On Friday, August 25, we presented Sail Away Summer, a special program combining music, poetry and storytelling at the Old Art Building in Leland, MI. On Saturday, September 16, we’re performing an encore presentation of this program at the Oliver Art Center in Frankfort, MI.
This is an eclectic program of traditional works and originals bridging Classical, Celtic, and Folk styles, interspersed with inspiring spoken word to tempt the imagination. Best of all, we get to share all of this with you a mere stone’s throw from one of your favorite Lake Michigan beaches!
Our entire program is interwoven with poetry and short stories thoughtfully selected by our reader and narrator, Jan Ross, and some written by Jason McKinney. The readings expand upon the themes of the music and are sometimes embedded within the musical performance.
We’ll start the evening by embarking on a journey to the Shetland Islands with Jason’s Shetland Air & Reel, a lyrical work he composed for wind quintet. A mix of large and small, inhabited and uninhabited, the Shetlands are certainly remote. Over centuries, the islands have been settled, ruled, and influenced by both the Celts and Norse peoples. The first movement, Da Slockit Light, is based on a tune composed by Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson (1910-1991). Having grown up on the islands, Anderson remembered the days when villages were teeming with life and activity. As the decades passed and economic hardships came, however, he noticed fewer and fewer lights in the hills as evening approached. A “slockit” light is a light that has gone out, referring to his fond memories of vibrant village life now dwindling. The second movement, Sleep Soond I’da Moarnin’, is a fast-paced reel straight from the Shetland Islands sure to get your feet tapping.
Next, we’re excited to present Jason’s newest work for wind quintet: Is This a Poem? Inspired by a poem (and a doodle in the margins) written by Izzy Simpson, a second grader at Leland Public School, this quintet is filled with color, surprises, humor, and maybe a touch of child-like wisdom. “At first, reading Izzy’s short poem made me chuckle,” Jason remembers, “but the more I thought about it, the more clever and inventive it seemed to me. I quickly began to hear musical lines in the words, see colors between the lines. I gradually began to feel this was a child’s exploration of the entire creative process. At some point, haven’t we all questioned our value, our creativity, our motivation, our material, etc., as part of the process of making whatever art it is that inspires us?” In a short piece, the entire quintet is called upon to play many different characters and mood changes. Each instrument has its moment to bask in the bold, yellow glow of the finger-painted sun. (You’ll be able to see a painting by Izzy at the performance!)
Our narrator will then transform into many different characters as we marry music with storytelling, combining Peter Shickele’s Seven Bagatelles with selections from Jason’s Seven Unfinished Stories. The performance calls on flute, oboe, clarinet & bassoon to create seven musical miniatures — each rife with curiosity and mystique — while Jan Ross brings to life an entire crew of unrelated characters onstage. Like each movement of the music, each story drops us into a different setting amid the saga of completely unrelated characters. The stories are “unfinished” because they conclude with a cliff-hanger, a lingering question, or they’re a full scene but clearly not the end of the story. You can find more about this musical pairing in an earlier Manitou-Zine article.
Then, we’ll follow the healing journey of a wounded raptor rescued by healing hands with Laura Hood’s First Flight. This unique quartet for flute, clarinet, guitar, and harp has been a concert favorite since we first premiered it in 2015. You can find out more about Laura’s inspiration for this piece in an earlier Manitou-Zine article.
Next, we set sail for the Orkney Islands where we’ll hear one of many legends about the Selkie people who are said to inhabit these islands, magically transforming from human to seal. Jan will regale us with the tale of The Goodman o’ Wastness set against the backdrop of harp accompaniment by Jason.
Last summer we premiered Jason’s The Old Ash Tree with the Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra. For this performance, we’ll perform Jason’s original chamber music version for flute, clarinet, bassoon, guitar, and harp. Dedicated to Jason’s grandfather who died in 2022 of Alzheimer’s Disease, this is a piece about strength, beauty, and hope. You can learn more about this piece in an earlier Manitou-Zine article.
