From playing Christmas music in the old Muskegon Mall in the early 1980s to performing before 1,000 patrons in New York City’s Carnegie Hall this past June, the West Michigan Concerts WINDS’ musical ascent may seem to some like a quantum leap. But their longtime conductor Gail A. Brecthing views the ensemble’s remarkable journey as one of continually accepting challenges.
“I have found that everything we do steps us into another league,” explained Brechting, a music educator at Reeths-Puffer High School who is in her 20th year as the WINDS conductor.
“When I first started here it was about building, and when you first build, it’s fun because everything can be better. But as you get pretty good, then it’s maintaining. That, in my eyes, is a little more difficult. It’s always ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ But then you have to be into a different league, so you start building again. I am still working with adults from the Muskegon area who volunteer to do this and are not professional musicians. It just goes to show what you can pull out of talented people if you choose to guide them that way.”
The WINDS won the John Phillip Sousa Foundation’s Sudler Silver Scroll in 2005 “as one of the premier ensembles in the United States adult band world,” noted Brechting. They annually perform at festivals across Michigan and have travelled and played several times in Europe.
Standing in a Very Hallowed Place
When they took the Carnegie Hall stage, Brechting said her 71 well-prepared musicians – including six current Muskegon Community College students as well as President Dale Nesbary and his wife Connie – were fueled with adrenalin knowing they needed to “step up their game” because they were playing in the Hall.
They were seated on the very spot where Tchaikovsky directed the 1891 opening concert. The revered Manhattan structure built by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for his wife is the former home of the New York Philharmonic and of regular recording appearances by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. Carnegie Hall has hosted performances from big band legends Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday and Glenn Miller to modern rock n’ roll icons The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. On its stage, Booker T. Washington delivered the Tuskegee Institute Silver Anniversary address and Mark Twain gave his last public lecture.
“Everywhere you looked, they had posters of all of the greats who had been there,” said Brecthing, who was making her first visit, as were more than half of the WINDS members. “So you saw amazing conductors and musicians and American and European stars and opera singers. You knew that you were standing in a very hallowed place of what we love, which is performing.”
The WINDS were serendipitously invited to perform at Carnegie Hall after Brechting, while attending a music educators’ conference in Grand Rapids in January 2015, was intrigued by a Carnegie Hall picture at a vendor’s booth. She casually asked Brian Clissold from Manhattan Concert Productions, which organizes the primarily choral shows to fill open gaps in the Carnegie Hall schedule throughout the year, if they accept adult bands.
Upon learning they did, Brechting submitted a CD in March 2015 of a recent WINDS concert. Just weeks later, the company eagerly invited the WINDS to play the Chicago Symphony Hall, another American treasure, in May and then Carnegie Hall the following year.
“We played in Symphony Hall, which has a lot more bling, and is much more bright and sassy,” noted Brechting. “But Carnegie Hall has more of a European feel. The acoustics are like nothing I’ve really ever experienced. It was built to be an opera theater, so it’s very narrow – even narrower in width than the Frauenthal – but it goes way back. It takes up a block. And the people who played here, who had their feet on this stage, you are just in awe of that.”
During the weekend prior to their Sunday night concert, the WINDS had an hour-and-a-half rehearsal in a Westin Hotel ballroom near Times Square and a truncated 15-minute sound check inside the hall itself. The WINDS were scheduled to close the concert, following performances by the Oberlin Choristers Canterra Musica; the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory: Voices Rising; Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir; and the National Children’s Festival Chorus.
Brechting carefully chose the Winds’ selections from their recent concerts. They opened with “Gloriana,” a fanfare written for the first woman president of Furman University, and followed with “Bandancing” with its “City Shuffle,” “Tango,” and “Waltz” movements. As an award-winning Sousa band, the WINDS played Sousa’s “The New York Hippodrome,” which the famed composer first played in Carnegie Hall. Then “The Seal Lullalby” featured Brechting’s husband on the piano.
For the show’s finale, Brechting selected “Michigan on Parade,” with its obvious reference to the home state, instead of their traditional “Stars and Stripes.”
“In my contract, I was told I couldn’t turn around and speak to the audience,” recounted Brechting. “Instead, what I did during the last strain of music, which is the last 32 bars where usually the trumpets and everybody else stands up on ‘Stars and Stripes,’ I just turned around and started clapping to the beat, which you see happen in concert parks all the time. I made sure I saw everybody in all the balconies and got them clapping. Sousa was very good at milking the audience and getting people to clap for his group. I am pretty good at it, too. They responded by clapping and standing up. So, at the end we had a standing ovation!”
The applause continued for three or four minutes, but the memories of the Winds’ half-hour show still linger.
“To actually say now that I have conducted and that my ensemble has played on the Carnegie Hall stage? When I got done and woke up the next morning, I thought ‘Did we really do that?”
A Prestigious Honor
As for the MCC students, what were their lasting impressions? They are part of a fruitful 30-year partnership between the college and the ensemble that accepts talented MCC student musicians into the group and provides the WINDS with an excellent practice facility on campus.
Trombonist Parker Sovinski, a Fremont High graduate who just completed his first year at MCC, was initially mesmerized staring out at the nearly 3,000 seats inside the hall.
“It was a prestigious honor and me being only 19 and inexperienced, I was nervous,” he explained. “But once you stepped on stage and played, you got really comfortable really fast. You hear about all these extremely well-known famous musicians who play Carnegie Hall. I wouldn’t imagine a community band out of the West Michigan area would be able to do that, but we did. It felt like a huge honor because there are so many great musicians from around this area.”
Sovinski said his fellow MCC musicians shared that feeling. They were Nate Christensen on bassoon, Steven Kowalski and Aric Smith on trumpet, Tyler Adams on tuba and Johnathan Homer on percussion. The robust music offerings at MCC allowed Sovinski the opportunity this past year to perform with the college’s Wind Ensemble, Jazz Ensemble and Jayhawk Sound pep band. He praises MCC’s music faculty.
“Tim Froncek, Dan Meyers and Gail Brechting are all great musicians themselves and to be able to learn from them is just really a great experience,” said Sovinski, who attends MCC on a music scholarship and plans to pursue a music education degree at Western Michigan University after this year. “But Carnegie Hall was definitely the highlight of music career so far. It was better than I expected.”
Brechting offered her own insights on the impact Carnegie Hall had upon the musicians from her perspective as a veteran conductor who is also the mother of the youngest WINDS member, her 17-year-old daughter, Annie.
“They are going to take away the fact that they played very fine music in a world class hall,” she concluded. “They got to be part of a little minute of history in that hall that can never be taken away from them. I think we were all walking just a little bit taller when we left that day.”