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Capture some Christmas spirit with pianist Phil Aaberg and the Great Falls Symphony

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When Grammy-nominated pianist Phil Aaberg plays a Christmas show, he prepares for it it much in the way Christoph Waltz or JK Simmons might prepare for a big role.

Instead of just performing the music as it’s written, Aaberg says he tries stepping into the spirit of the songs to personify them.

The Chester native also said recently in an interview with Big Sky State Buzz, he loves amplifying the emotion of the songs to 11 in a way that’s somehow both unique and intimately familiar.

“I think for somebody to get authenticity in emotions, experiences and sincerity is a big deal at a concert, especially a Christmas concert,” Aaberg said. “I’m not going to try to do something I don’t feel and I think (these songs) are all their own little world … but the deal about recreating them is you have to become them … It’s like an actor entering into a role – the better you enter into that role, the better it’s going to be.”

Aaberg performs across the region this weekend, playing solo shows on Saturday at the St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Helena and next Thursday at the Choteau High School.

On Sunday, Aaberg plays a show with the Great Falls Symphony, the 100-voice symphonic choir and the Great Falls Young People’s Choir at the Mansfield Theater.

Saturday’s show starts at 7 p.m., Sunday’s show is set to begin at 3 p.m., while next Thursday’s show begins at 7 p.m.

One thing all of Aaberg’s Christmas concerts have in common, Gordon Johnson, conductor of the Great Falls Symphony, said, is that his versions of these songs are all legitimately sincere.

The Great Falls Symphony and Choir perform together recently.
The Great Falls Symphony and Choir perform together recently.

“I think (playing with that candor ) is what it’s all about quite honestly,” he said. “What we’re doing with sincerity, you’re probably not going to find anyplace else. You might find it in church, but not in commercial venues, so yeah , it’s something completely different that we do intentionally.”

Most of the songs Aaberg is performing appear on his album “High Plains Christmas,” which came out last year.

Aaberg said while folks might be familiar with the original tunes he’s played before, much like all of his recorded music, it tends to evolve quite a bit.

“When you record these pieces when they’re new, that’s just something you don’t try to capture again, but they definitely develop over the course of playing them a bunch of times,” he said. “They’ve changed some for sure, but that’s the way all of my music is in general. For instance a Chopin ballad I played while in high school will be a completely different piece of music based on my life experiences. The way we grow and the way we hear things, everything changes, really.”

Whether they change slightly or not, however, Aaberg said no matter where he goes he tries to take the audience along to explore feelings of peace and love, which he said he feels the season is meant to encapsulate.

Phil Aaberg
Phil Aaberg

For Sunday’s show, Johnson said another aspect that will make it exciting and different is the fact that there will so many talented musicians coming together on stage performing these songs.

“That’s one of the things that really makes this special; it’s a big cast involved,” he said. “We’ve got the symphony orchestra, the symphonic choir and the kids in the youth choir. There’s something special about having all these people involved and everybody feels an ownership of the program which makes it even more meaningful for us on stage, and I think for the people in the audience as well.”

The Great Falls Young Peoples Choir, under the direction of Kathleen Brown, will join in to make merry on the second half with Aaberg’s “Children of the Prairie”.

As Aaberg says, “ when I wrote the piece I thought of all the children who grow up in small towns and often leave, taking small town values of community service and respect for all throughout the world.”

One of the more interesting parts of the shows comes when Aaberg takes requests from audience members in what he calls the “Avalanche of Carols.”

“One of these years I’ll have my head examined because it’s such a risky thing to do because essentially people throw out a bunch of carol names and if I can remember them I try to string them together in sort of a collage of music that goes from one thing to another,” he said. “That’s really fun and people really like it, but it’s kind of terrifying for me because I wonder, ‘what if my mind goes on vacation during this segment?’ It hasn’t happened yet, but the possibility is there, but I guess that’s part of the deal, sort of like why you go to a NASCAR race, you want to see someone crash.”

While Aaberg said he doesn’t necessarily have a favorite Christmas song he likes performing, he said he does love playing “Sleighed,” because he gets to experiment with the original tone of the song and bump up the emotion exponentially.

“With ‘Sleighed’ which in slang has a different meaning, but this song particularly shows the way I try to approach all the music I do at Christmas time, which is to make them a big-screen version of the tune,” he said. “’Sleighed’ is a totally wild sleigh ride that ends by going down into this steep hill into a big pile of snow. When I do this and I get to playing this, it’s hilarious to me and it’s very exhilarating.”

Whether you get to see Aaberg on his own or with the symphony, Aaberg said he hopes people leave the concerts feeling a little more festive and happy than they did when they entered.

“The show might vary a bit depending how the crowd is feeling that day, but I try to draw them into the world of emotion,” he said. “One of the things I try to do during the Christmas holiday is get people in the spirit because I think people want to have that emotional connection to the good things about the holiday.”

Admission to the Sunday concert is by Symphony season ticket, or by single admission tickets available at the Civic Center Mansfield Box Office, by phone at 406-455-8514 through 3 p.m. on Friday or online 24-hours at http://ticketing.greatfallsmt.net.
Tickets are $30 adults, $12 students/children. For more information call the Symphony at406-453-4102 or visit their website gfsymphony.org

Tickets to the show in Helena are $23, and are available at Birds & Beasleys Helena, at shop.sweetgrassmusic.com, from a Great Divide Ski Team member, or by calling Sweetgrass Music at 759-5347. Student tickets are $10 and will be available at the door with student ID.

Finally admission for the show in Choteau is by free-will donation. All money raised from the concert will go to providing adults and students in Choteau with scholarships through the Opportunities For All Scholarships program.

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