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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ensemble on the edge

If you want to hear Clarion’s holiday brass arrangements, you can buy tickets to the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony or the Baton Rouge Symphony.

But wouldn’t it be much simpler to go to one of the Clarion Holiday Concerts in Spokane and Spokane Valley this weekend?

The Clarion Brass Choir is the 12-piece homegrown brass ensemble headed by Spokane trumpeter-arranger-composer William Berry. Arrangements from Clarion’s two previous Christmas CDs, “Nutcracker Sweet Dreams” and “Angels,” have been snapped up and performed by the Canadian Brass and the above-listed national musical institutions.

However, this weekend’s concerts will have arrangements that have not been heard in New York and L.A. – not yet. Clarion will be performing six new pieces from its new CD, “A Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Clarion has a reputation for having fun with Christmas music, and this new music takes that concept to extremes.

“Extreme joy” is what Berry calls it.

“This is for people who like their traditions but enjoy new ways of looking at them,” he says. “We really go to town on them and play them really fast – all downhill, no brakes.”

Some of these new pieces are based on familiar carols, such as “Partridge in a Pear Tree” and “Deck the Hall.”

“That’s ‘Deck the Hall,’ singular,” says Berry. “That’s the way it used to be, when it went all the way back to the times when houses had a great hall. I always wondered why it was ‘Deck the Halls,’ as if people were decking their hallways.”

Other new pieces will be less familiar, such as an Irish tune titled “On That Night in Bethlehem,” as well as “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “The Holy Baby” and “Canzone d’i Zampognari.”

Not every number is loaded with “extreme joy.”

“We realized that it was all too joyful, so I wrote a few slower things,” said Berry. “We’ll also have a few hits from the past, including the Hanukkah ‘Festival of Lights’ and ‘Fum, Fum, Fum.’ “

The Clarion Brass Choir started about 13 years ago when, as Berry tells it, “we were all living under the bridge at the time.”

Actually, Berry decided to get all of the top brass players in the region together to create a sound bigger than the more common brass quintet. Clarion not only became a popular live draw, but it turned out to be a vehicle for Berry’s composing and arranging talents. He soon discovered there was a market for his brass arrangements.

“The demand is not huge; it’s pretty specialized stuff,” says Berry. “The writing is so hard that it’s out of the realm of the high schools and colleges.

“It’s only the professional groups that can handle it. So instead of selling to 10,000 schools, it sells to several dozen professional organizations.”

This week’s Christmas concerts are at two new venues for Clarion, both churches.

First Presbyterian Church in Spokane is a well-known site for classical concerts, having hosted many Northwest Bach Festival concerts. Opportunity Presbyterian Church in Spokane Valley has a new sanctuary, built with the intent of doubling as a concert venue, says Berry.

Don’t expect Berry to be up front with the baton. That will be conductor Robert Spittal.

Berry will be playing a trumpet.

It’s unusual for a musical director not to conduct but, according to Berry, there’s a good reason for it.

“No one wanted to look at me waving my hands around,” he says.