Next, we’ll sail across the sea to Ireland, near Limerick, to discover the old fiddle tune that inspired Jason to create Willow Song (Baint Áirnidhe faoi Ghílúr na gCraobh), a peaceful work for clarinet, guitar, and harp. “When I hear the tune, especially now, I’m instantly brought to a place of peace,” Jason explains. “I feel it’s about seeking solitude and comfort beneath a favorite tree or in a forest. There’s a certain sadness or pain in the melodic line and harmonic motion, but there’s also the sense that this trouble is being lifted up into the branches — there’s communication between human and tree.”
Crossing the Atlantic, we’ll make our way to the Isle of Cape Breton to hear a lilting waltz in the little village of Mabou, where Joey Beaton wrote David Bradley Beaton’s Jig. Beaton wrote this to honor his son’s eighth birthday. Laura and Jason have turned it into a nice little dance number for guitar & harp.
And, to close out the evening, we make our way to our favorite barn in the heart of Leelanau County where there’s a toe-tapping dance to share by our own Laura Hood: Happy Feet! Laura wrote this inspired by the improvised dance steps of her five-year-old son.
We hope you’ll join us Saturday, September 16, for this inspiring program of music and story presented at Frankfort’s Oliver Art Center. Seating is limited, so you are encouraged to secure your seats in advance. CLICK HERE to reserve your seats via the Oliver Art Center website. Tickets are $40 each, OAC members receive a 10% discount! Limited VIP Bridge seats are available, with seating for two on the OAC’s bridge balcony (including private hi-top table with bar height chairs and light refreshments). VIP seating is $75 per person and must be purchased in pairs (limit 2 per order). For more information, visit the Oliver Art Center website or call 231.352.4151 (Mon-Sat; 10 am – 4 pm).
On Saturday, May 6, 2023, we’ll present Complementary Colors, our spring concert program exploring the use of color in many different artistic disciplines from music to painting to poetry and beyond. It’s a dynamic program of chamber music, spoken word, and visual art that combines divergent voices to create new colors and inspire broader perspectives.
The evening begins in the commons area at Grace Episcopal Church where Lauren Everett Finn, our Spring 2023 Collaborating Artist, will curate and host a special solo exhibit of her colorful floral and abstract mixed media paintings. Several of her larger works will be brought into the performance space to facilitate creative and visual inspiration during the concert. Lauren will be on site to answer any questions you might have about her pieces, you can learn more by visiting her website.
Our entire program is interwoven with poetry and excerpts of prose thoughtfully selected by our reader and narrator, Jan Ross. These readings expand upon the themes of the music and artwork. We’ll open the musical program with Landscapes, an epic three-movement work by Daniel Baldwin for clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano.
Baldwin employs this uncommon quartet to provide a soundtrack for three paintings by legendary American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900). The music — more than a tone poem depicting scenery from these paintings — evokes both the imagery and its symbolism, translating it into the unique timbres of the quartet. The three-movement work is a lyrical saga exploring the early, middle, and late career of Church, covering a vast array of emotions and featuring all four voices of the quartet in heroic lines.
Next, we’ll head just beneath the surface of still waters to observe things from the perspective of seaweed dancing gently in the currents. Algues — a work for flute & harp by French composer and harpist Bernard Andrès — is a calming, ethereal piece. Each movement explores contrasting tempos, tonal colors, and textures, all evoking underwater scenes from the perspective of seaweed (French: algues). The flutist provides haunting lines while the harpist is called upon to apply special techniques to mimic the sounds of a xylophone, guitar, and even distant bells!
Then, we’ll invite to the stage our special guest, Matthew Cochran, Instructor of Guitar at Interlochen Arts Academy, who will share one of his recent compositions for solo guitar: 3 Non-Algorithmic Human Interactions.
Matthew says he wrote this triptych during the early lock-down phase of the pandemic. “My interactions with people outside of my immediate family were only possible through the intervention of software,” he says. “I suppose I’m vaguely thankful that video calls and social media are a thing, but even well-intentioned algorithms are a poor substitute for the warmth of human interaction.”
We’ll change colors again with Glory, Still, and Gentle by Janet Lanier, a moving piece employing the rare trio of english horn, horn, and piano.
