In 1999, when Bob Currie produced his first Pipes of Christmas concert, he didn’t know what to expect.
“By the day of the concert, I had sold 200 seats to a 600-capacity church,” says Currie, who lives in Summit. “I was seriously in the red, and since this was my first time doing something of this nature, I was a bit nervous! The 200 showed up the day of the performance; an additional 500 showed up as walk-ins.
“It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. We ran out of pews, so we put people in the choir loft. Then the choir loft got full, and we started pulling folding chairs out of the choir room. And as if it were scripted in a bad Hallmark movie, by the time the last folding chair came out of the choir room, the last patron showed up.”
From that experience, he says, “I got a very clear signal that there was a pent-up need for what we were offering.”
The concert has turned into an annual tradition with a devoted following — people who are happy hearing many of the same classics every year, but know there will be some new twists each time, too. This year’s 18th annual Pipes of Christmas shows take place at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, Dec. 17 at 2 and 7 p.m., and Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, Dec. 18 at 3 p.m. (The Summit show is sold out.) For information, visit pipesofchristmas.com.
There well be two new compositions this year: Steve Gibb’s “John Muir Suite,” composed in honor of Scottish born naturalist; and a piece for Scottish harp written by the New Orleans-based composer Eyler Coates.
Gibb also has created a new arrangement for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that Currie describes as a “Highland treatment,” adding that it was planned for the show before Cohen died last month at the age of 82.
Currie, whose day job is in the public relations field, says the concerts initially grew out of an annual Blessing of the Tartans worship service “which incorporated a lot of the same things, in terms of readings and pipe and brass and organ.”
Piper Kevin Blandford had released an album titled The Pipes of Christmas “and we started collaborating on this Blessing of the Tartans service, because he had a very good gift for tuning pipes to play with organ and brass, and a really great sound,” says Currie. “His original CD, though, only included pipe, organ and brass, and I thought it would be interesting to create a concert experience, with those tunes as the backbone, but then to spread out the musical palette, if you will, to include other traditional instruments like harp and fiddle and cello, and the Irish pipes, which are very expressive and very different from Scottish pipes.”
Also, he says, he was disappointed that traditional and sacred Christmas music was no longer being performed in New Jersey public schools.
“Everything had become very, very secular,” he says. “Some of the world’s finest composers are responsible for some of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time. It was sort of like, how do you not honor that musical tradition in a Christmas concert?
“Well, I guess you call them holiday concerts, and you run all of that out on a rail — which I was disturbed by. I didn’t think that fighting the public school system was really the way to do it, so I said, ‘I wonder what would happen if I offered an alternative, where people could come and hear this music.’ ”
Later, the series grew to include shows in New York in addition to New Jersey, with commissioned world-premiere pieces as well as traditional music.
So, getting back to that first concert, in 1999, why does Currie think so few people bought advance tickets?
“Because they just assumed it was a big room, and they didn’t need to,” he says. “Bagpipes at a church concert … you really don’t think about it being an SRO experience. When you hear bagpipes in a church … not to say anything against them, but you probably think about a bad fire department band and a lot of beer. Meanwhile, I’m using all Lincoln Center and Juilliard-trained musicians. The best of the best.
“Which is sometimes, actually, a hurdle, because people still think — people who don’t know the show — that it’s basically a lot of bagpipes in a church. And it’s anything but.”