Communique: Wilmington Symphonic Winds Premieres "Gehrig" By Composer Mark Camphouse

Nov 9, 2018

Wilmington Symphonic Winds (WSW) commissioned a new work by acclaimed composer Mark Camphouse in 2016. The piece, titled "Gehrig," makes its premiere tonight, Friday, 11/9, at Kenan Auditorium at 7:30pm. Camphouse is in town to conduct the new work.

The program, called "With Courage," also includes "American Salute," "A Century of Service," and pieces by Leonard Bernstein and Shostakovich. Dominic Talanca conducts this portion of the concert. 

Online ticket sales will be available until this afternoon, and tickets can be purchased at the door. Listen to our conversation with Mark Camphouse and WSW cofounder and clarinetist, Tom Smicklas. See our extended conversation below.

Gina:      Can you tell me about this over-a-year-long project of commissioning this piece from Mark Camphouse?

Tom:      Well, it has to actually be almost two years because Mark is so much in demand. We had schedule this way in advance with him. We were searching for something unique in the Wilmington area for music groups, and that's a commissioned work by an outstanding composer of international reputation to present to our Wilmington community and to our fellow musicians. In talking about a number of composers that were on our short list, Mark was at the top of everyone's shortlist to ask to do a piece for this group. It was my pleasure to see that everyone was unanimous in us asking Mark to do this composition because Mark and I had a very, very good relationship where we went to the same high school in Cicero, Illinois. And I knew Mark first time--in fact, his will be 50 years this month that we shared a stage together for the first time.

Gina:      Wow. And we've talked about this in the last couple of interviews that I've done is about Mark Camphouse and about this commissioned piece. So this is like an exciting thing where, now he's here. When you spoke with him about this work that you wanted, what did that look like? What did you say?

Tom:      Mark is a very unique composer because he composes not what people tell him to do, but what he feels in his heart is to be written. When Mark and I had a luncheon up in northern Virginia two years ago, the question was very simple: what would you like to write for our band? And Mark did not tell me what he was going to write. We discussed the length of the piece. We discussed the difficulty level of the piece. And then Mark, as a very accomplished composer, is on his own to come to compose anything he wanted to for our group. And the result has been outstanding.

Gina:      Why do you think Mark Camphouse is on the top of everyone's list?

Tom:      He's the best composer. And his works are performed internationally. He has a particular affinity for working with our top service bands in the DC area, which are considered the finest concert bands in the world. But Mark does not limit himself to concert bands. He's done a major works for symphony orchestras. Mark is a modest guy, but his battery of repertoire that he's composed over the last 25 years has been remarkable.

Gina:      What is your favorite piece by Mark?

Tom:      I like A Movement for Rosa. And I think that many other directors and musicians would agree with my choice. That said, it's not an easy choice because Mark has not written a bad composition. I mean, every, everything that we have played and I have judged or directed is both unique and also of high quality, but A Movement for Rosa, touching upon the life of Rosa Parks, seems to strike a very good chord for music educators.

Gina:      Have you started rehearsing the new piece?

Tom:      Yes.

Gina:      How exciting is that?

Tom:      Oh, it was great. It was great. It's everything we thought it would be. It's a complex yet elegant tribute to Lou Gehrig. We had dinner last night, I was kidding him, I said, "you pulled every compositional trick in the book out to make this a great piece." And he did. But Mark writes a in a very complex yet elegant manner. And we suffer in the field of music education from what we call "formula" band music. Where, it's written and everybody knows what is, how it's gonna end and what it's going to sound like. And it's, it's very easily rehearsed and it just leaves the serious musician wanting more. Mark provides the "wanting more" solution to us. His music is again, a complex, elegant, and just a joy to rehearse. And I think it'll be very, very interesting for the audience to listen to.

Gina:      Mark, talk to me about this piece, about where you started with it, and how you got the dedication to Lou Gehrig.

Mark:      Well, first of all, thank you Gina. It's a pleasure to be with you and Tom, thank you very much for those generous comments. Why Lou Gehrig? Well, I love baseball and I've always been a diehard, admittedly a diehard New York Yankee Fan. We had to suffer through yet another faux world series this year because it's not a real world series unless my Yankees are in it. But the Red Sox deserved to win, I must say.

              Why Lou Gehrig. Today, it seems today now more than ever, American society is in urgent need of positive role models among those occupying leadership positions in government and various professions, including education, law, the arts, sports, and clergy, who possess not only great talent and expertise, but also those who possess basic human decency, personal integrity, empathy, idealism, optimism, and courage. Those to me are the qualities that embody the true spirit of America and one finds those qualities in great abundance when thinking about a man like Lou Gehrig

Gina:      And tell, tell me about composing that piece. How did you capture that feeling that you have for Lou Gehrig into music?

