Band on the run: Youth Wind Ensemble to take European tour

By TIMOTHY MANGAN
Writer-in-residence

Gregory X. Whitmore is a band guy through and through, a protege of the legendary bandsman H. Robert Reynolds, a former drum major of the Michigan Marching Band, able to rattle off the history of the “Washington Post March” at a moment’s notice. He’s also just finished his third season as music director of Pacific Symphony Youth Wind Ensemble, which has just finished its 10th. To celebrate the ensemble’s milestone, Whitmore is taking it on its first tour this summer — to Vienna, no less. The band will compete in the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival in July there.

“This just felt right,” Whitmore said recently, speaking of the festival over a cup of coffee. Not only is it held in Vienna, “the home of Western music,” filled with sites for musical pilgrims, “but more than that, the chance to have a concert in the Musikverein, the home of the Vienna Philharmonic, the chance to also play at the Vienna Konzerthaus” — where the Pacific Symphony culminated its own European tour in 2006 — “and the chance to play at the MuTh, the home of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, just was an exclamation point on what is going to be a superb tour.”

Though many orchestras support their own youth orchestras these days, few make room for youth wind ensembles as well. “That really is a testament to the vision of Mr. St.Clair and feeling very strongly about having a youth ensembles family that makes artistry and education a really tandem experience,” Whitmore said. Wind ensembles, or bands, have a rich history in the United States, and a rich repertoire. In the late 19th century, it was estimated that there were some 10,000 bands in the country, professional, military and amateur.

The PSYWE, 80 strong, is made up of students in 8th through 12th grades, from all over Southern California, with a concentration in Orange County.

“These kids are, first, fantastic young people,” Whitmore said. “I would say that the real pleasure of having the music directorship of the youth wind ensemble is the fact that I get to work with some really talented and dedicated and just hard-working young people who want to be great artists.”

It was Reynolds, long the head of bands at the University of Michigan, now principal conductor of the Wind Ensemble at USC, who recommended Whitmore for the PSYWE job. The young conductor had stayed in touch with his teacher through the years, sending him concert programs and news clippings updating his activities with the bands at Cathedral City High School in the Coachella Valley. When the job came open, Reynolds mentioned Whitmore as a good candidate to St.Clair, who, as it happened, had also worked with Reynolds at the University of Michigan and now at USC.

On the way to Vienna, the musicians will also stop in Salzburg, home of Mozart, of course, but will not play there. Whitmore says he wants to give the kids a chance to tour at least a little without the pressure of performing.

In Vienna, their competition program includes music by three living composers, Americans Frank Ticheli, the former composer-in-residence of the Pacific Symphony, and Paul Basler, as well as Austrian composer Thomas Doss, whose brief “Trumpet and Bridges” is a compulsory competition piece for all bands. The music of Bach is also performed.

In additional concerts outside of the competition, Whitmore has added the music of living composers Eric Whitacre and Aaron Perrine to that of Ticheli and Basler; the “Radetzky March” by Johann Strauss, Jr.; John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” and Bach.

Whitmore, something of a Sousa aficionado, notes that the “Washington Post March” is not your typical American military march. It was written for an essay contest awards ceremony at the newspaper and became wildly popular as a dance, the newly popular two-step, which itself became known as the “Washington Post.”

(Next season, Whitmore and his band will perform two rarely heard pieces by Sousa, “President Garfield’s Inauguration March,” written in 1881, and “In Memoriam” (President Garfield’s Funeral March), written later the same year, after his assassination. Both works are newly available in an edition from the United States Marine Band.)

The Bach pieces — the Chorale Prelude, “Fervent is My Longing” and the “Little” Fugue in G-minor — might seem like outliers, but they’re traditional pieces for band, arranged by Lucien Cailliet, once an arranger for Leopold Stokowski.

“The music of Bach for the concert band finds its initiation in the 1930s,” Whitmore says. “The great Edwin Franko Goldman bands began to play Bach’s music.” Whitmore especially wanted to play Bach in the historic and acoustically celebrated Musikverein. It should resound handsomely.

“For band it’s great because Bach often wrote for organ,” Whitmore said. “And a wind band is a living organ.”

Pacific Symphony Youth Wind Ensemble

What: Tour preview concert

With: Gregory X. Whitmore, conductor

Where: Claire Trevor Theatre, UCI

When: 7 p.m. June 30

Tickets: Free

Call: 714-755-5799

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