The holiday season is upon us once more, and with it come all the hectic, stressful but still wonderful times associated with Christmas. One thing that seems to help me, at least, is the delightful, moving music of this season, and there’s a concert coming up at 2 p.m. Dec. 20 at the South Parish Congregationalist Church, 9 Church St. “A Christmas Concert: Downeast Brass with Jay Zoller, organist” has become a popular holiday treat. Last year I chatted with Dwight Tibbetts, of the Downeast Brass; this year, I decided to interview Zoller, the organist for the church as well as the concert, to get his perspective on this presentation.

Q: How many years have you been a part of this Christmas concert event?

Zoller: Do you mean with the Downeast Brass? This must be about our sixth year. I’ve been at South Parish for 13 years now, and we started sort of in the middle of that, so I think it’s about six.

Q: When it comes to picking out the music for this concert, is it difficult because there’s so much material from which to choose?

Zoller: Well, for this concert with the brass players, the first trumpet, Dwight Tibbetts, basically picks out the music that the brass is going to play, because they always open the concert. He then picks out the music that the brass and organ are going to do. He usually asks me for my comments, but basically we play whatever he’s picked out. The music that I have to pick out are the organ solos that are done in between, which not only gives the brass a chance to rest their chops, as they like to put it, but it keeps me busy the whole night. I don’t get to sit back and rest my fingers for a number or two. So in terms of preparation and planning the actual program, that part of it is not bad for me. The difficulty comes sometimes in getting the music ready. Occasionally, they’ll throw a piece at me that’s difficult to play and it takes quite a bit of work to learn it. That’s probably the worst obstacle to overcome.

Q: When you say “learn it,” do you memorize it or do you have the music in front of you at the organ?

Zoller: No, I have my own copies — usually by the time I get it it’s on Xerox paper, and sometimes I have to enlarge it as my eyes get older. And then there is another problem. Arrangers for brass music, when they write for the keyboard, they tend to take the brass music and put it all on two staffs and let the organist try to play it. Often there are either impossible reaches that you can’t reach with your hands, so I use a white-out pencil and my pen and try to make sure I’ve got the required notes; but sometimes I have to rearrange their placements. If the brass parts overlap, it’s difficult to play that on a keyboard, because your fingers are tending to run into each other, so I try to be as faithful as I can to what’s written, but I also try to make it playable for myself. We do a certain amount of repetition over these last few years, so I always keep the music from year to year. That way it’s already arranged, most of it. Then I just have to do the new pieces.

Q: This concert takes place in the church where you are the organist, correct?

Zoller: Yeah, and in all honesty, I think we got started playing them there because the brass loves playing in that big sanctuary. And it’s a big enough interior with the organ that it’ll handle five brass players, so we’re fortunate to have a very nice room to perform it, and they like it well enough that the first couple of years that we did this, they actually requested each year that they’d like to play there. That’s sort of how we got started.

Q: Well, it sounds like the South Parish Church is large enough to have some beautiful acoustics.

Zoller: Oh, the acoustics are really wonderful. We do have carpeting on the floor, which deadens it some, but the room is big enough that it’s not too bad.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to pass on to the folks reading this article?

Zoller: I think one of the major things that I enjoy is having so many people out there actually enjoying our concerts. And the crowd has gotten bigger every year, I think almost without exception, from the first couple of years, when there was 50 or 60 people, to now, when there’s, I think, well over 300. People love the Christmas music and they love the brass, but it’s understandable — it’s the Christmas music that everybody knows and loves, and I throw in some newer pieces so they get a little sprinkling of different kinds of things. One thing I try to do is put little notes into the program about the music so they can read about some of the numbers, words of explanation about the pieces I’m going to play, just about the solo music that I’m performing. I really can’t write too much about the brass music, but a little bit of educational value is something I like to give to people, too.

Lucky Clark has spent more than 45 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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