Command is busy

So maybe the reason I haven’t had time to blog is that I’ve been in command of an Army band, which (guess what?) is a full-time job.

But maybe I just might have three minutes to write about the few pieces I’ve been able to eek (eke? eak?) out during this busy time.

The most significant piece I completed was ‘Leaps and Rounds‘ for brass quintet and band.  I’m quite proud of this piece and I’ll make it a point to write about it in some detail in the future because I think it might actually be an interesting short essay.  I also wrote a march in a very short time; as in, “I think I’ll write a march” to “It’s done” in four days.  Actually, the story behind that one is pretty interesting, too.

But the most recent piece is my farewell gift to my band, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Band.  The piece is called ‘A Summer Breeze,’ and with its composition I am halfway through my take on the seasons (‘A Winter Flurry‘ was first).  I think it’s the most ridiculously happy piece I’ve ever written, a light, fluffy, jolly, tuneful, summery overture.  The Band will premiere it at the Change of Command concert on the 5th of July when I reliquish command.  Well, actually, we’ll play it at our Independence Day concerts on the 3rd and 4th, too.

‘The Kings March’ premieres

I had the pleasure of conducting the premiere of my first beginning band piece The Kings March this afternoon.  The piece was written for the Kings Glen Elementary School band and was played by the combined fifth- and sixth-graders; over 200 kids!

I have always loved writing music for younger players, but this was the first time I had written for first-year musicians.  It was a challenge, but I think I succeeded in writing something that was compositionally sound, had educational merit, and most importantly, be actually playable!

For other composers out there, I can’t recommend writing for kids enough.  Every time I saw one of the students from Kings Glen, either from my visits to the school, or just at the neighborhood pool, someone has come up to me to thank me for writing the march for them.  They are so grateful and excited!  No matter what the grade level, students take enormous pride in performance when they feel that sense of ownership.

Thanks again to Kelly Stratil and the fantastic students of Kings Glen Elementary!  Let’s go band!!

Reagan statue dedication

This morning the Army Chorus performed in the Capitol Rotunda for the unveiling of a new statue of Ronald Reagan. Many political heavy-hitters (particularly republicans, of course) were in attendance, including John McCain and Michael Steele. Nancy Pelosi was the host, as is customary for a Congressional event.

Performing for the Nation’s leaders is a big deal and an enormous privilege and responsibility, but it’s amazing how commonplace it seems. I’ve been to the Rotunda four or five times with the Chorus now (see, I’ve already lost count), and I figured this event would be like the others. For some reason, however, this turned out to be a particularly moving event.

We knew we were in for something special when Nancy Reagan came in the room and received a generous, warm round of applause (from everyone regardless of party affiliation).  The colors were presented, we sang the National Anthem, and the speeches began.  Republican and Democratic leaders praised Reagan and spoke eloquently about the America he loved and worked for.  Sure, there was some politicking in there, but the tone was respectful, and when it was time for us to sing I think it’s fair to say that the room was feeling especially patriotic.

So then we sang America the Beautiful.  And it was stupendous; a perfect, emotionally-charged, musical performance.

I often say that the job of military musicians is not to make great music, but to represent the excellence and professionalism of the military.  Which we do by making great music.  An added responsibility I have is to use what we have to offer to appropriately support the events we attend.  There are times when we should be center stage and others when we should allow the spotlight to focus on others.  This was an event I just felt great about afterwards because we sang the perfect song at the perfect time, and to try to elbow our way in further would be to make it less effective.  We came, we sang, we said “goodnight everybody.”

When the entire event goes well, then all parties involved look like heroes.  We received some terrific kudos from bloggers and the press:

Peggy Noonan: “The U.S. Army chorus sang the national anthem so beautifully, with such harmonic precision and depth, that some dry eyes turned moist, including those of the crusty journalist to my right.”

Paul Kengor: “…the crowning touch came before Nancy spoke, and before the statue unveiling. It was the sole musical selection for the program: the U.S. Army Chorus singing, a cappella, “America, the Beautiful.  This love-song for the nation captivated the room. It was beautiful. I caught a camerawoman struggling to hold up her long-lens as she wiped tears flowing down her face.  But what struck me was the perfect choice of that patriotic hymn, unwittingly tying together not only the thoughts of Rev. Black and others, but the origins, ends, and legacy that was Ronald Reagan’s career.”