In 2019, we received a donation in memory of Charles “Doug” Luther. The donor told us that — because music had always been such a big part of Doug’s life — she felt compelled to honor her friend in a way that would further the cause of music. We were very touched to learn about Doug, and as a tribute we used the donation to purchase this trio.
We’ll end our program by combining colors with Matthew to present his Cicadas at the Equinox, an evocative sextet for winds and guitar. Matthew’s unlikely sextet draws six contrasting voices into a dialogue where contrasts and commonalities are blurred like watercolors.
With Matthew’s evocative title and sensitive scoring, the mind can create its own mini documentary as the piece unfolds. You’ll follow the journey of the cicadas as they emerge emerge and take flight. A frenzied celebration soon descends as the meadow is filled with the sounds of their delight. Later, as the sun dips below the trees, they gradually disappear into the evening as one by one they go quiet.
We hope you’ll join us Saturday, May 6, 7:30pm at Grace Episcopal Church in Traverse City, MI, for this colorful and inspiring program. Admission is free. Your goodwill donations will benefit Manitou Winds and our ongoing mission to spread music and creativity throughout our region.
As creative director of Manitou Winds, I would have to say unconventional combinations are a specialty of our ensemble. Whether we’re combining seemingly unrelated instruments (e.g., clarinet, ukulele, and harp) or calling upon an instrument to play something most would consider “out of character,” we don’t mind breaking with tradition. That’s why I was excited to search for more opportunities to stretch both characters and colors in a program inspired by complementary colors.
A wind quintet is in itself an unconventional color combination. Each instrument in the ensemble has a strikingly different character because none of the instruments are in the same family. In contrast to the deeply rich and monochromatic sounds of a string quartet, brass quintet, or saxophone quartet; a wind quintet has an inherent edge to its sound. It offers a broad range of warmth, expressiveness, contrasts, and colors for a composer to experiment with.
You can imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Cicadas at the Equinox: a composition for wind quintet and guitar written by Matthew Cochran, Instructor of Guitar at Interlochen Arts Academy. After listening to the recording he created with the Coreopsis Quintet, I was determined to bring this unique color combo to a Manitou Winds program.
Pairing guitar and wind quintet is a bold move – some might call it “out of character.” While the acoustic guitar is an instrument capable of a large range of sound and character, many listeners generally associate it with subtlety, mellowness, romanticism, and the gentle quietude of solo passages. By comparison, the wind quintet is a ragtag, ad-hoc choir pulled straight from the quirkiest section of the orchestra. And yet Matthew’s unlikely sextet draws these voices into a dialogue where contrasts and commonalities are blurred like watercolors.
He begins with a beautiful solo guitar passage and alternates with the sustaining power of the quintet in gentle underscoring. As the piece progresses, members of the quintet take on more of the guitar’s character in their own voices. Though you might expect this to be a guitar-driven piece, as the piece reaches its climax you will likely question who’s at the wheel! The parts become remarkably interwoven and collaborative.
With Matthew’s evocative title and sensitive scoring, the mind can create its own mini documentary as the piece unfolds. A quiet summer morning dawns as a single cicada emerges from the ground, climbs a nearby tree, and waits for its wings. More and more cicadas emerge and take flight until a frenzied celebration descends and the meadow is filled with the sounds of their delight. Later, as the sun dips below the trees, they gradually disappear into the evening as one by one they go quiet.
“Cicadas at the Equinox is the lone survivor from an ill-fated crossover record I made in 2013 called ‘Vapor Trail from a Paper Plane’,” Matthew explained. “I’m deeply grateful to Manitou Winds for this opportunity to exhume an old friend!”
We’re honored to collaborate with Matthew to share this unique work with a Northern Michigan audience!
As part of our program Matthew will also share a three-part solo guitar composition entitled 3 Non-Algorithmic Human Interactions. Matthew says he wrote this triptych during the early lock-down phase of the pandemic. “My interactions with people outside of my immediate family were only possible through the intervention of software,” he says. “I suppose I’m vaguely thankful that video calls and social media are a thing, but even well-intentioned algorithms are a poor substitute for the warmth of human interaction.”
