Christmas is a busy time for musicians. Not only is the end of the year nearing, which often means the budget can be a little loose, but more importantly, music plays a huge part in the festive celebrations.
Beginning in the last days of November up until mid-December, people gather with colleagues and friends in a build-up to a merry Christmas before they eventually get too busy shopping and taking off for holidays with their family.
However, Christmas festivities do not always have to offer a set list of Christmas songs. In essence, it is usually about the birth and the resurrection of Christ, which could be embodied in certain themes.
Pianist Aditya Pradana Setiadi, 28, is one of those musicians that recently have been very busy performing classical concerts. Earlier this month, he was the conceiver, narrator and pianist at “La Serata Verdiana” (“The Evening of Verdi”), a commemoration of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, at the Italian Cultural Center in Menteng, Central Jakarta. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth.
Aditya, who also teaches musicology and music history at the University of Indonesia, said that Verdi’s opera music goes back to the era of Risorgimento (“Resurgence” — Italian unification) where it fueled the spirit to win back occupied areas from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and unite the Italian peninsula.
For Italians in Jakarta, Aditya said, this spirit of Italian patriotism in the Resurgence era also echoes their Christmas mood.
For classical musicians like himself, it is quite common to perform a Christian-themed repertoire. Classical works from European civilization are known to have a strong root in Christian values.
Aditya, who is a Muslim, has been familiar with this understanding and has no worries performing them.
“A lot of classical composers, like Verdi, were atheists, but they still made contributions to music that became part of the Catholic tapestry,” Aditya said. “One of his most famous works, ‘Requiem Mass,’ for example, is commonly used in Catholic funerals.”
Aditya noted that Indonesian conductors such as Avip Priatna and Aning Katamsi were Muslims who regularly participated in Christmas concerts.
Aditya said his favorite evenings were those that not only went well in terms of professionalism, but also showed a sense of interfaith tolerance.
“It was quite something to see Aning, who wears a hijab, present the ‘Messiah’ by Handel, with verses from the Bible,” he said. “I also once played piano for soprano Clarentia Prameta, who is a Catholic, in an evening to celebrate Ramadan.”
Other than classical musicians, singers also often get more jobs during Christmas, be it for spiritual or entertainment purposes.
Singer Teza Sumendra, 24, is a Muslim, but it is common for him to get more job offers for Christmas than Idul Fitri.
“A lot of people mistake me for a Christian, maybe because I don’t look like a Muslim,” Teza said with a laugh. “They usually end up asking which church I belong to.”
Teza, who was recently involved in the Wonderful Christmas concert at Aula Simfonia Jakarta in Kemayoran, Central Jakarta, with conductor Avip, said he preferred to perform in a casual concert rather than singing service at churches.
“I don’t mind, but I would prefer for Christian singers to perform at churches, as it’s their time to celebrate,” he said. “I think it would make it more sacred.”
This year, apart from the Wonderful Christmas show, he will be singing during a gathering at a private residence on Christmas Day.
For casual celebrations, Teza likes to listen to jazz from the 1940s to prepare himself, such as Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. He also mixed the set list with cover songs, usually from the rhythm and blues genre.
“I usually take offers to perform at Christmas festivities because I am familiar with those songs,” he said.
“I am also a little bit obsessed about New York, so I always imagine myself singing at the Rockefeller Center.”
Like Aditya, he does not feel restricted when performing for Christmas events.
Meanwhile, for singer Elisabeth Dwi Purna, known as Lisa, who is Catholic, Christmas is a time to make sure she keeps a healthy balance between entertainment and church service.
Last year, she was involved in two musical productions, including traveling all the way to Papua to join a service at a church there. She said singers usually received a lot of offers to sing in churches in remote places.
When she still lived in Malang, East Java, the priest at her church would usually encourage the choir to sing in various cities, from Java to Kalimantan, over the holiday season.
They would receive money from the church, but it is considered “ persembahan kasih ,” or a reward, and not a fee. Lisa does not even like to refer to offers from churches as a “job,” as it would imply a very worldly meaning.
This year, she was asked to perform in churches in cities near her hometown of Malang. Lisa, who just joined a band called “The Extra Large” and thus cannot travel far too far away this year, will be performing alongside Teza on Christmas Day.
By taking offers to sing in church services, Lisa likes to test her own emotional capability.
“If I sing for a service, I have to mean it,” the 31-year-old said. “I can’t sing when I’m angry, because it will affect a lot of people, so if I wasn’t quite tuned, I would say no to the job.”
Lisa and Teza — both of whom were finalists for the popular reality TV competition “Indonesian Idol” in 2006 — said that a lot of offers to sing for services usually came for participants of shows like “The X Factor,” “The Voice,” “Indonesian Idol” or “Akademi Fantasi Indosiar.” For casual shows, they are usually asked to perform light and entertaining Christmas classics, such as “Silent Night” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
“It usually depends on how the organizers see Christmas. For some people it’s festive, for others, it would be serene and it depends on the influence of their own church,” she said.
Lisa acknowledged that she faced her own dilemma as a singer. As a Catholic, she personally prefers a silent night way from loud festivities. But to be able to stay a part of the industry, she feels the need to switch her mind-set when performing at a service.
Either way, Christmas is a time to give praise and thanks. Due to her busy schedule, Lisa said she hadn’t had the chance to spend Christmas at home for the last couple of years.
This forces her to explore new ways to celebrate Christmas. Last year, she ventured to a new church and absorbed the spirit of Christmas on her own.