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Dark Christmas: ‘A Winter’s Solstice’ at Montalvo Arts Center Looks Back at Windham Hill Series

In Music
MOOD MUSIC: Will Ackerman, who founded the Windham Hill record label, will commemorate the ‘A Winter’s Solstice’ series at Montalvo Arts Center.

MOOD MUSIC: Will Ackerman, who founded the Windham Hill record label, will commemorate the ‘A Winter’s Solstice’ series at Montalvo Arts Center.

Those luddites among us who still subject themselves to the grueling gauntlet of Christmas shopping in brick and mortar stores are well aware that from Black Friday through Dec. 24, the local mall is some kind of fresh hell.

For a lifelong music fan, a longtime musician and a professional cultural critic, it’s more than the horrifically log-jammed parking garages, the heaving mass of humanity clogging the claustrophobic corridor or the unreasonably long lines. The worst part of the entire experience is the sounds that rain down from the overhead speakers.

There are exceptions, of course. I always count myself lucky to be sprinkled with the light plunking of Vince Guaraldi’s iconic soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas; and novelty tracks, like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” can be good for a laugh. But the bulk of popular Christmas music is incredibly grating—polished to a saccharine sheen and jingling with incessant sleigh bells. No disrespect to Sir Paul, but “Wonderful Christmastime” is way too upbeat.

Great pop tunes have the power to uplift while simultaneously conjuring more somber memories. And the best Christmas songs are no different.

Consider “The Little Drummer Boy.” There are certainly some obnoxious arrangements of this song, but the song itself often inspires more powerful performances, because it is inherently a tale of humbling oneself in the face of something greater. “I am a poor boy, too,” the song’s narrator intones. “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give a king.” Whether you believe in virgin births or child messiahs, the sentiment is still moving.

And and then there’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a truly blue holiday tune if there ever was one. Written in 1941—at a time when fascism was on the rise in Europe and the world seemed to be on the brink of collapse—the original lyric sheet began, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” Frank Sinatra reworked the words for his famous rendition, but an understanding of where the tune comes from allows the listener to hear the song as a brave smile bracing against pain and hardship.

The holidays are a time for celebrating friends and family, sure. But they are also a time for remembering those who are no longer with us. The short, dully lit days, give way to long, dark nights. It’s no wonder we’ve reserved this time of year for three consecutive days of feasting and revelry. It’s all that we can really do to keep our spirits bright.

One of my favorite collections of Christmas tunes can be found on Windham Hill’s A Winter’s Solstice series. Between 1985 and 2005, the Palo Alto-spawned new age record label released more than 20 installments of moody instrumental music under the Winder’s Solstice banner. Some of the songs are recognizable Christmas standards, while others are chilly, solo piano arrangements or sparse acoustic guitar meditations. All of it is unmistakably wintry—the perfect sonic pairing for a hearty cocktail and warm hearth.

I have many fond, dreamy memories of listening to these compositions, bundled up on the couch in my childhood home. I also remember the covers of the albums—all of them snowy snapshots of rural landscapes. One stands out in particular: a dark house rises at the end of a long icy drive; the brittle, leafless branches of the trees and brush reach out to a low-slung winter sun; all is gray and black and white.

But inside the cardboard sleeve, the compositions pressed onto the vinyl disc weren’t as dreary as the record’s cover might have one believe. These songs are as much stark contemplations of wintertime, as they are promises that spring will come again. The series is called A Winter’s Solstice, after all. That old maxim—“It’s always darkest before the dawn”—is never more true than it is on Dec. 21.

Windham Hill founder and Grammy-winning guitarist Will Ackerman joins with fiddler and pianist Barbara Higbie; guitarists Alex de Grassi and Todd Boston; and cellist Ellen Sanders, at Montalvo Arts Center this Sunday to play selections from the Winter’s Solstice series.

Windham Hill: Winter Solstice 30th Anniversary Concert
Dec 17, 3pm & 7pm, Sold Out
Carriage House Theatre, Montalvo Arts Center
Waiting List: montalvoarts.org

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