Musical time travelers present an "Old-Fashioned Christmas"

Phil and Gayle Neuman explore music in a surprising variety of ways


November 30, 2023

It seems that, if you're a hearing person, you possess at least a passing familiarity with Christmas music. It's everywhere this time of year. The music of Christmas is so familiar that for many it fades into a background soundtrack; after decades of listening, how fresh can Jingle Bells really sound?

One way to find out might be to travel a little closer to the source.

Phil and Gayle Neuman do just this each time they pick up one of their fiddles, flutes or flageolets. In addition to being prolific recording artists and performers, the Neumans are musicologists and instrument builders. They reconstruct, and perform on, ancient and other historical instruments, giving listeners an opportunity to hear a little of what the world might have sounded like to, say, a soldier in a battlefield toward the end of the Mesopotamian Wars of the Early Dynastic Period about 3,000 years ago. (Hint: you might have heard a lot of auloses, a precursor to the modern oboe, made from bone and used in battle. The Neumans have built them.)

For their upcoming concert, the Neumans, who have been performing together since they met at Mt. Hood Community College in the 1970s, are excavating somewhat more familiar terrain. They have gathered together the group of musicians known as the Fireside Social Orchestra for an evening of "Old-Fashioned Christmas." Well, they've gathered a group of musicians and a king's ransom of musical instruments of varying degrees of historicity, among them violins, tenor violas, rebecs, cellos, flutes, recorders, saxophones, cornets, alto and ballad horns; not to mention the aforementioned flageolets, a 19th Century bass bugle called an ophicleide, and something called a reed contrabass, which is basically a military bassoon.

"It's downright industrial," said Phil Neuman over the phone. "Low and loud."

The orchestra will play and sing familiar carols from the 1800s and early 1900s in, or close to, their original settings. "Jingle Bells or The One-Horse Open Sleigh" from 1857 and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" from 1849 are among the more well-known. Also included are some not-so-familiar tunes, such as Suo Gân, a traditional Welsh Lullaby and Charles Ives' "A Christmas Carol" from 1897.

For Phil Neuman, this concert is something of a refreshing change, since its inspiration is not ancient Greece, but the rather less remote19th Century Great Britain.

"We were able to find many of the instruments," he said. "Rather than having to make them ourselves."

The Clatskanie Arts Commission presents an "Old Fashioned Christmas" with the Fireside Social Orchestra. Sunday, Dec. 3, 3 p.m. The Birkenfeld Theatre, Clatskanie. Family friendly. Tickets available at; by phone at 503-728-3403; or at the door on the day of the performance. $25 for adults; $23 for students and seniors (60+); $20 for children.


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