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April 19, 2008

Q&A: Band composer David Holsinger


Composer David Holsinger, whose latest work will be premiered by the Tiger Symphonic Band at Georgetown College April 24. Photo courtesy of David Holsinger.

David Holsinger’s name might not rank up there with Gershwin or Copland in the household name department, but mention it to almost anyone in the world of concert bands, and their eyes light up.
That’s why Georgetown College’s Tiger Symphonic Band is giddy that it is playing the world premiere of Holsinger’s latest composition, Legacy Music, at its spring concert Thursday. Because of a prior commitment, the composer, based at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., can’t be in Georgetown for the concert. But we asked him a few questions via e-mail.

Q: How did you become interested in composing band music?

A few years ago I had the privilege of writing a chapter in the first volume of a book set entitled:  Composers on Composing for Band from GIA in Chicago.  Your first question can probably be best answered if I simply extract a portion of that chapter:

I've attended Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri, Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, and the University of Kansas at Lawrence.  At the last two the study of composition was my primary goal.  However, it was an incident at that first small college that set me on the course I travel today.

In the 1950's and 60's, Central Methodist College was a hotbed for music education graduates.  Although very small, with fewer than 1000 students, the college seemed to produce an inordinate number of very good instrumental and vocal educators for the state's public schools.  Almost every music teacher I had in public school had been a graduate of CMC.  Somewhere along the way, I just knew it was the place for me.  I went to Central Methodist to become “the music teacher.”

However, I discovered one thing about my career choice very early in my education.  In comparison to all my classmates, their desire to be a music teacher was CONSIDERABLY GREATER than my desire to be a music teacher.  But, music was all I knew and, of course, everyone back home DID have my future all figured out.  Who was I to argue?  I was having a great time being a college guy, so why buck the system? In the spring of my junior year, everything changed.

Like a number of small colleges in the midwest, the Central Methodist Band and Choir always had a spring tour, usually consisting of seven days of travel with three concerts a day at schools or churches.  One group headed east, the other west.  In the fall of 1965, our band director announced that we would have a guest composer traveling with us on the upcoming spring tour.  His name was Vaclav Nehlybel and he would be conducting two of his recent works, Trittico and Chorale.    The pieces arrived.  The music was big and brash, loud and gritty.  They were vibrant and full of thunderings and poundings, and we couldn't wait for this man to show up on our doorstep!  My classmates and I were all young and egomaniacal in those days.  The first thought in our collective mind was “we've hot players and we're going to show this guy what music is all about!”

Two days before tour, Vaclav Nehlybel walked into our band hall, stepped on the podium, lifted his arms . . . As I watched that first slashing downbeat of the baton, I realized I didn't have a clue what HIS music was all about.  I had absolutely no idea how “personal” music could be.  In that one electrifying instant, I saw brutality, beauty, angst, anguish, joy, triumph, sorrow, exhilaration, devastation, despair, hope, faith . . . all in the eyes of one man conducting HIS music.  For seven days we rode the bus and played the schools.  At the close of the final tour concert, I sat in the back of an empty stage and wept.  I was overcome by the transformation I knew was happening in my life.  I had now come face to face with my future. I wanted to be a composer.

The following week was spring break.  I went home to the farm, set down at the piano and proceeded to work, morning, noon, and night writing my first composition.  I don't remember the exact day my mother ran screaming from the house, but nevertheless, at the end of the week, my first composition emerged; a work for band I entitled Prelude and Rondo.  A few years later, it was to become my first published work.

Q: Your works have been premiered by many prestigious ensembles. How did you select Georgetown College for Legacy Music?

 A: Actually, it was the other way around.  Georgetown chose me.  I was contacted by Director Peter LaRue several years ago concerning the possibility of writing a work for them, which is the way of the commissioning process whether it be writer, painter or composer.

We talked about his dream for the piece.  We talked about the challenges, both musically and physically.  We talked about the “business” of the commissioning process and the time-frame available for writing a work for the Georgetown College Band.

After some discussion we set about the task of bringing his dream to fruition and how I could help him in that endeavor.

