They built it. The COVID-19 pandemic tore it down. Now, they’re rebuilding it.
The Arkansas Tech University Symphonic Wind Ensemble is preparing for an experience of a lifetime that’s been more than two years in the making.
The group will perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Wednesday, Dec. 15, at 6 p.m. (Central Standard Time). Bands from Cabot High School and Russellville High School will also perform at Carnegie Hall that evening.
It will mark the culmination of a process that began in summer 2019 when it was announced the ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble had been selected to perform at Carnegie Hall in May 2020.
Dr. Daniel A. Belongia, ATU director of bands, conductor of the ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble and professor of music, set about the task of developing a program appropriate for a venue made famous by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Antonín Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, Béla Bartók, George Gershwin, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, the Beatles and countless others.
He assembled pieces by such composers as Paul Dooley, Roy Magnuson and Jim Stephenson. The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble began learning and rehearsing the repertoire.
Then came March 13, 2020, and all of a sudden the world — including Carnegie Hall — was largely shut down due to a deadly virus and its rapid spread. The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble went silent for 17 months.
“When we started to rebuild, Carnegie Hall offered the reschedule date of Dec. 15, 2021,” said Belongia. “In many ways, that was too soon, and we certainly didn’t predict the resurgence of the Delta variant. But, that concert date gave us the best chance to involve as many of the students as possible that were to have participated in May 2020, so we went for it.
“For many reasons, it became clear that we should rebuild the program from scratch,” continued Belongia. “I believe that it’s officially Carnegie concert repertoire version 19. Eighteen permutations before landing here…it’s been a winding road, and I got a lot of help from a lot of people. Now that we’re here, some of the most beautiful music that I’ve ever conducted by those dear friends Dooley, Magnuson and Stephenson aren’t on the program anymore. That saddens me, but I cherish the memory of our experience with that music in early 2020. Except for that loss, I’m now beyond excited about the program.”
The show the ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble will take to Carnegie Hall includes “Celebration” by ATU music faculty member Philip Parker, a “Copland Suite” of music by Aaron Copland, “Soul” from “Concerto for Wind Ensemble” by Kevin Day and “A Lincoln Address” by Vincent Persichetti.
Following an intermission, the performance will continue with “My Jesus, Oh What Anguish” by Johann Sebastian Bach as arranged by Alfred Reed and the third movement of “Symphony No. 8” by David Maslanka.
“The beauty and power of the final movement of Symphony No. 8 will represent a stunning end to this experience for the students and I,” said Belongia.
The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble will be joined by a number of guests during its Carnegie Hall performance.
Dr. Jon Nash, ATU assistant director of bands and assistant professor of music, will be guest conductor on “Celebration.” He will stand in for Hal Cooper, professor emeritus of music and former director of bands at ATU. Cooper was slated to guest conduct the piece during the May 2020 Carnegie Hall performance.
“Hal is just one of my absolute heroes,” said Belongia. “He’s a mentor and friend in every way, and I immediately asked if he would join us and guest conduct this piece at Carnegie. Being the kind gentleman that he always is, he accepted my invitation in 2020. However, he unfortunately isn’t going to be able to come with us on the reschedule. We’ll miss him on the trip.”
Three members of the ATU music faculty — Dr. Jon Clements (baritone voice), Ken Futterer (oboe) and Dr. T.J. Perry (trumpet) — will join the ensemble on “Copland Suite,” which is a pairing of “Old American Dances” and “Quiet City.”
The structure of “A Lincoln Address” calls for a narrator to recite some of President Abraham Lincoln’s most famous quotes. With a university band and two high school bands from Arkansas on the program and the presidential theme of the piece, Belongia had an idea.
“I wondered…what if Bill Clinton would agree to be our narrator?” said Belongia. “We worked on it for some time, and I believe that President Clinton wanted to collaborate with us, but we recently received regrets that he will be unable to attend. Since Stephanie Streett was our connection and advocate to President Clinton, we are thrilled she has agreed to be our narrator in his stead. Stephanie served in the White House during President Clinton’s administration and has deep roots in the Russellville community, including serving as a clarinet player in Travis Beard’s bands at Russellville High School.”
Gary Green, emeritus professor of music and director of bands at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, will guest conduct the ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble’s performance of “My Jesus, Oh What Anguish.” Green became a mentor to Belongia when the latter was an undergraduate and graduate music student at the University of Miami.
“We are really happy to be able to have the project to build, and we are so grateful for the support we’ve gotten from the university, our alumni, friends and community near and far,” said Belongia. “Every ‘go get ’em’ helps our students remember all of this support as they juggle their lives with this opportunity.”
The ATU Symphonic Wind Ensemble will offer a preview of its Carnegie Hall show during a home concert at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21, at Witherspoon Auditorium.
A live stream of the Nov. 21 performance will be available at https://bit.ly/atumusiclive. Due to COVID-19 precautions, in-person attendance at Witherspoon Auditorium will be limited to invited guests of the performers.
Learn more about the ATU Department of Music at www.atu.edu/music.