Mark:      I guess you'd have to hear the piece. To me, a good musical composition has to be a perfect marriage, if you will, between what comes from the heart, the emotional aspects of musical creativity, but also the intellectual aspects of musical creativity in terms of form and structure, balances. So yeah, I, I would hope that listeners will take that into consideration. It has to be a combination from what comes from the heart and what comes from the mind. And Lou Gehrig, you know, he had some amazing lifetime statistics. Cal Ripkin broke his record of 2000, 130 consecutive games. Gehrig had a 3:40 lifetime batting average. 493 home runs, a fielding percentage of 991. An amazing athlete. But I think despite his abilities on the field as an athlete, I think what he left us in terms of personal integrity and human courage-- that is his real legacy.

Mark:      I think it's really important again, why Lou gehrig, great athlete, but again, his real legacy I think was his personal courage while afflicted with amiotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. So I'm hoping that some performances of this work can be held whenever possible in conjunction with fundraising efforts or medical research toward finding a cure for ALS. Approximately 5,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with this insidious disease that recently claimed the life of noted British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. So despite his tragically short life, he passed away at age 37. Despite that incredibly short life, Lou Gehrig considered himself, famously in his farewell speech in Yankee Stadium on the fourth of July 1939, he considered himself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth. And I really believe that Gehrig continues to exemplify what is best in the human character.

Gina:      How lucky to receive a piece like that.

Tom:      Oh, we're blessed. And in Wilmington, North Carolina. This piece will be published and available internationally. I've already received inquiries from ensembles that want to perform this piece--and these are not insignificant ensembles. These are from across the country. Which is not surprising to me because Mark has that strong of reputation. Word gets out very quickly in the music community when he writes a new piece.

New Speaker:  I wanted to add, my dear friend and former classmate many years ago, 50 years ... Tom Smicklas also has a marvelous reputation as a phenomenal clarinetist, musician, educator, arts administrator. And I'm really blessed and very touched that Tom reached out and asked me if I would be interested in fulfilling this commission. So, thank you Tom, and I'm delighted to be here and I look forward to our performance Friday, and then at the North Carolina State Music Educators convention in Winston Salem on Sunday.

Tom:      We're one of the future groups there at the state convention. The Wilmington Symphonic Winds, this is our fifth anniversary. In fact, Mark dedicated is the piece to the Wilmington symphonic winds on occasion of our fifth anniversary as an ensemble. To have this group make such outstanding progress and be recognized not only locally and regionally, but also nationally for what we've been able to do so far has been just been a real treat for all of us.

Gina:      Mark. How often do you write pieces of music dedicated to, to people that you admire?

Mark:      Well, there are two types of music-- absolute music, which is, for example, symphony number one in c major opus 21, period. End of discussion. There's no extra musical meaning. This is a programmatic work. It tells a story. I would say probably half of my compositional output is, is programmatic. And I'm very frequently taken by American themes of American exceptionalism. I think Tom mentioned my work honoring civil rights heroine Rosa parks. I've also composed works honoring a President Reagan, honoring Jack London, honoring American humanist Helen Keller. So I'm sort of all over the place in terms of who these people were and what they accomplished. But American history is my second love and it is a real joy to be able to combine those two loves, first and foremost of music, and creating works honoring those aspects of the American character.

              I don't think I answered your question with enough specificity about how I go about composing. When I do a work based on a famous person or an event in history or a social issue, I have to do my homework very thoroughly. If you were to come to our home in the DC area, you would see that my history library is almost as large as my music library. For the Reagan piece, for example, I personally own at least 50 books on the life of Ronald Reagan. One has to research the subject matter that thoroughly to really be fair to that person and to make sure it's artistically satisfying piece for the audience. So I do my homework and then I start sketching. I compose at the piano. Then I'll do a piano short score, and then eventually do the orchestration. The Gehrig piece that the Wilmington Symphonic Winds commissioned, took the better part of a year, almost a year from very first initial sketches to the final double bar line with orchestration. So it's a very laborious process and I like to take my time. I don't like to feel rushed. And in fact, I think it was a couple weeks late with the deadline, but hopefully you'll agree--it was worth the wait.

Tom:      Oh yes, the tonality of the piece, even the overtone series with the chord, different chord arrangements, just is marvelous. I mean, it's just really a very unique and wonderful piece.

Mark:      I had never heard the Wilmington Symphonic Winds live, but I have heard some of their performance recordings and I was enormously impressed. That of course factored in heavily as to why I accepted the commission in addition to it coming from my dear friend Tom. But my college band director at Northwestern University, John Painter, he's no longer among us, unfortunately. He's considered the father of the modern community band movement in America. And the band that Mr Painter essentially founded back in 1956, the North Shore Concert Band in Wilmette and later Evanston, is considered the premier adult community concert band in America today. And I know Mr Painter would be just thrilled with seeing a former student having the opportunity to compose a work on commission by such a fine adult community band, like the Wilmington Symphonic Winds. And also to have the honor of conducting the premiere. That means a lot. And I appreciate that opportunity.