“This is sort of like our Rose Bowl,” exclaimed Michael Haithcock, conductor of the University Symphony Band, to describe how his band views their performance at Carnegie Hall which takes place tonight. The invitation to play at the College Band Directors National Association convention in New York City reaffirms the Symphony Band’s status as one of the country’s best college wind ensembles.
Every year the CBDNA convention includes a festival of concerts that highlight the different ensembles from around the country. This year, the competition to play Carnegie Hall was fierce. Only five groups were chosen to perform: wind ensembles from New England Conservatory, the Eastman School of Music, the University of Southern California and the University of Texas — along with the University’s Symphony Band. Despite this competition, Haithcock said he knew deep down that his group deserved a place along with groups from these top schools. After he submitted the live concert recordings that were required, a panel of professional musicians chose the University Symphony Band as one of the top five ensembles, and they were on their way to Carnegie Hall.
Haithcock’s next challenge was deciding what pieces to play at such a prestigious concert. He addressed this question in a letter to Symphony Band’s members at the beginning of the fall semester: “The repertoire selected will demonstrate your wonderful talents, showcase members of our outstanding composition faculty, illustrate how the School of Music and (the University’s) band program are interfacing with musical organizations beyond our campus and feature one of the most acclaimed recent graduates.”
Drawing on its traditional repertoire, Symphony Band will play Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy and Chester by William Schumann. To highlight the University’s involvement in the contemporary music world, they’ll also perform a number of pieces from different School of Music professors: Bright Sheng’s LA’I (Love Song) for Orchestra without Strings, Susan Botti’s Cosmosis and Michael Daugherty’s Brooklyn Bridge. Because University professors composed these pieces, this concert is truly a University affair — even though it’s happening in New York. “One of the greatest things about this concert is that every piece is very different,” Haithcock said. Besides showcasing stars of the School of Music’s composition faculty, “(The program) shows the virtuosity of the band and what a wonderful collection of students we have here.”
About a Composer
Sheng’s LA’I (Love Song) begins tonight’s program. The piece was co-commissioned by the Symphony Band and the Philharmonics Orchester of Dortmund, Germany; the Carnegie Hall performance will be its U.S. premiere.
Sheng was born in Shanghai, China in 1955. His musical career began when he started studying piano at the age of four. In 1982, Sheng moved to New York to attend Queens College, then City University of New York and Columbia University where he received his Doctorate of Music. During his education, Sheng studied under such legendary figures as Leonard Bernstein, George Perle, Hugo Weisgall and Chou Wen-Chung. Today, top ensembles worldwide perform his music.
Seeing the City
Besides showcasing world-renowned composers such as Sheng, this concert will also serve as the world premiere for Daugherty’s Brooklyn Bridge.
Explaining the inspiration behind his work, Daugherty said: “The idea is that (the piece) is four views from the Brooklyn Bridge — north, south, east and west. The view to the east is Brooklyn, and the view to the south is the Statue of Liberty. The view to the west is Wall Street, where the (World Trade Center) towers used to be. The view to the north is the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building — sort of the old New York. I really love the Brooklyn Bridge, and I love to walk across it, and every time I go to New York I try to do that.”
Brooklyn Bridge features a solo clarinet and wind band. “What’s exciting about the clarinet is that it is really a crossover instrument. It’s used in jazz and it’s used in classical music,” Daugherty commented. “So, for some reason, when I thought of the Brooklyn Bridge, I thought of the clarinet. It seems to be an instrument that comes to mind when you think of all of the immigrants that have lived in New York and crossed that bridge.”
Michael Wayne, 2003 University graduate and clarinetist, was asked to play the solo to showcase a successful alum at the CBDNA convention performance. “What I was told was that they wanted someone who was affiliated with the University who was young and up-and-coming. So, my name came up and they called me, and I was happy to do it,” Wayne said.
Because the concert tonight at Carnegie Hall will be the official premiere of Brooklyn Bridge, developing the piece and playing it involves a more complex learning process. “You’re creating (a premiere piece like this) for the first time,” Wayne said. “The performance we did last Friday was the first time that anyone, including the composer, had even heard the whole piece through. Compared to most pieces, where I go buy a recording and listen to it, I have to be a true artist and come up with my own ideas for it.”
Wayne is currently a member of the Kansas City Orchestra, a position he earned right after graduation. He also spends his summers playing with an orchestra in Switzerland. When it comes to upcoming performance, Wayne said: “I’ve been (to Carnegie Hall) many times to see orchestras and soloists play, but I’ve never played there before, so it’s a huge opportunity to play in one of the best and most famous halls in the world. It’s probably the highlight of my career so far.”
Students Take on NYC
While it’s exciting for composers to see and hear their own pieces being performed for the first time, the musicians are even more ecstatic about the Carnegie Hall experience. It’s not every day that University students get the chance to play at a concert hall like Carnegie Hall — for many students this marks a landmark in their musical careers. “The chance to play at Carnegie Hall is something that every musician dreams about, and to get to do it with a school group and to play these great pieces is a real treat,” School of Music graduate student bassoonist Derek Bannasch said.
Oboist and School of Music junior Jessica Schmeck echoed Bannasch, adding, “I’m really excited. I’ve been looking forward to it all year. It’s cool because (the program) is a nice mix between contemporary and classical.”
But excitement comes with a price School of Music graduate student Rachel Parker, who plays horn, said that the practicing has been extensive and that she’s had to work hard to get ready for the upcoming concert. Parker explained, “It’s a big deal, so we take it very seriously. We did a concert just a few weeks ago here at Hill (Auditorium), and then we recorded everything that we’re playing. Carnegie is the last thing we’re doing, so it feels like we’ve been working on the music for a long time.”
The Carnegie Hall concert has also allowed the members of Symphony Band to work directly with the composers, something that gives the students a whole new perspective on the music that they are playing. “When you play something by Beethoven or Mozart, you don’t get to ask them straight up how they want you to play a certain thing, so when you work with a live composer, it’s really exciting. To have such great composers here at the school is really cool,” Bannasch said.
Tonight, the Symphony Band takes the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City, ready to perform a concert that represents the best musicians that the University has to offer. Showcasing students, alumni and three groundbreaking composers, the performance will certainly continue the tradition of excellence the School of Music is known for around the world.