Common Bonds at the Holidays

Classic Arts Features   Common Bonds at the Holidays
Holiday traditions in the Philadelphia Orchestra family.

Music and the winter holidays are gloriously tied up together in an elaborate gift bow of strong tradition. We've been raised with the sounds of the season, both merry and sacred, and holiday music is very present in our day-to-day life for two months each year. Quite naturally, many members of The Philadelphia Orchestra trace their musical roots or strongest memories to performances of holiday music, and some now find the season a means to establish or continue family musical traditions.

David Fay, a double bass player with the Orchestra since 1984, joins his wife and two children in performing at retirement centers and nursing homes, and at their church in Cherry Hill during the weeks before Christmas each year. Pamela, David's wife, is an accomplished violist who often subs with the Orchestra. Their daughter, Hillary, plays violin; and son, Alex, plays cello. David writes the arrangements for the Fay Family Quartet, and those can be tricky, he notes.

"All of us play at different levels, and even those levels change from year to year," David explains. Hillary, 16, also plays with the Wisteria String Quartet and the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. At 13, Alex keeps his options open for now. One of the crowd-pleasers the family quartet performs is David's arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon, which draws smiles when the music breaks from the traditional round into "Jolly Old St. Nick."

David admits that part of the reason for the family performances is to motivate the kids to practice, and he confides that there are occasional bumps in the performance road. "The hardest part is logistics," he says, sharing a tale of a half-hour drive to play a holiday concert last year, finding when they arrived that Hillary's violin was not with the other instruments, sheet music, and music stands in the car. A disgruntled David/Dad drove home for the forgotten instrument, during the time he should have been doing his very first "read-through" of a piece he was to play with his wife. That stressful journey turned into a humorous tale a few days later, when the family arrived at another concert and found that this time, David had forgotten his own bow. "We really play very well, as long as we get to our concert site with everything we need," he says with a bit of a weary dad's smile.

Elizabeth Hainen is justifiably nostalgic about the role the holidays held for her as a young girl. The Philadelphia Orchestra's principal harp, Elizabeth looks like everyone's image of a golden-haired angel, and she coaxes a heavenly sound from her gilded instrument. The angelic stereotype may annoy Hainen a bit, but she's proud of her musical roots as the daughter of a mother who was a church organist, and of a father who was a violinist in the Toledo Symphony.

Christmas Eve was a very special time for Hainen's family, Elizabeth says, "and one of the few times I didn't complain about having to play yet another family concert." Elizabeth and her younger sister, who played both piano and viola, performed with their parents at both an early service and a midnight service at their Toledo church, which she describes as "old and quaint, with a wonderful old pipe organ.

"It was our family tradition," she continues. "And at the end of the midnight service everyone held lighted candles. I played 'Silent Night,' first as a solo, and then with everyone singing."

Married to a percussionist who often performs with the Orchestra as a substitute, Hainen joined the Orchestra in 1994. She spent many busy holiday seasons playing her harp in a wide range of engagements, but has cut back recently. "I miss it now," she says, of the hectic schedule she once followed each December, "particularly playing The Nutcracker" (Tchaikovsky's wonderful ballet which is standard holiday musical fare). "I really miss playing that," she admits, as if just now realizing her loss. "It's such great music."

While The Nutcracker may be nearly synonymous with the holiday season, some members of The Philadelphia Orchestra spend their "busman's holidays" playing less traditional music. Orchestra violinists Jason De Pue and his younger brother, Zachary, are more apt to play "grassical" than classical, or perhaps they might play "classical grass" in a concert during a holiday visit to their family.

Jason and Zach are the youngest of four accomplished violinists in their Ohio-raised family. One older brother, Alexander, is an award winning country fiddler, and the other recently earned a doctorate degree in violin performance. The youngest siblings, Jason and Zach, studied at the Curtis Institute of Music before joining the Orchestra, Jason in 2000 and Zach in 2002. Each Christmas all four brothers return to Ohio, where their father, Wallace De Pue, is retired from teaching music theory at Bowling Green University. Jason says the brothers look forward to performing together whenever they go home for the holidays, and that a few years ago, Bowling Green's mayor declared their concert date as "De Pue Family Musicians' Day."

Some of their music defies traditional style assumptions, with bluegrass and country sounds mixed together in a blend that benefits from the brothers' classical technique and a healthy dash of family humor. Both Jason and Zach have told of going onstage with a broken violin in their early childhood performances with the De Pue Family. Each recalls an older brother sitting on his miniature-sized violin before their respective debuts.

Let's get this straight: Both brothers suffered severe wooden injury, separately? Maybe it's a bit of a fisherman's story, with strings substituting for scales? Or perhaps sitting on each other's violins is itself a family holiday tradition? The tale is a bit vague, but the delight in their shared musical heritage seems real. And the music from these brothers is well worth the family squabble.

Understanding and communicating both sides of disagreements far bigger than the De Pues's has become the mission of Udi Bar-David, a cellist with the Orchestra since 1987, who is dedicated to finding musical common ground between cultures. A native Israeli, Bar-David is a founding member, president, and artistic director of Intercultural Journeys, a not-for-profit arts organization seeking to break barriers and to shift discourse about the Middle East from the political and military arenas to the artistic celebration of common heritage. Bar-David annually performs a "meditation" on Yom Kippur at a congregation in South Jersey, inviting other musicians from other cultures to explore common bonds and similarities between his and others' roots.

Programs by Intercultural Journeys have put Hasidic songs and American Spirituals together, tracing concepts of slavery and freedom, and have examined similar musical modes behind Arab and Jewish melodies. Performers have focused on the basic spirituality of chants by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But how does Bar-David justify the tremendous focus on holiday music, with both secular and sacred works so firmly rooted in Christian culture? Doesn't this music just widen the gap between cultures? "When every person connects deeply with his or her heritage, it's the perfect opportunity for us all to explore our common situations through others," Bar-David asserts.

"Personally, I'm a great believer that all cultures have strong commonalities under the surface," he said. "And this season's music gives us all a chance to explore our common spiritual elements."

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