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.
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.