SF L/G Freedom Band celebrates endurance
by Heidi Beeler
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. — Ernest Shackleton."
So goes the recruitment ad calling for sailors to join Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 Antarctic expedition on the ship Endurance. The epic survival story of 28 explorers who saw their ship crushed by ice and engineered their own rescue off the Antarctic continent after 21 months is celebrated in music in Timothy Mahr's Endurance. It's the centerpiece of An Enduring View, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band's concert this Saturday night, conducted by Professor Timothy Smith, Director of Bands at Cal State East Bay.
"This piece just knocked me out when I first became aware of it," Smith said in a phone interview. "[Mahr] really captured the whole spirit of the Shackleton story and the Endurance. In his program notes, he talks about the endurance of the human spirit and of the earth."
Endurance is sometimes heroic, with brass melodies not unlike Star Trek -type themes; sometimes anxious; and sometimes free-flowing. Complex percussion parts, muted horns and woodwinds, and even musicians' voices evoke images of the sea, the enormity of the wilderness and the emotions of the explorers as they sail, wreck and struggle to survive.
Smith himself seems like a bit of an adventurer among band directors. In the past few weeks, when he wasn't observing eight interns from his teaching program and leading clinics, he conducted the Director's Band at the California Band Director's Association State Conference, guest-conducted honor bands at high schools, led a music clinic and adjudicated the Solo Ensemble Festival. The morning of the Freedom Band concert, he flies back from Ontario, CA, where he's conducting at the California Music Educator's Association State Conference, which named him Outstanding Music Educator of 2006. He's shoehorned in Tuesday rehearsals with the Freedom Band to prepare for this concert.
Smith will be the first straight person to conduct a full concert with the Freedom Band, an interesting marker nearly 30 years after the Band's founding. With a gay brother and students, he has a familiarity with the LGBT community, and he's enthusiastic about the Band's mission as the first LGBT community music organization. When he was first invited to work with the group at an afternoon retreat in 2002, he said it was the musicality of the group that caught his attention.
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When he was approached to guest conduct the spring concert, Smith said he was "knocked out" to be remembered by the group. "I really felt excited about the potential of being a part of it. Just knowing the programs that had been put together on themes that helped draw attention to social consciousness. That speaks volumes about the Band itself and the kind of mission that it has."
In planning An Enduring View, Smith focused on three pieces. After Endurance, he brought out Et In Terra Pax, written by Belgian composer Jan van der Roost in 1998 for the town concert band in Vlamertinge, a Belgian town along the WWI battlefront. This piece includes the reading of "Sonnet," a poem articulating the waste of war, written by English poet Charles Hamilton Sorley not long before he was killed on the battlefield. The third piece was Caccia and Chorale, written by Clifton Williams, virtually the first composer of original music for wind band. The piece explores the frantic "chase" that drives our modern lives, followed by a stately chorale.
"So when I had those three pieces, I started thinking about our current situation with the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan," Smith said. "I started to think about how amazing it's been that people have endured through all of these different things."
After rounding out the program with Jay Dawson's Stars, about our wonder at the universe, and A View of the World, about the timelessness of youth, Smith found he'd programmed a concert different from any he'd assembled before. He was especially surprised to find that most of the pieces ended in a whisper.
Heidi Beeler plays trumpet in the SF L/G Freedom Band. An Enduring View starts 8 p.m., Sat., March 17, at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 678 Portola Dr., SF. Free. Info: www.sflgfb.org or (415) 255-1355.