Michael Doyle: “The 87-year-old presidential widow spoke briefly, declaring the statue sculpted by North Carolina resident Chas Fagan to be ‘a wonderful likeness of Ronnie’ and praising the ‘lovely, lovely singing’ of the U.S. Army Chorus.”

Great stuff!

The Supremes

Okay, this post is way late and I’m going to backdate it, if WordPress will let me.  It’s my blog and I can do what I want.  No one’s reading anyway.

How surreal is it that only the second performance with a new ensemble is in front of the members of the highest court of the land, and that you’ve programmed your own music for it?  People will think I’m a raging egomaniac.  I’m really not, but why not be proud of what you do?

We sang my new arrangement of ‘America the Beautiful’ among other things at a dinner in the great hall of the Supreme Court building.  This in celebration of the end of the court session.  Wish I had pictures but didn’t have the opportunity.  Or a camera for that matter.

No worries, there are pictures of me conducting the band on the steps of the capital!  Those come soon!

NBA/Merrill Jones results

I haven’t written anything for a while in this forum, but there’s a very good reason for that–there’s not a whole lot to report. I’m in the purgatory of Army schooling, and it’s not a music-rich environment to say the least. But after a few very slow months, an eventful day today…

Two days ago I received notice that Black Tie Blu-bop didn’t win the NBA/Merrill Jones Band Composition Contest and that my submission would be returned under separate cover. Fine. But today I get a letter from Frank Wickes saying that the committee thought my piece was “excellent” but exceeded their Grade III/IV requirement (an accurate assessment–it’s a solid Grade V). So he forwarded the score and CD to Wingert-Jones for publication consideration even though the piece didn’t win! What a classy thing to do; I sent a quick email of thanks. W-J should have a look in a month or so. Even if it doesn’t get selected, it was a meaningful gesture from the judges not to simply throw out the piece as ineligible.

This good news led to a friendly call to Dave McKee (Virginia Tech marching band and symphony band director, and good friend), who said that Grafton High School‘s performance at VMEA was fantastic. It totally slipped my mind! Hopefully Darren will come through and get that recording to me.

Though I haven’t been productive, I’m still at least trying to write. I figured I would be able to write a lot of music while I didn’t have the distractions of home during the course, but I was mistaken. I talked with my wife earlier and I think she’s right: I have the time to write, but without the immersion in and exposure to a musical environment, I’m not getting anywhere. Note to self: never apply for the Rome prize; you’ll only waste everyone’s time.

At least I am nearly done with my woodwind quintet and there will be much rejoicing when it’s finally finished. I don’t see another one in the forseeable future.

Return to the States

I haven’t posted anything new for a couple of months because a) I was overwhelmed with all the tasks involved in moving your family and all your stuff back from three years of living overseas, and b) there wasn’t anything to report anyway.

Galaxy Portals was not a winner of the Dallas Wind Symphony Fanfare Competition this year, but I still think they’re a pretty good band (wink).

But some good news has come my way recently–the Grafton (VA) High School Band will be performing Black Tie Blu-bop at the Virginia Music Educators Association In-service Conference in November! Their director, Darren Kirsch, is an old Virginia Tech classmate of mine. I am looking forward to meeting and working with his band sometime in the very near future. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend the performance itself, but I am honored and excited that my piece is getting out there!

There’s also news about a possible upcoming commission, but I won’t divulge any details since nothing has been confirmed, and I certainly don’t want to jinx the possibility. I’ve probably said too much already…

Observations from the Berlin Philharmonic

Anne and I went to see the Berlin Philharmonic this past weekend. When I saw that they were performing ‘Petrushka’ and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (two pieces I studied in college), the search for other anniversary destinations was over as far as I was concerned. Thankfully, Anne agreed. 🙂 Of course, the orchestra played fantastic, but I marveled at some other aspects of the experience.

  • The concert was completely sold out, as apparently all of them are, but when they say sold out, they mean sold out. Every seat was filled; there were people standing in the back of the hall, and people sitting in the aisles. It was as packed as a State-side hockey playoff game.
  • It was mostly older people in the audience, but there was a significant representation of younger people, too. (They were the ones in the aisles–would you see this anywhere in the States? On a Saturday? I think not.)
  • Dress ranged from suits and formal dresses to jeans and t-shirts. The young people looked like they would hit the clubs afterward.
  • At the end of Petrushka, the crowd applauded enough to bring the conductor back to the stage three times. This was for Stravinsky.
  • All seven horns stood for the last push of the Mahler, like they were piccolo players playing ‘Stars and Stripes.’ I thought I’d never see anything that gimmicky at a classical music concert, but hey, these guys were rock stars. (No, there was no clapping along. Or mosh pits.)
  • The conductor returned for four curtain calls–the last one after the orchestra had left the stage, the house lights had come up, and half the audience was home.

