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Disney Finale: Four Composers and More Than a Few Tears

June 1, 2011 by claguem

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360 Exterior of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall on the day we arrived in L.A.

After 22 days and 10 concerts, few would have been surprised if our final Symphony Band China tour concert had been something of a let down. Yet, if anything, the musicians saved their best for last. The imposing beauty and post-modern fantasy of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles more than overcame any sense of fatigue, physical or spiritual. It is an amazing venue in which to perform, visually inspiring and acoustically satisfying. Most exciting, the hall was all-but-full with friends and supporters from the University of Michigan family. University president Mary Sue Coleman made the trip and presided over an alumni dinner and post-concert reception. All four of the U-M composers commissioned for the tour—Bill Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, Kristy Kuster, and Bright Sheng—were there as were many deans, faculty, and students from our School of Music, Theatre & Dance. It was a great homecoming and a fantastic way to bring the tour to a close.

Our program was identical to the May 5 “bon voyage” concert in Ann Arbor and featured each of the four works written by U-M composition faculty for the tour: Sheng’s “Shanghai Overture”; Daugherty’s “Lost Vegas”; Kuster’s “Two Jades”; and Bolcom’s “Concerto Grosso for Saxophone Quartet and Band.” As it did throughout the tour, Kuster’s concerto featured U-M alumnus and Beijing native Xiang Gao, who made new fans, both for himself and for the University, wherever we went. Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” opened the program and in another nod to the anniversary of the band’s 1961 tour of Russia and the Middle East, we performed an arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” which the legendary William D. Revelli had conducted on UM's tour 50 years ago. I had the pleasure of sitting next to 1961 alumnus and Symphony Band percussionist “Bud” Ronsaville for the performance. He had shadowed the band through China as well, joining us in both Shanghai and Beijing, and was deeply impressed with the band’s current performers. The Symphony Band’s 15-week tour in 1961 will likely never be matched for length and rigor, but the 2011 edition of the band undoubtedly carries forth its tradition of excellence. In its professionalism, character, repertory, and artistry, U-M’s Symphony Band is truly a definitive ensemble of what the wind band can and should be; its legacy only continues to grow.

361 U-M President Mary Sue Coleman Addresses
Alumni before the Concert
In China we learned flexibility and problem solving skills, which came in handy yet again as high winds moved our alumni dinner from the patio to an indoor amphitheater. My pre-concert talk was displaced and initially canceled but then reinstated when SMTD development director Maureen Schafer discovered an alternative space. The Disney Hall staff did a great job adjusting to all these changes.

Violinist Guido Lamell, one of our alumni musicians in the LA Phil just leaving the hall after a 2 p.m. performance of Brahms and Górecki with music director Gustavo Dudamel, ran into our group in the lobby and was excited to discover the connection.

Our concert began at 7:30 and it was clear from the first notes of the trumpet fanfare that begins the Shostakovich that it would be an exceptional performance. The musicians played their best to tour’s end; Michael Haithcock’s philosophy is to treat the band’s musicians as professionals and our two days of rest (and individual practice) in Los Angeles had been used to full advantage. Everyone wanted to sound his or her best. Our only rehearsal since Renmin University in Beijing five day’s earlier had been a morning sound check in the hall. The hall is clear and intimate and both our violin and saxophone soloists shot out prominently from the overall texture. One trick to the stage is that the irregular shapes of Disney Hall do not reflect sound back to the stage very strongly, so the musicians have to trust their previous rehearsals and their feel for the music, never forcing the sound in hopes of more ambient feedback.

Following the last notes of Ginastera’s “Malambo” from Estancia, the audience fo 1800-2000 people rose to their feet and Haithcock returned to the stage to perform Jerry Bilik’s “Victors Valiant” especially for the partisan crowd of U-M alums. U-M president Mary Sue Coleman led the audience in singing the university’s fight song, pumping her fist into the air with every “Hail!” Bilik’s arrangement is a tongue-in-check version that combines baroque, classical and moderinist variations on the tune, only realizing the complete melody towards the very end. As we did with every concert on the tour, our LA performance closed with the American national march, John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” this time featuring piccolo player Rachel Blumenthal. She grinned from ear to ear after notching her solo and finally all six piccolos, eight trumpets, and six trombonists stood to perform the final “grandioso” chorus.

As Professor Haithcock left the stage, the audience rose yet again and the musicians shook hands like they had done with increasing frequency for our concerts in China. Yet, handshakes soon turned to hugs and smiles into tears as the reality of the final notes of the tour hit home. It had been a fantastic cultural, social, and musical journey that not only expanded our perspectives on the world around us, but deepened our friendships at home. I know that fifty years from now, when the Symphony Band makes another (probably interplanetary) tour, that our 2011 alumni will look back to this moment as one that shaped their lives in countless ways.

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Disney Finale

June 2, 2011 by Jo Rumsey (not verified), 6 years 41 weeks ago
Comment: 207

Having thrilled to the performances in Shanghai and Beijing, I wondered how the band could top those.   Thank you for this report which completely satisfies my curiosity...and makes me wish even more I could've been at the LA performance.   I know I speak for our Chinese alumni - because so many told me so - THANK YOU for sharing our University with the world and for making all of us in the "family" so proud. 

This is the definitive report

June 1, 2011 by Betsy (not verified), 6 years 41 weeks ago
Comment: 206

This is the definitive report on the LA concert I've been waiting for--thank you so much, Mark, for parsing it out so eloquently. This tour, it appears, could not have gone better. 

Amazement and Gratitude

June 1, 2011 by Anne Hughes (not verified), 6 years 41 weeks ago
Comment: 205

I will never forget this concert.  I can only imagine what a thrill this was for you performers after all you experienced together in China, to assemble one last time on that stunning stage, and do what you know how to do best, perform beautifully.   I was moved in so many ways.  I was captivated by the interesting program, psyched to see four composers in attendance, and amazed by the beauty, precision and expressive performances of this ensemble.  I appreciate that the work of so many to make the tour a reality.  My son Sam has had such an extraordinary experience in percussion that it exceeded my highest expectations.  I thank you all, teachers, fellow students, staff members.... all who contributed to the great education he got at U of M and the priceless memories he will keep forever from the China tour.  Congratulations one and all!

Thank you

June 1, 2011 by Mitch Green (not verified), 6 years 41 weeks ago
Comment: 204

Mark:Thank you so much for this wrap on the last concert.  It truly has been a joy reading your posts and gaining a feel for how the band was being received at each concert.  Your descriptive narrative made each event come to life!Mitch Green

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