I couldn’t agree more! We’re grateful for each opportunity we get to share musical moments with each of you – live and in-person. We hope you’ll join us for Complementary Colors on Saturday, May 6, 2023, at Grace Episcopal Church in Traverse City. Together we’ll take you on a journey of color and texture through a dynamic program of music and spoken word. Surrounded by the artwork of our collaborating artist, Lauren Everett Finn, and the voices of modern composers, we’ll explore how artists in many disciplines use color as their language of expression.
Here is my bouquet, here is a singfrom “Colors Passing Through Us”, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) — Marge Piercy (b. 1936)
song of all the things you make
me think of, here is oblique
praise for the height and depth
of you and the width too.
Here is my box of new crayons at your feet.
When Manitou Winds takes the stage again on Saturday, October 15, 2022, at Central United Methodist Church, Traverse City, it will be the first seasonal concert our ensemble has been able to perform since September 2019. We’re excited to share music with you again, and our upcoming concert program is one you won’t want to miss!
Our program title, taken from a poem by Marge Piercy, alludes to the broadest brushstrokes of color we can encounter: color in nature, color in emotion, color in music… is there a limit? You’re invited to explore with us!
The program opens with Avian Suite by composer (and oboist) Stacey J. Berk (b. 1970). Composed in 2011 for the Polaris Wind Quintet, the work presents five movements, each depicting a different bird in its natural habitat. The soaring eagle, the owl on her eerie nocturnal hunt, the plucky territorial chickadee, the elegant swan, and the tiny hummingbird powered by nectar — you’ll hear them all take flight! This quintet has been dog-eared in our library for a while. We’ve read it and discussed it in rehearsals, and we’re eager to finally have an opportunity to share it with you.
Next we’ll be joined by special guest Thomas Bara, Instructor of Organ at Interlochen Center for the Arts and organist at Central United Methodist Church, Traverse City. Together we’ll perform Traveling Mercies by J.T. McKinney, a work for wind quintet and organ. Jason describes the work as, “a tone poem about wanderlust in which the central character seeks excitement and wisdom from faraway places, eventually returning home to find peace among familiar surroundings through the lens of his new perspective.” The limitless palette of the organ melds with the striking colors of our wind quintet to create a cinematic soundtrack.
Continuing in the theme of travel, we’ll perform Travel Notes 2 by Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012). An Academy Award-nominated composer of TV and film music known for his eclectic compositional interests from classical to jazz to modernist avant-garde, Bennett’s woodwind quartet presents four short musical essays depicting scenes from an adventurous vacation. Soaring high above in a hot air balloon, zipping around in a thrilling helicopter ride, relaxing poolside in an easy chair, and speeding through crowded streets in a car chase — this piece certainly keeps our fingers busy!
And we’ll end our journey with Swansea Town by Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) which is based on a Hampshire folk tune of the same name. Our fellow band musicians will immediately recognize the tune since it was featured in the opening movement of Gustav Holst’s Second Suite in F. But, unlike Holst’s treatment, Jacob’s rendition takes the listener through a series of eight variations where we can imagine the tune traveling on the wind to visit the various town folk busily going about their day.
We hope you’ll join us for a delightful autumn evening of evocative music and thoughtfully curated poetry and prose. Admission is free! Your goodwill donations will benefit our ensemble’s efforts to spread music and creativity throughout our region and beyond.
It’s true that organs are large, costly, and rarely found in the average home, but the reason organ students are a rare commodity is multifaceted. “For better or for worse, the organ is historically linked to the music of the church,” says Thomas. “Before the prevalence of amplified music, organ played a pivotal role in most congregational worship, so the pool of people exposed to the instrument was larger than it is today.”
With fewer people counting themselves as regular churchgoers, and some churches removing their organs or letting them fall into disrepair, the organ faces a shrinking opportunity to make an impression on budding musicians. Still, Thomas insists this is not an insurmountable challenge.
