April 25, 2017

Coast Guard Band Concert – Outstanding

The first band back in 1925

I’ve attended 50 Coast Guard Band concerts, I’d say. All at the band’s home base at the Academy in New London. The recent one in Clinton was not only unusual but truly outstanding, and this is why I’m telling you about it.

One reason unusual because it was my first one not in the band’s Leamy Hall at the Academy. And outstanding because the audience was so big and so appreciative of the fine program and great playing.

It turned out to be the 23rd straight year the band was playing in Clinton. The band gets around a lot, but no other community in the U.S. has enjoyed as many of its concerts as Clinton. The performance established a new record in the band’s annals.

As usual in Clinton, it was sold out. Not that anybody had to pay, so “sold out” is the wrong expression.  Admission is always free.

It’s hard for me to recall, but it may have been the most beautiful I’ve attended.

The audience there agreed. At the end they all jumped up and applauded loud and long. The players must have gone home proud.

I’ve enjoyed just about every concert. The only time I’ve been disappointed has been the occasions when it has included avant-garde  or experimental music. Connoisseurs may savor that. I don’t. None of that in this concert.

Annabelle and I were lucky to get in. For out-of-town concerts like this one, tickets are required. Not so for Leamy Hall.  I guess this is to get a better idea of how many want to attend and to have better control.

This time I was late in reading a newspaper notice of the concert. Immediately I sent in my request for two tickets along with the necessary postage-paid self-addressed return envelope. I kept my fingers crossed. The tickets popped in just two days before the concert. Wonderful.

The concert time was 7:30 p.m. at the Morgan School, its traditional venue. We decided to be in our seats by 7.  Easier parking. Better selection of seats. We got there on time. Bur surprise!

The only parking site we found still available in the huge lot was way, way out in left field.  So, a long walk up to the auditorium for us. There a  great line of people, two wide, backed up from the front door right around the corner of the building and way up the side.  Incredible. We double-timed to beat others to the tail of it.  Lucky that it was not a rainy, miserable evening.

But the line moved along smoothly. A whole team was at the front door to usher us in and make sure we got a program and move us into the auditorium. All volunteers, I think, and well practiced.

Seven hundred and fifty seats in there and already they seemed all taken. Rather than rush ahead, I stood back and scanned for seats and spotted three down front. But people were streaming down the aisle searching, searching. Would they get to them before us? We scurried down and claimed them.

The three were about 10 rows back and in the plumb center. Perfect. Of course, we had to bother folks already seated in order to squeeze through to the seats, but we managed without stepping on any toes. Our seats couldn’t have been better.

Annabelle sat behind a slight teen-age girl but I plunked down behind a big, chunky guy. I had to crane to the left  of him for a good view. We both shifted one seat over. That wound up fine for both of us, especially me behind the little gal. I expected someone to squeeze in for the empty seat next to me but it remained untaken. It must have been the only empty seat that evening. I enjoyed it.

 

The band took their seats right on time. What a smart-looking outfit. Impressive in their sparkling, sharply pressed white jackets, the men in their blue trousers and the women in their  ankle-length blue skirts.

The band was started in 1925, Much smaller back then. It now has 55 members and is coed now, of course–that big change happened back in 1973, which is when the Coast Guard Band enlisted its first female musician.  Tonight they filled the stage. I made a quick count, 31 men and 13 women, it seemed. Not sure why the disparity.

It has two officers.  The director / conductor is Commander Kenneth W. Megan. He started as an arranger in 1975. That date surprised me—so long ago–but it’s the date lsted.  He became assistant director in 1986 and took over in 2004.

Chief Warrant Officer 3rd class Richard Wyman is the assistant conductor and announcer.   He began in 1998 as a sax player and took on his new role in 2004.  I am told they had to audition for those positions.

In a concert of some dozen pieces, Megan usually conducts one or two, and Wyman becomes the announcer for them. Then they swap roles for one or two pieces.Both fill both roles beautifully, in my opinion.

Old photos in the lobby at Leamy Hall show the band marching. I have never known the band to march.  The band marches very seldom. However,it always does the Inaugural Parade for each President and occasional other short marching events.

This is why a marching band uses only wind and percussion instruments, of course.  How can you march with a bass or a piano or a harp?  But those are instruments that are usual in the band now, though few. On this night the harpist was playing and the bass player also. But no pianist.

And in my experience it has always featured a singer, always female. Soprano Megan Weikleenget performed twice on this evening. She is a Musician 1st Class. No uniform for her. She was stunning in a beautiful off-the-shoulder blue gown. I’m sure nobody missed the fact that she is approaching motherhood quite soon.  I admired her for her poise.

