10 Questions for Michael Allen Harrison
Pianist Michael Allen Harrison's 19th Christmas season of concerts at The Old Church begins tonight. It'll be 15 shows, and hundreds of fans packing the venue at 1422 S.W. 11th Ave.
'Good golly, I got the idea of a show at The Old Church after doing some weddings years ago,' he says. 'I thought, 'This would be a nice place for Christmas.' Scheduled the first one, one night, and we filled half the place. The following year, we sold out the first show quickly and added a second one.
'For lack of a better term, it just kind of snowballed from there, and it's been great year after year. It became a tradition.'
This year's shows, with Harrison accompanied by various vocalists, including children, run from Thursday through Dec. 26, with three shows on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 19 and 20 and Christmas Eve. For ticket information ($29.50 each), call 503-255-0747.
Harrison, 51, and a 1976 Parkrose High graduate, recently shared some thoughts about the Christmas season:
Tribune: What does the Christmas season mean to you?
Harrison: Oh, how I get to bear witness to how special this community is. I get to bear witness all year around. This community really steps up to help each other. I'm doing what I do, in the entertainment field, but I get to see all walks of life, all birds of a feather that flock together.
Tribune: Is it 'Christmas' music or 'holiday' music to you?
Harrison: I say 'Christmas' music. I'm not one to go to the PC page. As long as I can remember - and I'm a nice Jewish guy - I grew up loving Christmas through the music, participating in things through school, being included with different families and friends. I see it as Christmas music; if I put a Hanukkah song in the show, it's a Christmas show with a Hanukkah song.
Tribune: You do several Christmas shows, not only at The Old Church. What was the influence for specializing in Christmas music?
Harrison: I love it. When I was in junior high, I really started falling in love with Christmas music, participating in shows. I went to Parkrose, where we had a great music education mentor in LaRoyce Findlay - she's legendary at Parkrose. She was just one of those grand dames of her era. They had their a cappella, but also a swing choir that you had to specially audition for, called the Debonaires. Special outfits - boys wore tuxedos, girls wore special dresses, and ear muffs out of rabbit fur and hand warmers. We would tour all around the city, sing like at Shriner's hospital and various retirement centers, the MAC and other clubs. It was a big deal to be a Debonaire, we had a big show at the high school that was special and at the end we'd all sing Hallelujah chorus. It was a real special community.
Tribune: Ms. Findlay was a big influence, huh?
Harrison: I was gifted and talented, but shy, and she made me do things I wouldn't have done on my own desire.
Tribune: November and December are such busy months, do you get tired?
Harrison: I do holiday music once a year. I really don't get tired of it. There's a certain magic quality to it. What keeps me from getting tired of it is I bear witness in an exclusive way, connecting to each other. . . . Once we decorate and sound check and rehearse and open the show, then I kind of exhale. From then on, you just show up and play. People ask me how do you do this many shows, but by the time I reach The Old Church concerts, I can just relax.
Tribune: What are your favorite Christmas songs to play?
Harrison: Several. I love 'O Holy Night,' just because of how the melody moves, the cadence structure, the movement of chords, just how it creates a moment. I wrote 'Christmas Is' with good friend Bill Lamb; he wrote the words, I wrote music. It's sung by a children's choir, and kids take turns doing solos. We're also doing a Christmas version of Bette Midler's 'From A Distance,' a wonderful piece, I love that. We always end the show with 'Silent Night' and get the audience to participate, with different instrumentalists and singers doing verses. Then we transition into a gospel version of it, and share the talent of Julianne Johnson. It's really fun, gets everybody going.
Tribune: Have you been busy during the rest of the year?
Harrison: I'm in the studio, producing projects, I play a little bit out in the club scene. I'm mostly doing concerts; I average two to three benefits a week. The rest of the time I'm busy with my own foundation, the Snowman Foundation, and we're getting ready for 'Ten Grands' this spring. It''ll be 10 grand pianos with 10 different pianists, April 2 and 3; it'll be the 10th year, the Schnitzer Hall every year. We sell it out, and all the money, after expenses, goes to the Snowman Foundation, which raises money to help kids in music education.
Tribune: No new Christmas CD this year?
Harrison: I've produced about a dozen Christmas CDs over the years, with different themes and styles. I didn't do a brand new one this year. I want it to be something I'm inspired by. If you're putting music out you're inspired by, the end result is it comes out feeling soulful, that's what people want to feel . . . I've got some new (non-holiday) CDs coming out - 'Tango' and 'Simple Gifts,' but they are not yet in stores.
Tribune: You have a large family, and everybody's into music?
Harrison: Our new one, Esther, 8 months old, is playing a duet with daddy at the show. She sits on my lap and goes for it - she looks up and smiles. My other child is 29, Tahlia, and she's a wonderful singer. My wife, Marietta, plays the accordion, and she has four children . . . Tanner (18), who I just did a new record with ('Simple Gifts'), is a talented violinist. Andrea (20) is a concert-level pianist. Travis (16) is one of the best classical guitarists in his age group in the country. Ben (21) is Marietta's oldest, and he's going to play bass. Everybody's going to be in the show, except Tahlia and her husband will be in New York during the holidays. We're working on a fun and eclectic version of 'You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.'
Tribune: So, it's a good bet that Esther will be into music, huh?
Harrison: We'll see. She's a pretty wiry, athletic little girl. Who knows? She might be an athlete. She's certainly going to be exposed and introduced to music and will be taking some lessons at some time. I'm just going to encourage her, wherever to find her passion. She's not going to be pressured into being a musician.