Thanks to the Internet and various forms of social media, it’s actually easier than ever for organists, composers, and would-be organ students to find one another. “Many of the young people attracted to organ, today, are drawn in by the dynamic body of work now posted online. They have instant access to the most dramatic organs and charismatic performers,” says Thomas. “I would say that finding dedicated students is still a challenge; I wouldn’t say the challenge is growing, but my students are coming from a different place than when I began teaching.”
Organists can sprout up almost anywhere, and Thomas is living proof of that! Although he came from a musical family where everyone loved singing, he grew up on a pick-your-own strawberry farm far away from his classically trained relatives. Life on the farm fostered a love of mechanical things and fed his penchant for problem-solving, as there was always something needing to be fixed. “Embarrassingly, my entry point into music was all of the organ’s gizmos and thing-a-ma-gigs,” admits Thomas. “I loved all of the keyboards and buttons… the ultimate mechanical marvel that also sounds cool!”
“The organ in the church I grew up in was in clear view of the congregation,” he remembers. “I always picked my seat so I could watch the organist during the service.” Not surprisingly, it was a church organist (John O’Brien) who eventually became Thomas’ first music teacher. Though he wanted to hop right on the organ bench, he was first required to learn piano.
He went on to study at Interlochen Arts Academy and then earned degrees from the University of Michigan and the Eastman School of Music, where he received the prestigious Performance Certificate and the first Harold Gleason Emerging Artist Award. Having performed as both an acclaimed soloist and accompanist in New York, Copenhagen, Cambridge, and London, Thomas has returned to Interlochen where he masterfully trains students, most of whom go on to attain impressive accolades and performance positions.
Asked if teaching organ might be different than teaching other instruments, Thomas says he believes all instruments require basically the same core values in both teachers and students. “The traits I work to model and champion for my students are passion and individuality,” he explains. “Passion drives us to work hard, to strive to learn as much as we can, and to do the dirty work even when we don’t feel like it. Passion motivates us to leave our comfort zones and to try again after we fail. Passion goes hand-in-hand with individuality, so I do not believe in doling out the ‘definitive’ interpretation of pieces. I want my students to invest themselves in the music and commit to their ideas.”
While the organ may not be as familiar to concert audiences (especially chamber music audiences) as it once was, organists know firsthand it is surprisingly versatile, adding color and richness no other instrument can provide. Thomas admits there are cringe-inducing misconceptions about the organ and what it’s like to play it. “Any guesses how many times I get asked to play ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Come on Baby, Light My Fire’?” he laughs. “People often identify the organ with loud, spooky chords full of clamorous harmonics — that, or the Hammond B-3. Truth is, the organ is extremely versatile. It can cover everything from super-soft pianissimos to towering fortes. I love surprising people with how great the organ can be as a collaborative instrument.”
Great musicians can often discover new insights even within familiar repertoire as they return to those pieces over the years. When Thomas joins Manitou Winds in concert, however, he’ll premiere a brand-new work for organ and wind quintet written by Manitou Winds founder, Jason McKinney. There will be more on this collaboration in a future article.
Interpreting a piece of music with absolutely no performance history demands a creative spirit and an adventurous musicality. “More and more, I want to feel like I’m presenting a piece as a fellow composer — someone who understands intimately how a piece is put together,” he says. “With any music, new or old, I want to find the inherent genius in it and find a way to move the audience to experience it as I do.”
This post was originally published in preparation for our May 2016 performance. We’re sharing it again in anticipation of the world premiere of Jason’s first two works for symphony orchestra! We hope you’ll join us Saturday, July 9, as Manitou Winds joins with the Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra to premiere Ransom Lake and Platte Plains!
I have always been hesitant to call myself a composer. Looking through scraps of manuscripts saved from my college years and my high school journals, it’s obvious I’ve always aspired to be one. Thankfully, it wasn’t some misguided pursuit of fame or fortune driving me to compose. It was a spark of inspiration that often seemed to come out of nowhere — a brisk fall breeze, a bumpy bus ride home from school, being afraid of the dark — all of these stories and sensations transcribed themselves in my head as tunes needing to be written down.