She was excellent.  Great applause. She earned it.

To me it seems the band is morphing toward the symphonic. No objection from me though I like it just as it is.

I also noticed two musicians in civies—the professional musician’s black and white.  A man flutist and a woman bassoonist were filling in. I found out the band is awaiting new hires to take on those positions.

This is the band’s second set of uniforms in my 15 years of attending. I liked their old one, too, which was blue tops and and white bottoms, as I remember it. Not sure why the change was made. Maybe the old one got boring to them. It turns out the band has had a number of uniforms.

I should mention that it is classified a “premier” military band.  This means it’s the service’s finest band-its name band. It is the Coast Guard’s only band.  The other services—the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—have numerous bands.

By the way, I understand that all new members train at the Armed Forces School of Music. It is on the Naval Amphibouse Base in Norfolk, Va.  In fact, it used to be the Navy Music School. The training lasts about  six months.  They learn how to salute and other basic military etiquette plus rules and regulations. Plus more specific music training.

The band’s role is to promote good will by spreading the word about what a proud and efficient and effective outfit the Peace Corps is. To inspire recruiting in the corps. And reflect its culture and tradition. And of course play at ceremonies.

It is usual for the announcer to recite how busy the Coast Guard is in an average day: how many rescues and interventions carried out, and contraband snared, and illegal immigrants blocked, and oil spills contained,  and so on. Which always impresses me.  It didn’t happen on this evening.

Many up there were familiar figures to me and Annabelle. I can recognize them as easily as Red Sox fans can spot their stars at Fenway Park. I root as heartily as  they do for the Sox, I’m sure.  The band does have legions of fans. I have friends who also never miss a concert.  I saw a couple here. I see many same faces at Leamy Hall.

I mentioned the band’s PR role. For this, the United States is divided into five big chunks and the band makes a two-week swing through each every five years.

The recent one was in California, with 13 concerts up and down the state.  I learned that one of its stops would be in San Luis Obisco, a beautiful “Spanish mission” city half way between L.A. and San Francisco.  My daughter Monique and her husband live only 15 miles north, in Morro Bay.

“This is your chance!” I e-mailed her.  “Get your tickets. Right now!” They did. Finally they got to enjoy for themselves what I’ve been telling them about.

This year was remarkable for another reason. The band traveled to Taiwan to participate for two-weeks in an international get-together of military bands.

Not its first trip abroad. The band often mentions how it played in Leningrad, Russia, back in 1989. Those were still Soviet times. By invitation, of courseThat was the first time an American band played there. It was a historic event and the band makes much of it, understandably so. It was the first American premier band to play in Japan. It has played in England and other lands.

It made much of its planned tour to Taiwan.  That would be whoppingly expensive, I was sure. When I read about it, I wondered, “How can the band do that now, when our country is staggering with debt and is in recession? How will this go over with people who think of that?”

Well, the band did it with private (non-government funds), whatever they were. But it was late in making that clear. My opinion.

Band members are chosen only after strenuous auditions and background checks. This is usual in the business. A typical audition will evaluate numerous competing performers, out of view behind a screen to assure fairness, and all culled from a list of applicants from all over the country, including leading music schools. They travel to New London at their own expense.

It’s a coup to get in. The band has an outstanding reputation. There’s another reason. A professional musician can lead a precarious life financially. The security of playing in the band is considered fantastic, especially in these harsh times.

I’ve wondered about the pay and the benefits. I found it easy to dig up a bit of this info on the band’s website, www. uscg.mil/band.

The band pays the same salaries as the Coast Guard pays similar ratings.  A beginner as an E-6 gets $46,032 ($50,784 with dependents). I was interested in pay for the higher levels also but couldn’t spot that easily.

Then there are allowances of various kinds, for family, housing, continuing education, and so on. Plus nice perks.  They can use the PX and get medical care at the Navy base across the river, for instance.

The band supplies the instruments, but they must not be used for non-band purposes.

The band also has a supporting staff. I looked for its annual budget. No luck. I’m sure I’d whistle if I saw it.

 

Finally the band struck up!  Chief Warrant Officer Wyman walked to the microphone with his usual polish and charm and made us welcome. (Generous applause.)  Commander Megan strode on stage and took a bow. (Generous applause.)

We stood and faced the flag and the band launched into the National Anthem, and that opened the band’s zillionth concert–oh, you know what I mean. They were perfect. Well, to my ear. Full disclosure: I can’t carry a tune. Yet I cannot live without music.

The concert lasted close to two hours, with an intermission. No time for the details, but the first half included pieces by Henry Fillmore, Modeste Moussorgsky, Ernest S. Williams,  Samuel R. Hazo, and Benjamin Britten. I know some of those may be unfamiliar, but their pieces were delightful.

