh, it was so great, and who knows what will change this year?” That’s what the ballet does with The Nutcracker. There are special elements that they add that people don’t expect, and that keeps it alive.
3) Both Sides Now
MS: What’s really neat about this program is that while it’s definitely family-friendly, it’s not a kids’ show. You can bring your kids, and there will be special things for kids there – we’re going to let them dance onstage with a Snoopy mascot for one of the tunes – so they’re going to get a good experience out of it, but parents are going to be able to enjoy it on their level, and I think that’s rare for a holiday tradition. It’s usually geared toward one set or the other. I want to give a great experience to parents who are thinking, “This is so cool. I could be here without my kid and having a great time, but I’m here with my kid and having a great time, and so are they.” Rare, that’s rare.
4) Live Performance
MS: As an artist, I’m playing classical music all the time, so this is the time of year when I’m taken completely out of my comfort zone – although it’s becoming more and more of a comfortable zone for me. This year I picked tunes that I didn’t have written-out music for, so I’ve been transcribing them myself. That’s been really eye-opening, because I’m not a natural jazzer, so actually transcribing the tunes [has helped me] understand how Vince Guaraldi improvised, how he created these tunes, what harmonies he’s attracted to, what licks are his favorites. Sometimes when you just read or listen to music, you get the sense of, “Yeah, there’s something there, but I don’t know what it is.” But when you have to write it out note for note, you get a completely different [feel] for that. So I really grow as an artist through this music. And that’s a great thing, because if that wasn’t happening, then [playing it every Christmas] would start to become passé. It’s anything but that. I mean, it feels enlivening, and that’s fun.
A Charlie Brown Christmas will be performed Saturday, Dec. 6, 3:30 & 7:30pm, at Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress. For more information, visit www.austinchambermusic.org.