Eastman Wind Ensemble

Some Thoughts Looking Back

The Eastman Wind Ensemble Midwest Tour
December 17-20, 2009
Mark Davis Scatterday, Music Director


I had a really good feeling about this group ever since I posted the audition results back in May. The rehearsals were always productive and a lot of fun. There was a different energy with this feature Eastman Wind Ensemble – it was as if they had played together all of their lives. Friday’s performance at Eastman went well and it was a great start. We worked out a few more things in a recording session the next Monday. The following Thursday morning came early but, as I was to find out throughout the tour, the players of the EWE were all on the buses early and ready to go (it was interesting seeing some of them that early in the morning!). It was a good omen, as the players were at least five  minutes early for every call throughout the tour. I know that Matt, Natalie and Helen had a lot to do with this.

To tell the truth, the only thing I was really worried about was the weather. It has been well documented that the 2000 Midwest tour had huge weather issues. So much so that even Eastman stage manager Ron Stackman said “no mas” to this one. But he set us up with a terrific crew in Rick Fuller and Pete Cicotta. They were outstanding professionals and, whether they knew this or not, it rubbed off on the players. When they see this kind of professionalism around them, it’s like osmosis – they fed off the whole environment. That’s one thing that I’ve witnessed for 20 years with the EWE – when they perform in public, especially outside of Rochester, they seem like seasoned professionals. I think this is mostly due to the environment that we create for them at school. I’ve had many people remark about this when we went to Carnegie Hall in 2005 – it was as if they had always played there.

I had decided nine months before that we would not do the high school gym or auditorium thing on this tour, especially with potential weather issues. (The 2000 tour was very complicated, and even included an unscheduled overnight in a “zero star” motel after a high-school performance.  Don Hunsberger handled this really well — he even opened the bar for the players at that motel, similar to the days on tour in Japan on those long bus trips — I remember this like it was yesterday.) Rochester Democrat & Chronicle columnist (and former EWE clarinetist) Anna Reguero documented this well just a week before we left, and it was really on my mind.  In fact, the night before we left, our lead bus driver, Mike, called to assure me that we would go, snow or shine. It was a nice thing to do and another good sign that things would go smoothly. These Covered Wagon Tour guys were just great.

Well, we lucked out. The weather was fine (snow storms happened in the Great Lakes area the week before and the week after!).  In my mind, this was the only variable that could get in the way of a successful tour. The players were really ready and eager to do their thing. The music preparation ended up about right – we really did peak in Chicago. I wonder if we would have had more performances on our way out if this would have happened. It turned out that the close finals schedule kept us from leaving until Thursday, and this was a godsend. A longer tour might have been too much at that time of year.  I still wish we could have included Severance in Cleveland, but it was only available on Monday, and the rental would have totally eaten up our budget!

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Ann Arbor

So it was clear sailing to Ann Arbor.  We checked into our hotel with time to spare, which gave the students a little time to rest and re-connect with their instruments. Leslie remarked at both Ann Arbor and Chicago that she could hear the students warming up within 15 minutes of check-in. I said to her, “That’s right” (made me sound a little like David Puddy on Seinfeld!).  I knew that they would do this; it was in the DNA of this group. Their seriousness about what they do was infectious, as they fed off each other’s talent and skill. Every time someone nailed something in rehearsal, you could see the eyes open up, the body move up to the edge of the chair, and then some really great playing to follow. I only wish they could have seen this from my perspective, but I’m pretty sure they were aware of this special aspect of this feature ensemble – they listened and responded to each other as professionals do that have been together for years.

I hope that our faculty are proud of the way these students have learned to do this, and I suspect it is mostly through their experiences in ESM studios and chamber and large ensembles (I hope!). I’ve always felt that their chamber music experiences are brought into the large ensembles, and are a major aspect that makes the EWE special, different from other collegiate groups.

The Ann Arbor performance was special – especially for me. I had played many times in that hall as a grad student at University of Michigan in the early ‘80s, and I had recently returned to conduct the UM Symphonic Band and Concert Band while their conductor was on sabbatical. With this, I knew that the EWE would totally dig playing in that hall, which was recently renovated and very cool.

