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    Marine Band Celebrates 215th Anniversary with John Williams



    Story by Staff Sgt. Rachel Ghadiali 

    "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band

    WASHINGTON - In celebration of the Marine Band’s 215th anniversary, “The President’s Own” recently experienced the gift of music and friendship during a rehearsal and recording session with the renowned composer and conductor John Williams, the latest collaboration in a relationship between two American musical icons. And it all started with a rising Marine major and his fortuitous letter to the son of a jazz drummer.

    In 2002, with the Marine Band’s 205th anniversary approaching, then-assistant director Major Michael J. Colburn thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have John Williams conduct the band?” He wrote a letter to the Academy Award-winning composer and conductor laureate of the Boston Pops, inviting him to conduct the band in its upcoming anniversary gala concert to be held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

    One of the greatest film composers of all time, John Williams hadn’t conducted a band since he was an active duty member of the Air Force in the early 1950s, so Maj. Colburn understood that it was a long shot. But as a young boy, Williams’ father had instilled in him a respect and admiration for the Marine Band, so he was excited at the prospect of conducting the ensemble.

    Williams agreed to conduct, which began a fruitful relationship between one of the giants of Hollywood music and America’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization.

    Williams arrived for rehearsals on July 10 and 11, 2003, and by the gala concert on July 12, everything his father had taught him about the Marine Band rang true. “My father, who was a professional musician, always imparted the idea that the maximum quality of wind and brass playing in our country was the U.S. Marine Band,” Williams said. “So it was then, and so it is today.”

    The program included some of his most widely recognized works, including “Adventures on Earth” from "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," and Olympic Fanfare and Theme, written specifically for the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics. The Marine Jazz Orchestra also performed a number of his early jazz works. “I’d never heard any of it played better,” the composer said enthusiastically. “And the brilliance of the brass particularly thrilled me; as brilliant and exciting as any of the ensembles we have peppered generously across the country. It was a thrilling revelation to hear my music played by a concert band, a first for me.”

    Williams returned in 2008 for the band’s 210th anniversary gala performance at the Kennedy Center, noting that “The United States Marine Band is one of the finest music ensembles that our country has produced … it is to the everlasting credit of the Marine Corps that it has maintained and nurtured its beloved band over so many glorious years.”

    He also appeared as a surprise guest conductor in a 2009 National Tour Concert performance at Royce Hall at the campus of University of California, Los Angeles, his alma mater.

    Each experience with Mr. Williams is thrilling and inspiring for the members of the Marine Band. In addition to his astounding talent as a composer, Williams is a gifted and thoughtful conductor. “He is one of the kindest and most courteous conductors we have ever had on our podium, and his ability to get the most out of the musicians is awe-inspiring,” said Col. Colburn. “One can sense that he is always listening and responding to the musicianship of our players.”

    The most recent collaboration between the band and the legendary film composer came in the form of an anniversary gift. In honor of the Marine Band’s 215th anniversary, this year Williams composed a new work for band aptly titled “For ‘The President’s Own.”

    Apparently, providence allowed for its creation.

    In an interview conducted in 2004 for The Instrumentalist by then-Maj. Colburn, Williams said, “…film work keeps me so busy. I would be interested in writing for bands again, but it is far down on the scale of probability. … If providence would allow for the creation of a work for band, I wouldn’t resist it.”

    The new piece was inspired by the virtuosic performance abilities of the members of “The President’s Own,” and Williams’ memories of “the first blast of sound that I heard from the group. Certainly loud, but loud and beautiful. Never harsh, and never ugly in any way. It’s a noble, brilliant sound. It’s a beautiful balance, and articulate.” And the trumpets, Williams noted, “they’re so beautifully matched and balanced. It’s extraordinary the amount of clarity and brilliance they bring to the whole range of the instrument.”

    The new work does not easily fit into the mold of a traditional musical form and is perhaps best described by the casual term “curtain raiser.” Williams’ spirited work begins with a dialogue among six trumpet parts, presenting a challenge to the players to match articulation and sound to create totally cohesive lines. It weaves together bright fanfares from the high brass, exciting rhythmic woodwind interjections, pulsing bass lines, along with many other motives, each with their own gripping kinetic vigor. There is a quiet and ever-building energy replete with the bustling rhythmic activity and brilliant brass writing that characterizes many of Williams’ finest scores. The excitement of the music continues to grow until the brass and percussion engage in a dialogue that brings the work to a dazzling conclusion.

    In writing the band piece, Williams admitted, “it was a little scary. So much of my work in the commercial world has had to do with film and it’s almost always orchestra. The strings have to be substituted for by wind passages. … I’ve had the luxury of all these violins who can keep bowing and bowing without ever having to worry about breathing and revisit some of the techniques and basics of writing for band. Scoring for band is … an art in itself.”

    The band rehearsed and recorded the work under Williams’ baton in July in the John Philip Sousa Band Hall in Washington, D.C. Principal flute Master Gunnery Sgt. Betsy Hill said Williams’ love of music came through with every gesture. “Just a small nuance gave us all the information we needed to know how to play a certain phrase.”

    She continued, awe-struck: “To think that one of the most prolific, influential and successful composers of our era was standing on the podium in front of us, thrilled with our performance of his piece; it’s very humbling and a highlight of my career.”

    The rehearsal began promptly at 11 a.m., Wednesday, July 3. Wearing his signature black turtleneck and gray trousers, he stepped onto the podium and said, “I’m happy to see you again.” The band members clapped their hands and shuffled their feet on the bamboo floor as a gesture of anticipated excitement and approval. With bottles of water on a nearby stool and pencils on each music stand, the conductor and the musicians went to work.

    “I wanted to ask a couple little things of you,” Williams said to the group, proposing the band members add a crescendo to measure 100, change a note in measure 122, and play dotted quarter notes as bell tones. While his right hand commanded the band with a small baton, his left hand cupped his ear when he wanted more volume from the bass, worked in tandem with the baton, turned the pages of the score when necessary, and slipped into his pocket when it wasn’t busy. Upon hearing the band perform his composition, Williams turned to Col. Colburn and exclaimed, “Colonel, you have a hot band!”

    Following 18 minutes of rehearsal time, the band took a short break before diving into the recording session. During the break, Williams beamed: “It sounded awfully good.”

    Sousa Hall was transformed into a recording studio, with four video cameras and 20 microphones, long bright blue cables snaking across the floor, and 15-pound sandbags steadying mic stands. Clarinet players blew into their finger holes to clear out condensation, members of the public affairs office snapped photographs, audio technicians tested recording equipment, and giddy musicians met the prolific composer in person.

    Williams conducted the band through one full take of the piece and tapped the podium with his baton three times indicating the end of the first recording. “Bravo! Shall we do it once more?”

    Over the past 10 years, the relationship between John Williams and the Marine Band has evolved into a truly unique friendship, and the collaborations with the composer have been career highlights for many members of “The President’s Own.” His rapport with the band and connection with the musicians is one of mutual respect and admiration. And though he is one of the most masterful composers of his time, he exudes an air of humility. In his parting remarks to Col. Colburn, he quietly said of his composition “For ‘The President’s Own,’” “I hope it’s turned out to be something reasonably worthy of these players.”



    Date Taken: 07.11.2013
    Date Posted: 07.11.2013 16:37
    Story ID: 110079
    Location: WASHINGTON, DC, US 

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