Forty-four years ago, “Chief” Gene Witherspoon led the Arkansas Tech Symphonic Band to Houston, Texas, and conducted at a College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) conference for what proved to be the final time.
The CBDNA Southwestern Division Conference returns to Houston in 2018, and so does Arkansas Tech University.
The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble will perform at Moores Opera House at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 22, in what will be the seventh all-time CBDNA performance for Arkansas Tech bands.
Tech’s previous appearances came in 1967 and 1974 under Witherspoon, in 1990, 1992 and 1996 under Hal Cooper and in 2014 under Dr. Christopher Anderson.
The 2018 CBDNA Southwestern Division Conference will mark the first time that Dr. Daniel A. Belongia, associate professor of music and director of bands at Tech since 2015, has conducted an ATU band at a CBDNA performance.
The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble earned the opportunity after an audition it recorded in spring 2017 was judged by a panel of experts assigned to the task by CBDNA.
“This represents the seventh time that a Tech concert band has been selected to perform at one of the CBDNA conferences, and that is a high number,” said Belongia. “That is a very frequent collaboration with our national organization, and it really demonstrates the consistency and standard of excellence that Gene Witherspoon and Hal Cooper developed. I was honored to inherit it, and I hope to do my best to sustain it. Seven performances of this nature in 50 years is, unto itself, extraordinary.”
Belongia explained that the Houston connections run deep among those who are leading the Arkansas Tech effort.
Dr. Sean Reed of the ATU music faculty, who was born in the Houston area and fell in love with teaching during his first university assignment at nearby Prairie View A&M, will perform a trombone solo on “Five Toasts” by Roy Magnuson. Dr. Christopher Harris, director of choral studies at Arkansas Tech, will lend his baritone voice to the band’s performance of Frank Ticheli’s “Symphony No. 1” as transcribed by Gary D. Green. Harris’ first teaching job was in Houston, as was Belongia’s first foray into education.
“We have a rather extraordinary confluence of homecoming qualities,” said Belongia. “Houston is important to the history of Tech bands, and to each of us as individuals in a rather unique way. The combination of it becomes pretty profound.”
The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble will host a CBDNA send-off concert at Witherspoon Auditorium on Sunday, March 18, at 2:30 p.m. Admission will be free and open to the public.
Two days later, the band will depart for Houston and make a stop at Fort Smith Northside High School for an 11 a.m. performance.
“The backbone of this entire experience is the tour,” said Belongia. “Playing at the CBDNA is wonderful. We will play for a group of people learned in our profession with a deep appreciation for what we do. They will listen at an extremely critical level, and that has already helped us grow more so than we would under any other circumstances. To us, going to play for such a distinguished audience is motivating and helping us to grow and learn.
“However, one of the best side effects of going to play in a distant place is that it gives us such a terrific opportunity to turn the invitation into a tour,” continued Belongia. “We can share what we’re working on and work with our colleagues in the high school band programs as much as possible. We have deep ties in the Fort Smith area. We were grateful to take a group and perform at Fort Smith Southside High School last year, and this year we hope to share with the students at Fort Smith Northside. If we are lucky, we can inspire a few of them. If we’re tremendously lucky, we can encourage them to choose to attend Arkansas Tech someday.”
The tour will continue at Allen High School (Texas) for an 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, March 20. Dr. Philip Obado, a colleague of Belongia from their days together at Illinois State University, became the director of bands at Allen High School last summer.
“I am not aware of another high school band program in grades 9-12 that has more than 700 band students,” said Belongia. “Allen High School puts that many band students on the field each Friday night during football season. Imagine a band approximately four times the size of our Band of Distinction.”
Members of the ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble for spring 2018 are: Ger Vang, Abigail Suiter, Miranda Kraus, Hannah Capper and Meeka Smith (flute and piccolo); Hannah Pace and Hannah Cochran (oboe and English horn); Jackie Seres and Blake Marshall (bassoon and contrabassoon); Kaela Thompson, Megan Garrett, Anna Shelton, Shelby Horne, Emily McFadin and Trevor Guiltner (Eb and Bb clarinets); Jordan Ladyman, Riley Young and Emily McFadin (low clarinets); Jarod Apple, Manuel Valente, Tina Christiansen, Jordan Davis and Cole Birmingham (saxophones); Brian Wyatt, Megan Mounce, Garrett Napier, Garreth Atwell, Sierra Visger and Kimberly Hilliard (horn); Dalton Snow, David Hall, Trevor Gould, Armando Gutierrez, Gavin Richardson and Dillon Green (Bb and C trumpets); Jacob Hawkins, Holden Jones and Noah Ward (trombone); Riley Kelley (bass trombone); Corey Nolan and Jamie Williams (euphonium); Abby Few and Michael Barker (tuba); Ian Neiswender, Connor Skelly, Sean McGinnis, Shane Phillips, Bryan Torres, Alexis Harris and Ethan Nooner (percussion); Hauna Gardner (piano and celesta); Brett Kelley and Bryson Jones (contrabass); and Anna Cooney and Danielle Harmon (harp).
“I’ve been involved in these types of events throughout my career, and I am always in awe of the students and my colleagues,” said Belongia. “I’ve been an audience member for these and a performer in these since I made my first trip as a student trombonist with the University of Miami band 22 years ago. I gained some incredibly important life lessons that were very positive. What we can do is perform at the very highest level we can, and then appreciate it all. It is inspiring in every regard to attend a conference of this magnitude. I believe our students will come away inspired by what they hear and very proud of what they do.”
Belongia noted that a combination of support from Arkansas Tech and its alumni will make for an unforgettable experience for the students involved.
“Our alumni have gathered around our program to provide financial support for extraordinary elements of this tour,” said Belongia. “Arkansas Tech has been hugely supportive of our participation in this conference, and then our alumni contributed in a manner that allowed us to make the trip very special. This is a five-night tour for our students, and all of their expenses are paid. We are going to take them to one of the finest hotels in Houston, the J.W. Marriott in downtown Houston. Professor (Hal) Cooper is personally taking everyone out to lunch on the Thursday afternoon before our performance. There will be a beautiful banquet and reception in the hotel immediately following our CBDNA performance, and when the conference is over on Saturday, we are taking all the students to hear the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Many of our students have never attended a professional orchestral concert, and very few of them have heard one of the finest in America like the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
“The students have worked really hard,” concluded Belongia, “and they are going to represent us so very well.”