As a kid, I composed tiny pieces on my tiny Casio keyboard; I never wrote them down, I only kept them in my mental repertory. In early high school, I created my own staff paper — one line at a time — using a ruler, a pencil, and some typing paper. It would be an embarrassingly long time before I discovered or had opportunity to buy manuscript books (where the staves are already printed for you!). Between my slow, uneducated process and my unending obsession with perfectly parallel lines, it’s a wonder I ever committed anything to paper at all!
All of this scribbling eventually led to an event that forever changed my life. On October 23rd, 1996, one of my compositions was performed by a local university’s wind symphony. My high school band director, who loaned me his old orchestration textbooks, urged me to enter a national composition contest and arranged for my piece to be recorded.
To properly set the scene, I should mention I’d set aside my saxophone a few months earlier to start playing oboe (poorly). Nonetheless, I had great affection for the oboe and featured it rather prominently in my composition. Just days before the recording session, the conductor called my band director to inform us the university’s oboist would not be able to perform for the recording. He was wondering if I would perform with the group. Suddenly, writing that big oboe solo in the opening few measures of the piece seemed less than inspired. Did I want to perform oboe on the recording? I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to play oboe ever again! But, it was my oboe or no oboe, so I agreed.
The big day came and I was onstage in the massive recital hall with all of these college people. It was my music sitting on their stands (all the lines were perfectly parallel). I had my cheap oboe reed and my school’s janky student-model oboe in my lap. I was trying to keep my cool while the musicians were warming up. I could hear random bits and pieces of my composition flying all over the place.
The pianist came over to me and very politely mentioned that — for my next piece — I should be sure all the beats line up in both staves for the piano part. Wide-eyed, I nodded in agreement. In time, I would also learn that dots always go to the right of the note-head and flags always fly to the right regardless of which direction the stem is pointing (or which way the wind is blowing).
Finally the moment came, and the conductor gave that first downbeat…
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the feeling. It was as though the room was spinning while sound was coming from all around me — not just any sound, but a “living sound”. It was more than sound, it was colorful and vibrant — almost tangible, as if every particle in the air was vibrating, coming to life, glowing. The sound was more alive than anything I’d been able to imagine while making all those scribblings on my homemade staff paper.
When the time came, I played the oboe solo to the best of my ability… my warbly, reedy, sharp, unrefined ability. As much as I should have been afraid, the energy inside that swirling sound buoyed my sunken confidence, overshadowing my worries about how unqualified and unworthy I was. Music really is a miraculous thing.
I did not win the competition, of course. I didn’t even land an honorable mention. It was a national competition. I was from a very small public high school (fewer than 300 students). I’d never had an opportunity to write a large-scale piece before; my entire high school band was never more than about 25 students. I’d never had a music theory class or used music software. I had so much to learn! Rather than being disappointed, however, I was hooked: the spark from that first downbeat forever branded me a composer.
I listened to that recording every day for a long time. I kept wanting the feeling of the first downbeat to come rushing over me again, to feel that sound coming to life and coursing through me. I quickly learned it is a very elusive feeling not even the best recording can capture. Now when I listen to that cassette recording, more than 20 years later, that piece, that day, that oboist, all seem so distant, unreal. I also understand the biting, cringing feeling of regret and remorse driving some composers to destroy their early compositions!
Fortunately, among the musicians of Manitou Winds, I have found an opportunity any composer would envy: living, breathing musicians who willingly play any scribblings I place in front of them. I have the honor of learning from their experience while enjoying that elusive “living sound” far more often than I would have ever imagined.
And now I’m delighted to share my work with the entire Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Tom Riccobono. I’m excited to see how much more I can learn. I can’t wait to see where the music will take us, how far the collective energy of that many musicians can go (it’s gonna be rocket fuel!!)… and it all starts at the first rehearsal and that downbeat!
Ah, yes again, the mellow sun is cooler.
Days are short and nights are longer
by the fire of family love.
The evening speaks of hearts together now;
the harvest done, and gone to rest
for winter’s coming home.
– G. Norbett
I’m sure I’m not the only one who spent most of 2021 in prolonged anticipation. We were free from strict lockdowns, but so many beloved things were still verboten. As time passed and we all came to recognize the uneasy ache in our hearts was grief rather than uncertainty, perhaps we began to recognize what we were grieving most: togetherness.