So in conclusion, I have a lot of work to do. I either a) have to move to Europe, or b) work tirelessly to bring the U.S. to a point where they name streets after conductors:

…and have monuments erected in honor of composers:

(Note to my next of kin: When the sculpture of me is made, please made sure I look as heroic as Wagner here. Thanks.)

Dallas pictures

And now, only a month late, are some pictures from the Fanfare for Enduring Freedom performance. A family vacation covering four countries on two continents has precedence on maintaining a timely website, not that anyone’s reading this blog anyway (except you…hi, Mom!).

So, the above picture is of course me conducting the piece. Below is a shot to give you an idea of how far away the musicians were up on the balcony.

And finally my smiling mug afterwards. It really was a neat experience. The concertgoers in Dallas were gracious and kind; a class act.

Finally, it’s been a week since the Virginia Tech shootings, and let the record reflect that of course I will write a piece. That took all of a couple of minutes to figure out. Decision number two (whether the piece would end on a somber or triumphant note) was decided after Nikki Giovanni’s speech at the convocation. The students’ reaction (to cheer “Go Hokies Go”) sealed the deal. Never have I been so proud to be a Hokie.

Brassfest in Dallas

This past week Anne and I traveled to Dallas, Texas for the Dallas Wind Symphony concert and the North American premiere of my Fanfare for Enduring Freedom. There was confusion leading up to the performance in that I heard the DWS staff had asked an associate conductor of the US Army Field Band to conduct the piece, and the associate conductors of the Field Band were telling me I should! I brought my baton, just in case…

As it turned out, I did conduct it, and it was an unforgettable experience. The night before the concert, there was a rehearsal to go over the combined pieces (DWS and Field Band) and the fanfare. The brass choir was comprised of both groups as well–forty players. After the rehearsal, one of the Dallas trombones said that he thought the piece would be the “best ever.” The DWS has been playing fanfares before their concerts for nearly ten years now, but they are played in the foyer of the Meyerson Symphony Center where the acoustics are extremely live. That is, it’s made of marble and glass, and the sound just reverberates forever. I just lucked out that my piece with its slow tempo and chorale was ideally suited for the room.

Conducting some of the finest brass players in such a loud space was a trip, but it didn’t match the reaction of the audience. I started shaking hands almost immediately with thankful concertgoers (and one woman really did say that my fanfare was the best of all she had heard in the years she had followed the DWS). What a kind, appreciate crowd. John Gibson, resident composer of the Dallas Wind Symphony, also had nice things to say. It’s always reassuring to be recognized by fellow professionals.

Many thanks to the DWS staff especially Kim Campbell, John Mahood, and Courtney Dodson for their hospitality, and of course Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony, and COL Finley Hamilton and the US Army Field Band for their fantastic musicianship and talent!

Black Tie Blu-bop premiere

This past weekend was the Virginia Tech Honor Band Weekend and what a great time it was! I really enjoyed meeting up with old classmates and new friends. It was great to see so many familiar faces and to catch up on all the gossip.

I arrived on Thursday to speak with the music education students about careers as a military musician and right after that there was a small reception. I should have figured out right then and there that this weekend would turn out to be something special when I saw the cake.

tech-honor-band-003.jpgThe ‘Golden Hokie Honor Band’ gave a terrific first performance of ‘Black Tie Blu-bop,’ which was written especially for them. I think the piece was well-received by the audience on Saturday night, but most importantly, it was a hit with the young musicians themselves. I set out to write something challenging and fun, and I think I succeeded even more than I had dreamed. Thanks to all who spoke with me and shared your kind comments!

I’ll admit, though, that I should have asked more questions earlier in the discussion phase–who knew this band would be a hundred strong?

tech-honor-band-008.jpgMy sincere thanks to all students, teachers, parents, and administrators of the tenth annual Virginia Tech Honor Band Weekend, especially Dr. Patrick Casey, who conducted the performance, and Dr. David Widder, for whom the piece was dedicated. I am already looking forward to my next visit!