I also knew they would be challenged by the acoustics. The hall is circular, with a very shallow, wide stage – very different from the Eastman Theater stage. We actually had to move the saxes into the brass row, and this really made the players focus on finding each other and listening in different ways. Nevertheless, the sound was extraordinary, and they again fed off the sound that came back to them. This is what I’ve always said about the Eastman Theatre: that it rewards the good player and ensemble. If you project with a warm sound in ET, the hall compliments your playing. If you don’t, you get nothing back. ET has always been that “extra colleague” to the conductor – the feedback is tremendous and you literally don’t have to say anything to a group when the sound is right – they get it right away. Hill Auditorium was a little like this too and the EWE got an excellent response. The 1,300 people in the audience — a lot of people for the middle of exam week! — gave them three standing ovations.

Afterwards, Don, Michael Burritt, and I received folks in the front atrium. It was really great seeing a lot of old friends, colleagues and teachers. Some of the EWE went back on the bus to the hotel, but many stayed in college town to experience the Big Ten feeling. I imagine, wherever they went, that they had some pretty good parties – they deserved it (I saw some evidence of this in photos posted on Facebook)! I told them before we left that there would be no curfews, that they were adults and I trusted them – and they didn’t let me down. Thanks, guys.

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The next morning came early. The players looked a little tired, but they had the trip to Chicago to rest. Smooth sailing to Chicago also. We did stop at a mall near Kalamazoo so they could do the food court thing. Our wonderful soloist, Michael Burritt entertained some of us in a kid’s mini-NASCAR ride and some of the guys invented new instruments with straws, very creative and funny.

We got to Chicago early too. This gave the EWE time to check into their plush rooms at the Hyatt, rest, and, again, practice. Our hallway was full of great sounds all afternoon. They were all early for our soundcheck and Ray Cramer, President of the Midwest Clinic, gave them a wonderful welcome. When we finished our soundcheck, ushers from the clinic asked if they could open the doors – that people were lined up way down the huge hallways of the McCormick Place Convention Center (a remarkable building). I knew that this would be the case and told the usher that we were done and that they could open the doors. As the EWE began to leave the stage, the doors opened and people flooded the huge ballroom –these were adults, important music educators actually running to get the best seats. One of the players turned to me and said “They’re running!”, and I said, “That’s right”. They now knew what I had been telling them all along about how important this event really is.

The performance was indescribable. Don and Michael wowed the crowd, as I knew they would. The 90-minute concert seemed to last five minutes. The 4,000 people in the standing-room only audience were so quiet I didn’t even feel that they were there (this was probably set up with the fact that we played music that had extreme ranges of dynamics and kept them guessing, unusual for a “band concert”). At the end of the Maslanka, they erupted (that was the plan) – five standing Os later, the ensemble didn’t want to leave the stage. An encore seemed inevitable but how could you follow that with anything else? I’m glad we left them wanting more.

The reception line in the ballroom after the concert was huge. Again, it was great to receive so many new and old friends. After about 30 minutes, we went down to the terrific reception that Doug Lowry gave us, alumni, and guests. It was a class act, with great food and drinks. It was wonderful greeting all of our alumni and friends, and I also got to meet one of our important Chicago supporters (and, I suspect, a new EWE fan), Paul Judy. It was a wonderful way to end the evening, but I’m sure, for most of us, it didn’t end there – no way could anyone who was on that stage go to bed after that! Thanks to so much of the ESM staff for a wonderful event – it made the EWE really feel like what they do is special and appreciated. It was the perfect ending to a triumphant evening.

Kudos to many, especially Dean Lowry, Wendy Borden, Lisa Seischab, Karen Ver Steeg, David Raymond, Matt, Natalie, Helen and my wonderful wife, Leslie. We couldn’t have done this without you all!

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Before we leave

The following are letters that I sent to the EWE before and after the tour. I hope that they never forget this experience and “what it feels like to play in the EWE”.

12/14/09 — Some thoughts before we leave

Dear EWE,

As we prepare to leave on our journey together, let me just say a few things that I have been thinking about lately.

First of all, this has been a phenomenal group; your professionalism, desire, and talent are unmatched in my book. Thank you for that. Don’t forget that the music world is not only listening to you, but looks for you to set the bar higher every time the EWE performs.