Winter may be the singular natural force that causes us to instinctively gather. As temperatures drop and night falls earlier with each passing day, the world outside becomes less hospitable, and we’re drawn to one another for warmth and comfort. The holiday season provides us with even more reasons to come together – maybe showing we care with elaborate gifts and celebrations. But the only gifts we really need this year are love and kindness.
I don’t have to tell you we’re not out of the woods, yet. Case numbers rise, surges build, headlines rage on, divisions grow… but let’s keep on healing where we can. Let’s get together!
Whether you join us in person, online via livestream, or in your easy chair next to the radio, we hope you’ll let us give this gift to you: the gift of togetherness, presented straight from our heart to yours.
From all of us at Manitou Winds,
UPDATE: Here are a few snaps from our December 4th performance at Grace Episcopal Church, Traverse City. It was a wonderful evening spent with a wonderful audience! Many thanks to those who came out in person and those who watched us via livestream. Still to come, listen for us on Interlochen Public Radio at 1pm (EST) on Christmas Eve when IPR will broadcast the entire concert!
We have to make Christmas happen. I remember when that staggering thought occurred to me. I was 25, and it was my first Christmas in Chicago. Cold wind and nothing but darkness outside my window save for the unfeeling light of streetlamps. Sidewalks full of people, but all of us strangers.
I’d been in the city only for a few months. My life was in such disarray. I came home exhausted most days — mentally, physically, and spiritually. I was homesick, broke, and yet I was in the midst of my annual wrestling match with an old artificial Christmas tree, dredging it up from its cardboard hiding place once again.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” I asked. “Why are you putting up a tree? Pulling out all this gaudy stuff?” I kept decorating, but I kept puzzling, too.
I thought back to my childhood Christmases. Back then, Christmas always seemed to happen on its own, as inevitable as sunrise. But, that night, as a grown man hanging ornaments on my sad little tree, it finally occurred to me that my parents had made Christmas happen for me. All those years, I’d thought the “gifts” were in boxes under the tree, but the real gifts were the experiences and memories made possible through my parents’ care and sacrifice.
It really wasn’t about money. They watched the TV specials with us even though they already knew them by heart. They acted surprised each time the tree lit up with all the colored lights. They put aside their weariness and sang along. They made special meals even though it took a lot of effort and time. They helped me believe in joy by leading me through it.
My parents weren’t setting me up for some big let-down. Everyone knows life isn’t always going to be easy. But, if we can dig down deep and find even the smallest bit of ourselves to share, sometimes the joy we’re missing actually turns up, even if for just a few moments. That’s what my parents were doing: finding their own joy by sharing it with their children.
So, I decorated that year even though it probably would have seemed silly to anyone else. And you know what? That Christmas was not great at all. Things got a little worse, in fact. But, I made it through that dreadful season thanks to a very small handful of friends. And seeing the tree lit up reminded me of my family, connected me to happier times. When I let myself bob along to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, I accidentally felt a little happy in spite of myself. When the little boy turned around and hugged The Snowman before going inside, I cried my eyes out. And when “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” came on, I finally understood lyrics I’d only half-listened to before.
I guess there are some lessons we have to learn over and over. Maybe this is one of them: After all the gifts have been unwrapped, the tree put away, the calendar turned over — years after the presents have all been forgotten — it’s only the love and kindness we share that remains. It really is true: we have to make Christmas happen.
I created today’s recipe inspired by the idea of a homemade Christmas and the notion of sharing joy with family, friends, and beyond. When it comes to homemade gifts, in my opinion, bread is about as heart-felt as it gets. So long as you’re firing up the oven, remember it’s just as easy to make two loaves of bread as it is to make one. Consider passing along a little homemade Christmas to someone who may need it this year.
Father Christmas Bread
Yields 1 loaf, 12-14 slices
1 1/2 cups chopped mixed dried fruit (apricots, candied orange peel, currants, cherries, raisins, etc.)
