How Johnny Carson’s Former Band Leader Wound Up With the Philharmonic

Classic Arts Features   How Johnny Carson’s Former Band Leader Wound Up With the Philharmonic
Doc Severinsen joins the New York Philharmonic for their annual Holiday Brass concert of carols and winter-themed tunes.
The New York Philharmonic‘s Holiday Brass
The New York Philharmonic‘s Holiday Brass Chris Lee

Cue the brass (and percussion)! Fanfare, flourish, and a touch of dazzle are on tap for this year’s Holiday Brass on December 17, with a virtuosic display by the musicians of the New York Philharmonic Brass and Percussion.

Returning to preside over the festivities as conductor, host, and performer is Philip Smith, the legendary former Philharmonic principal trumpet. “We’re thrilled to be doing this Holiday Brass program, and I’m blessed to be using the whole brass and percussion sections,” he says.

Smith’s enthusiasm for this musical romp runs deep. In fact, decades ago he was the one who came up with the idea, with teamwork from principal trombone Joseph Alessi. Feeling that the holiday spirit was absent from the hall, Smith recalls, “I would get the brass players before or after a December concert and we’d go stand on the balcony and play Christmas carols. One year I found some swingy arrangements and asked if we could play in the lobby. We had quite a crowd!”

Alessi agreed: “Everybody wants to hear brass at the holidays, and the Philharmonic brass section is always terrific. Hearing brass playing four-part harmony always puts you in a festive mood.” Their efforts paid off when, in 1995, the annual Holiday Brass concert was born.

This year’s revels again feature a variety of brass ensemble works, from the Renaissance to contemporary fanfares to seasonal favorites. “The second half,” explains Smith, “is when we get into the holiday program—secular, sacred, Christmas, Chanukah. We keep it fun!”

Doc Severinsen
Doc Severinsen Sean Turi

Joining the musicians this year is Doc Severinsen, the former band leader of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, who is celebrating his 90th birthday year. “What an honor for us to have Doc Severinsen,” says Smith. “We couldn’t ask for a more special guest!”

The storied trumpeter came on board after a call from Alessi, whose trumpet-playing father had performed with Severinsen in studio recording sessions, and with whom he, too, had worked. “He’s an American icon in music,” says the trombonist. “He’s probably one of the greatest brass players ever to live. He’s part of our heritage and culture. When he turned 90 this year, I thought, let’s celebrate with him.”

Severinsen’s reaction to the invitation was, in his own words, “nothing short of exhilaration. I’m honored and blown away at the same time.”

Now approaching his second Holiday Brass performance is Christopher Martin, who succeeded Smith as Philharmonic principal trumpet in September 2016. “Last year’s concert was the most fun I’ve had in a brass concert,” he admits. “There was a sort of chemistry with the audience; they were excited to be there.”

This is Martin’s first performance with Severinsen, but he too feels a connection: “I was influenced at an early age by the beauty of his sound and the power of his playing.” Regarding Philip Smith, with whom he played a duet last year, Martin fondly remembers sitting beside him at a summer festival when he was 18. “I cherish those times with Phil. He was a kind of mentor to me as he was for a lot of young trumpet players. I don’t think I’d be where I am without his influence.”

As for this year’s Holiday Brass concert, Martin sums it up: “To make music with Doc, Phil, and these brass players—to have all these people on one stage—I can’t imagine a better experience.”

Lucy Kraus is a freelance writer and editor, and the former Senior Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.

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