As you well know, we are on a tight schedule this weekend. Originally, I wanted it to be longer, with more time but the academic schedule (finals) and our budget set the parameters early. In fact, as I first set out to schedule this tour, the hope was to include Severance Hall in Cleveland. They wanted us but couldn’t fit us in their busy holiday schedule (only this past Monday was available and the rental also would have taken our whole budget!). However, I have a feeling you will play there someday, nevertheless. Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor is one of those great historic halls in which all of the major orchestras have played, and it will be a great experience for you, as it was for me 26-27 years ago.

It will be a tight schedule there, as they have a concerto competition running on Thursday that will keep us from getting in until 6:30. That means that we will have to set up for you and then, hopefully, get a quick sound check. I know, even if we are not able to “rehearse” in Hill, that you will adapt well to that hall – it has 1,000 more seats now than ET! I’ve sent out a lot of invitations to folks in the Ann Arbor area to come and hear you, and I hope we will get a good audience – remember 1,000 folks in 3,250 seats may look small, but it is our job to “alter their reality”, whoever shows.

Chicago is another world. The energy of this venue and the importance of this performance is major in the wind, brass, and percussion world. People there look to the EWE to re-set their ears and rejuvenate their souls. We are the performers that have been selected to do this in a brand new venue and I am confident that we are up to this task. I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with you and rocking their world.

So, be the professionals you already are. The expectation of the EWE is that this is NOT a student group – it is THE ensemble that sets a new tone every time it performs through our repertoire standards, tours, and recordings. As you share this experience together this week, remember that it lives not only in the present, but will remain a permanent fixture in the lives of many people, and hopefully yours too. I look back at my 20 years of experiences with this ensemble and thank God every day that I was part of the Eastman Wind Ensemble. A wise man, Armando Ghitalla, once told me while conducting a performance of the Stravinsky Octet, “Never forget what it is like to play this piece.” Never forget what it is like to play with your terrific colleagues in the EWE– we are all part of the wonderful future of our craft. How lucky are we?

Toi, toi, toi — go get ‘em. Play with passion.      MDS

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Now that we are back

12/20/09 — Some thoughts now that we are back

Dear EWE,

First of all, a huge thank you and congratulations for your all of your efforts this week. You just re-set the bar, everyone’s ears, and the wind ensemble world’s expectation of excellence. The 2009 EWE Midwest tour was exemplified by PROFESSIONALISM and PASSION. I can only hope that you can wrap your minds around what you have just accomplished. You touched 5,000 people this week in a profound way. They look to the EWE to put a certain perspective in their musical lives, and you surpassed this in many ways. If this doesn’t sink in quite yet, just wait. This tour will follow you around in your professional lives for years – you will be surprised by how many comments you will get about it for a long time.

But what is more important is that you cherish this memory and experience the rest of your lives. Use this as a way to motivate yourself throughout your career. Find ways to use the feeling you had on stage in Ann Arbor and Chicago as a springboard to even greater things in your musical lives. Remember your colleagues that shared this with you, always. You are a special group of people and you are the future of music – which makes me feel really good about that future. It’s nice to know that our craft is in such good hands, folks!

I can’t remember an ensemble that gelled so well together, that cared so much for each other, listened so intently to each other and had such a spontaneous, in the moment love for making beautiful music together. This is not a trivial thing – never take what you experienced from this for granted but strive to keep having them!

Thanks, EWE, for being such terrific professionals and great human beings. I remember that you all kind of laughed a little when I said, “Thanks for being who you are” in that meeting after our first rehearsal together. I hope you now know what I meant – I had this really terrific feeling about what you were about to accomplish.

Kudos again to our wonderful support group of Matt, Helen and Natalie – they made things easier for us and helped the EWE do their thing. Please let them know how much you all appreciate what they did for us.

So, we all move on to the next great opportunity to get that wonderful feeling again. I saw it in your eyes, right after the Sierra piece on Friday night. It is that indescribable emotion that we all go for in music – that something really deep is happening at that moment to all of us at the same time and you can’t put it in words (even though I’m trying right now!).

As you know, I can go on and on but for now, just know it was a great honor to be your conductor, as always.

Now, have a great break — you deserve it!         MDS

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