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup whole milk
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 packet)
2 tablespoons ground anise
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
zest of two lemons
1/3 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
3 1/2 cups (16.25 oz) all-purpose flour, divided
1/4 cup granulated sugar
5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
a pinch of sea salt
milk for brushing
TO MAKE THE DOUGH: Combine the mixed dried fruits and the boiling water in a large measuring cup or medium bowl; soak 20 minutes. Strain the fruits, reserving soaking water to equal 1/2 cup (you may need to add additional water).
Combine the 1/2 cup of reserved soaking water with 1/2 cup milk; microwave until just warmed (about 110 degrees). Pour warm milk mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add next 9 ingredients (yeast through eggs); mix at low speed to blend. Add the salt and 2 cups of the flour; mix at medium speed until thoroughly blended. Switch to the dough hook attachment. Add the soaked fruits and all but 1/2 cup of the remaining flour; knead at medium speed 8-10 minutes, adding flour sparingly as necessary to keep dough from sticking to sides of the bowl.
Turn dough out onto a floured work surface. If still a bit sticky/tacky, knead in up to an additional 1/2 cup of flour until dough is smooth and elastic. Transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl; cover and let rise until doubled in size. (If you’d rather bake bread the next day: you can skip the first rise by placing the dough in a lightly oiled plastic zipper bag, removing the air, sealing it, and refrigerating it for up to 18 hours. The next day, you’ll need to allow the dough to come to room temperature before proceeding before rolling, filling, and shaping.)
FILLING & SHAPING: Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. You may also line the loaf pan with parchment for greater ease in removing the bread once baked (especially nice if some of the filling seeps out of the bread during baking!).
On a lightly-floured work surface, press the dough into an 8 x 6-inch rectangle. With a short side of the dough facing you, roll with a rolling pin into an 18 x 8-inch rectangle (lifting the dough, occasionally, to lightly spread flour underneath if necessary). Brush the dough liberally with milk. Sprinkle the sugar mixture evenly, leaving a half-inch border on the short side farthest from you. Starting at the side closest to you, roll up the dough, pinching gently as you go to make sure it is tightly sealed. To keep the dough from stretching beyond the dimensions of the pan, push the ends inward occasionally as you are rolling it up. Once it has been rolled to the opposite edge, pinch the lengthwise seam tightly to secure it. With that seam facing down, firmly pinch the dough at both ends while tucking under to seal the sides.
Place the loaf seam-side down into the prepared pan; press lightly to flatten and even as needed. Cover top of pan loosely with plastic wrap; set aside to rise. Allow loaf to rise until it crests a full inch above the top of the loaf pan (about 90 minutes or longer if dough has been refrigerated). Meanwhile, heat oven to 350-degrees.
Bake the risen loaf at 350-degrees for 35-50 minutes, until golden brown. The baking time can vary depending on tons of factors. You’ll know it’s done for sure when an instant-read thermometer inserted at an angle from one of the ends reads 190 degrees. If the top of the loaf starts to brown more than you’d like, shield it with a sheet of foil lightly crimped to the pan. Cool in pan for 5 minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.
The bread can be wrapped (whole or sliced) and frozen for several months. An advantage to freezing it sliced is the ability to sneak into the freezer and steal slices whenever you like without having to use up the whole loaf in a hurry. Those stolen slices make excellent toast whether simply buttered or spread with marmalade or jam. Slices also make legendary PB&J sandwiches chock full of holiday sparkle. The absolute best way to enjoy this bread, in my opinion, is to dip it in your favorite french toast batter, fry it up, and serve with powdered sugar, fresh cranberry sauce, and a hefty dollop of real whipped cream… a Christmas Morning brunch you won’t soon forget.
This post is dedicated in memory of my dear friend Nicole Gonzalez (1978-2019).
She was a best friend and also my kitchen buddy — patiently teaching me, challenging me, and reliably cracking me up. Seeing her smile whenever she tasted one of my recipes was better than any blue ribbon. While I have more memories of our time together than photos, for as long as I live, whenever I cook, it’ll always feel like visiting with my friend. I’m so grateful to have known her.