There’s something in the walls of UW-Eau Claire’s Haas Fine Arts Center — or maybe it’s in the professors themselves.
Whatever the case, the university’s music department graduates seem to find themselves back where they started. As is the case for the Niskas, a three-part musical group comprising UW-Eau Claire alumni Lorie Carpenter-Niska and Kurt and Terry Niska.
“Music has this special bond, and you don’t quite realize it when you’re in school,” Carpenter-Niska said. “Then you go off and your life starts, and as you proceed you realize the relationships you built in your college days are always coming back.”
The three have been in touch with professor Bob Baca since they graduated in the 1990s, and Carpenter-Niska said they were thrilled when he reached out to them recently about doing a collaboration with UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz I and II ensembles.
They will debut “Christmas With the Niskas,” a concert featuring the Niskas’ own spins on traditional — and nontraditional — Christmas tunes, at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Pablo Center at the Confluence, 128 Graham Ave. The show features arrangements written by award-winning composer and fellow UW-Eau Claire alumnus Aaron Hedenstrom.
Lorie Carpenter-Niska and Kurt Niska have been singing together since college, when they were part of the vocal jazz quartet Hot Jazz. The group evolved to the quintet, Five by Design, when Kurt’s brother, Terry, joined. Since their first symphony performance in 1994, Carpenter-Niska said Five by Design has toured around the U.S. and Canada performing big band and swing shows.
During that time, Baca said UW-Eau Claire music students would travel to Five by Design’s performances as the back-up band, giving students invaluable “real-world” experience. This kept the relationship between students and school going as well as opening doors for later graduates.
“It was an incredible experience for our students, and many that played with this particular group ended up being professional musicians,” Baca said.
Over the years, as big band shows have become less popular and necessary with modern technology, Five by Design’s performances began to decline.
So recently, the trio decided to branch off and do their own thing, Carpenter-Niska said.
“We started exploring a little bit more of the indie-folk blend of the spectrum, and sometimes we even sway a teeny bit country,” she said. “Above all, though, harmony is always the key.”
“Christmas With the Niskas” is going to be the first performance of the Niskas’ new show.
“This is a launching point for the Niskas to begin a little bit more in earnest,” Carpenter-Niska said, adding they hope to tour with the show following its debut Friday at the Pablo Center.
When Baca heard about the Niskas’ endeavors, he immediately wanted to help.
“We’ve had a relationship with them since 1984,” Baca said. “I’ve been wanting for 20 years to say thanks for all that they have done for UW-Eau Claire and our students.”
With Friday’s show, he thinks he might finally be able to accomplish that goal.
Wrapping it together
“Christmas With the Niskas” will feature such classic Christmas tunes as “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow” — each with the Niskas’ unique, indie-folk spin on it, Carpenter-Niska said.
They also will be doing a cover of a capella group Pentatonix’s “That’s Christmas to Me,” and Baca is going to join them with his flugelhorn for a rendition of “Silent Night.”
In addition, Carpenter-Niska said they will be doing arrangements of Little Big Town’s “Happy People” and Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” songs she said people might not necessarily associate with the season.
“The message is just so similar at this time of year,” she said. “There’s a lot of variety, a lot of things going on.”
She said the Niskas chose to kick off their group with Christmas music because it’s something a lot of people know, yet it allows musicians to get creative in exploring their own styles with the songs.
She is excited to perform in the new Pablo Center and even more so to be working, once again, with UW-Eau Claire music students.
“In the past .. we (showed students) what would happen and what you really go through as a professional musician,” Carpenter-Niska said of students who toured with Five by Design. “I think a lot of Hedenstrom’s arrangements (for this show) will do that for students. It’s fun to be part of seeing someone develop and be exposed to new things.”
She hopes this show is just the beginning — of the Niskas and their relationship with UW-Eau Claire and Hedenstrom, who she said they had not worked with previously. She sees the Niskas branching out to new music unrelated to Christmas in the future. When that time comes, she thinks, they may even look to Baca for another collaboration.
“It is so wonderful to be able to come back and do this,” she said. “It warms our hearts to see this relationship flourish.”