Last week I headed down to Baltimore to attend the annual conference of the Conductors Guild. Believe it or not, I had never been to Baltimore, and also had never attended a Conductors Guild conference. So when they asked me if I’d like to be a part of a panel on music and the media, I took the opportunity to attend the whole shebang and in the interim attempt to catch as much of the city as I could—indulging in my usual vices: some great restaurants (larger-than-life crab cakes and appropriately spicy Thai), ghost-ridden pre-20th century saloons, a fabulous used book and record store, plus a really well-curated art museum which also happens to always be free.
As interesting as discovering Baltimore was, the conference proved to be even more compelling. New music was a major focus of the four days of symposia. Marin Alsop delivered the keynote address. Four sessions, entitled “The New Music Project,” were devoted to member conductors and publishing representatives sharing information about recent orchestral compositions (replete with scores and excerpts from live performance recording) in the hopes that the other conductors in the room will get excited about these works and program them. (I was deeply moved by a presentation of Meira Warshauer’s Symphony No. 1 Living, Breathing Earth.) This forum wasn’t limited to compositions issued by the major publishers, either. Many self-published works were featured and a number of the composers were on hand to directly make contact with the guild’s membership—which is something many composers should consider doing in future years. A composer attending the conference last January in Toronto wound up garnering an orchestra performance in May—not bad odds if you ask me.
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the conference for me was the involvement of the commanders of the bands from each of the five branches of the United States military—Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines. Whatever your view might be of our nation’s current military endeavors, there’s no debate that some of the highest level ensemble playing occurs in these groups. And their programming is as dynamic as their playing. A concert given during the conference by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band featured performances of music by Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg—and that was the old music! And anyone who thinks that concert attire is too formal should check out the elaborate uniforms of these groups which are a key ingredient of their concert presentation.
A panel assembling the five band commanders—Col. Michael Colburn (“The President’s Own” United States Marine Band), Col. Dennis Layendecker (U.S. Air Force Band), Commander Kenneth Megan (U.S. Coast Guard Band), Col. Thomas Rotondi (The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own”), and Capt. George Thompson (The U.S. Navy Band)—was the talking heads highlight of the entire conference. Hearing these guys talk about what they perceive the role of the conductor to be was truly mind opening. In military bands, there are no divisions between music director, executive director, and union rep—the commander is all of the above and then some. According to Col. Layendecker, “We can send [the musicians] to jail if they mess up.”
But before you dismiss all of this as terribly undemocratic and inappropriate protocol for civilian ensembles, Layendecker went on to say that band commanders become deeply involved in the lives of the musicians; often being the ones that musicians turn to in order to get them out of a jam. Consider these other comments from Layendecker: “Authority requires engagement.” “We don’t make the sound; we’re facilitators.” When’s the last time you heard a conductor of a symphony orchestra say things like that?
According to Col. Colburn, there is a 90 percent retention rate of band members and most stay over twenty years. These bands are extremely well-funded and frequently commission and perform new works. For example, Colburn premiered Rakowski’s fiendishly difficult Ten of a Kind, the only band piece ever to be a Pulitzer finalist, and will premiere a new Rakowski piece in the near future.
Ultimately these ensembles are public relations for the United States military. As Commander Megan put it, “Our goal is not to create beautiful music but to represent the coast guard.” Yet it’s remarkable that the mechanism the military has chosen for its PR is music making on a very high level. In our constant talk about the dearth of funding for the arts in the United States, I wonder if people even consider the activities of these bands as part of that economy. I’m curious to find out what other countries support such a broad range of musical activities in the military and to what end.