As a Sidenote: For many composers, commissioning is the lifeblood of their vocation, and each is prepared to facilitate this procedure.  Since I assume that the band director who contacts me knows my musical style, I also assume that he is putting the “artistic creative integrity” of his piece in my hands.  The information I need from the commissioning agent should include:  Projected length and grade level of the composition; the size and special needs or special talents in the ensemble;  the reason for the commission (Is it to honor a person or special occasion?  Should it be based on an existing musical theme and why?); a general idea of the “type” of piece the commissioning agent desires; when the piece needs to be delivered; when is the work expected to be premiered and are there special circumstances concerning the first performance?  For their contract, the commissioning agent does receive first performance privilege.

Occasionally I have been bestowed with too much information. Once, after asking a project chairman what “type” of piece was envisioned, I received a two page, single spaced e-mail, containing an entire outline for about 240 measures of music which consisted of directions like, “The piece should open with an eight measure fanfare-like figure in the trumpets and high woodwinds.  The first theme should be in tonic key, with 32 bar phrases, accompanied by three part trombone, in an agitated rhythmic  style, probably doubled by either the horns or saxophones.....etc....”

I REALLY wanted to suggest that a committee made up of “band method” students at his local university could probably put this piece together, but civility getting the best of me, I simply emailed back that all I really needed to know was: “fast” or “slow.”

Q: Tell us about the piece and the challenges and opportunities Legacy Music presents the musicians.

Let me tell you of the “spirit” of the piece first.  Professor LaRue asked that the piece contain, not necessarily be based on, the Georgetown Alma Mater.  The tune is to a hymn entitled Are Ye Able, Said the Master which dates from around 1926, if I recall correctly. I will admit, that my first thought was, “This is going to be a very difficult hymn to set!”  Why?  Because it is somewhat unconventional in its harmonic movement and therefore not very “pliable” when considering differing harmonic directions.

Admittedly, I was somewhat stymied at first about what to do with this hymn or how to treat it in the composition itself. However, I always attempt to artistically paint the appropriate musical portrait that will honor the spirit and letter of the commission.

And the “spirit” of this composition was found in a short video on the Georgetown College website.  It is entitled Then and Now and to be perfectly frank, it is hidden so well, that I haven’t found anyone at the college who even knew it existed!

But it is a short and sweet look in pictures, old and new, of the college as it grew. Suddenly I knew that this piece was to be more about the legacy of the college than about a single tune.

All I can say about the music is that, in my mind, it is about the ever winding path of time blended with fragments of a hymntune that eventually becomes the clarion call of  the past, the present, and the future. The hymn is woven within the fabric of constant interplay, at times lyrical, and at time agitated, and finally, in the closing moments of the piece, the Alma Mater takes center-stage to close the work.

As for the technical aspects of the piece, you should probably ask Peter LaRue.  He’s the one battling that dragon!

Q: Aside from your work at Lee University, do you work with college ensembles often, and what are the best things about working with college ensembles?

A: About 30 weekends a year I conduct high school honor bands, All-State Bands, and college/university ensembles.  In all, it’s a great life.  I get to conduct the “cream of the crop” nationwide.

I love working with college age musicians.  They are entering that time of their lives when everything is a part of the foundation of the “rest of their lives”, be it emotionally, spiritually, and career-oriented. They think more maturely.  If we’re lucky, they actually act more mature.  For the musician, it’s some of the greatest performance days of their lives!  For four or five years, they can give themselves completely to the enhancement of their musical gift.  It’s a privilege and a “whole lot of fun” to be a part of that juncture in their lives!

Q: Tiger Symphonic Band director Pete LaRue says, “There’s not a band on the planet that hasn’t played a piece by Holsinger.” How does it feel for your music to have such a presence in the world of band music?

A: I’m honored.

You remember when you were little and you wanted to grow up to be a firefighter, a policeman or a cowboy . . ?  On the day I met Vaclav Nehlybel, I wanted to grow up and be . . Vaclav Nehlybel!  And by God’s grace, I have.  I would be remiss not to say that it’s been a thrilling ride!

And what would be a perfect reward?  That someone else decides they want to grow up . . . and be David Holsinger.  Come on, young composer!  There’s room.


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