Over the last 21 years, the “Pipes of Christmas” concerts — devoted to traditional, seasonal Celtic music and readings — have assembled a regular cast of musicians. This large group — including masters of harp and flute and tin whistle and organ and so on, in addition to masters of the bagpipes, of course — comes together only once a year, in December.
Among them is guitarist, writer and arranger Steve Gibb, a native of Inverness, Scotland, who now lives in Springfield. He’ll perform at and serve as music director for this year’s shows, which will take place in New York, Dec. 14 at 2 p.m., and Summit, Dec. 15 at 2 and 7 p.m. (Tickets remain only for the 7 p.m. Summit show; visit pipesofchristmas.com.)
Gibb — a veteran session musician who has played in the orchestras of Broadway shows ranging from “Jersey Boys” to “Dear Evan Hansen” — says he has performed in “Pipes of Christmas” for eight or nine years, after having been suggested to producer Robert Currie by violin player Paul Woodiel.
“Paul is a good friend of mine and a fantastic violinist,” Gibb says. “He and I sort of met on the train going into our respective Broadway shows. I was in ‘Jersey Boys’ and I can’t remember what Paul was in, at the time.
“He obviously heard my accent and thought I could do this Celtic, Christmas-y thing. And in my head, I’m going, ‘Oh, dear.’ Because growing up in Scotland, around about Christmas and Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), we have these pretty awful sort of Highland-y Scottish music shows … I shouldn’t speak so badly of them, because they’re kind of fun, and I’ve done an awful lot of them, but they’re what (comedian) Billy Connolly would call shortbread-tin music. You’ve got the piper, and the big headdress, and the girl dancing … it’s not the kind of stuff that I’m into.
“But he mentioned it, and I thought, ‘Well, it sounds a bit cheesy, but I trust Paul, so I’ll come along and try the first concert.’ And I enjoyed it. I thought, ‘This is actually pretty cool.’ So over the years, I’ve become more involved with the arrangements, so I’ve been able to inject my own writing style into the music.”
That has meant, for him, adding some elements of contemporary Celtic music . “You still get the traditional stuff, but you get slightly more contemporary stuff. So there’s something in there for everybody, I think.”
He says Currie “is very serious about it, and I like what he does with it. His heart is there. It’s real. And he puts such a lot of time and effort into it. If I thought it was cheesy, I wouldn’t be sticking around.”
For this year’s show, he said, “I’m arranging some music and sort of half-composing a piece of music. Usually what Bob (Currie) will do is see if he can get somebody to write something new for the concert. We had something written by (Scottish musician and composer) Ailie Robertson. It’s basically a little harp piece but he sent it to me so I could turn it into a larger piece of music. Bob had this idea that he wanted it to be based on a Botticelli painting (‘The Mystical Nativity’). So I got to do that. It’s a nice little harp piece, so now it’s become, basically, harp and small band, which will be the fiddle and the cello and the guitar, piano, harp and pipes.
“What Bob will generally do, when we get pieces like this … we’ve done it before with a number of pieces … he seems to tell the composers, ‘Write something, and then I’ve got a guy here who will arrange it for the band,’ and once I look at the music, I’ll see what I need to do to add to it, to make it work with the group. Knowing the players I have … and we’re lucky because we do have some of the finest players around … I know who I’m writing for, and what they can do to expand the piece of music.”
Gibb played in the “Jersey Boys” orchestra for almost its entire Broadway run (2005-17), and still plays for the jukebox musical when it’s presented in other locations. He has also, in recent years, subbed in Broadway shows such as “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “School of Rock,” and will soon start subbing in “Moulin Rouge!”
It’s hard to imagine playing the same music, night after night, for more than a decade, as Gibb did in “Jersey Boys.”
“I think it takes a certain type of person to be able to do that,” he says. “It is challenging, because you obviously want to play your best every night. You don’t want to phone it in. Like any job where you’re playing a long time, you have to make it fresh and interesting for yourself. But you can take shows off. That’s why we have subs: We call in subs if we don’t feel we can do all eight shows (a week). Very few musicians, I think, would do all eight shows a week.”
Still, he says, “we only have to go in and play a few hours a day. It’s not a difficult job. So you try to do your best, and you use the rest of your day, hopefully, more creatively, to do other things as well.”
“Pipes of Christmas” shows will be presented at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York at 2 p.m. Dec. 14, and the Central Presbyterian Church in Summit at 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 15. Visit pipesofchristmas.com.
For more on Gibb, visit bbigmusic.com.
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