It ended with the Service Medley. It’s a part of every concert. The band plays familiar snatches from the anthems  of the Army, Navy, Air Force,  Marines, and its own Coast Guard.

I would say that 75 percent of the attendees at any concert are senior citizens. I don’t understand why more younger people don’t attend. Well, during each snatch of  the medley, veterans of that service stand. The old soldiers, the old sailors, and so on.

I never stand.  The reason is simple. I never served. But I have felt bad. I have wished I could stand proudly, too.

Five years ago, a few days after a concert, I happened to read a short Associated Press story in The Day (I think it was The Day) saying that Peace Corps was actively recruiting older Volunteers. Older men and women have served but traditionally it has been a young person’s deal. The greatest number are in their 20’s.

But the Peace Corps suddenly had an important insight. It saw that older folks could contribute wonderful things in addition to patriotism and altruism, which seem to be factors.  Experience, for one thing, and determination, and maturity, maybe even wisdom. All true, of course. But why did it get smart so late?

A thought flashed up in my mind: maybe finally I could serve, too!

Oh,  I would never get to wear a uniform. The Peace Corps doesn’t have any. All I would get would be a pin for my lapel (and would have to buy it!).  But I was eager to check out the possibility. And that’s how I wound up as a Volunteer in Ukraine for a full hitch of 27 months. And how I just published a book about all that. It’s called “27 Months in the Peace Corps. My Story, Unvarnished.”

One day Peace corps notified me I was suddenly the oldest of 8,000 Volunteers serving in 74 countries in the world. All because I happened to turn 80 while in Ukraine. No big deal to me. “I’d rather be the youngest!” I replied.

Truth is that Peace Corps was a tough but very satisfying experience for me. A true adventure. So, I blame the band and its armed services medley for all that.

 

During the intermission I found Ellen Cavanagh in the crowded lobby. She was busy chatting in a thick group crowding around her. I got to speak with her. She is the executive director of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber was the sponsor of this concert. In fact, she was the one who invited the band back 23 years ago.  It has been SRO—standing room only—at nearly every concert.

She told me that tickets had been mailed out for all 750 seats. But some people don’t show up. She expects that. At 7:20, as usual, non-ticket holders were let in. And an extra 30 chairs had been set up at the back. She said, “So we managed to accommodate everybody, I believe.

“The concerts are always a great success. They are free, of course, but a big factor is that they’re always wonderful.”

But not really free, it turns out. The band’s budget doesn’t cover such trips afield. Organizations and communities interested in a performance must fill out a form to invite the band.

Decisions are based on various factors. Nobody must make any money off the concert. The concerts must be open to everybody—no discrimination. And the expenses must be covered: the bus for the band, the two trucks for the instruments, and the meals and lodging if necessary.

This concert’s program announced that funding was provided by Shore TV and Appliances of Clinton and Old Saybrook. Also that the printing was provided by Technique Printers of Clinton.

And the Clinton Board of Education and the Morgan School Administration were thanked for their cooperation,  with special thanks to Raymond Smith of the school’s music department and a crew of students he provided.

The second half was equally beautiful. First, the “Folk Song Suite” by Karl King. And then, what is not uncommon, three selections by the band’s five–piece Dixieland Jazz Band, always a great hit.

This group also had a stand-in, a fine guitarist. I noticed he had a well-trimmed beard. It occurred to me he’d undoubtedly have to shave that off if he wanted to don a uniform like the others.

The band has half a dozen ensembles…chamber, brass, jazz, swing, sax, and woodwind. They attract their own audiences. Annabelle and I have attended some of these smaller concerts. The ensembles are also an appreciated extra outlet for musicians with specific interests.

 

Next came an aria from the “Marriage of Figaro” by soprano Weikleenget, and then the rollicking “On the Mall” by Edwin Franko Goldman.

Mr. Smith, director of music at the Morgan School, picked up the baton for this piece. Very nice job. He has been the guest conductor for one piece since the beginning of the series. I was told that he had conducted it cold, although the band had rehearsed it.

Then Samuel Ward’s “America the Beautiful.”   A fitting finale.

The whole auditorium jumped up. Much, much applause. Bows by all the principals. Numerous acknowledgements of players. More applause–heavy applause. Another triumph for the band.

I’m sure it will be back in Clinton next year. For its 24th year!

This week it’s off to Washington, D.C., for a concert there. It’s a very busy outfit.

And it will be performing at Leamy Hall this Sunday. No tickets required.

Annabelle and I wouldn’t think of missing it.

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