December 1, 2017

A Trip of a Lifetime

By Jan Kruse-McCoy

The Winds Play Carnegie Hall.

It’s been said that the way to get to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice.  But if you asked members of the West Michigan Concert WINDS, they would tell you it’s practice, preparation, and planning. It takes a lot of hard work to get over 80 concert band members from Muskegon, Michigan to New York City, and the preparation and planning took over a year.

In March of 2015 the conductor and music director of the West Michigan Concert WINDS, Gail Brechting, submitted a cd to Manhattan Concert Productions (MCP), a company that organizes music groups to fill open gaps in Carnegie Hall. Three weeks later MCP invited the WINDS to play in Carnegie Hall.

Coincidentally, in May, Brechting received a call from MCP asking how far Muskegon was from Chicago. The band had been invited to play in Carnegie Hall, but a band had backed out of a planned performance in Symphony Hall in Chicago, and MCP wondered if the WMCW could fill in. The only catch was the performance was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, which was two weeks from the time Brechting got the call.

Performing at Symphony Hall in Chicago and Carnegie Hall within a year of each other? 

“I remember feeling giddy thinking I can offer not only a ‘bucket list’ opportunity to play at the famous Carnegie Hall AND Symphony Hall in Chicago to my band members? I had to pinch myself,” Brechting said. “Fortunately we had just finished our final concert titled ‘Everyday Heroes,’ so I took pieces from that patriotic-type concert and added a new march, and we were headed to Chicago!”

So after that successful trip to the Windy City, the planning for the group’s trip to New York City began.

The logistics seemed difficult. Air travel and hotel rooms needed to be secured. The band was fortunate to have a member, Martin O’Toole, who had lived in New York City for seven years when he was a national park ranger. O’Toole is also the Operations Manager for the band. So his work began with the help of Educational Tours, Incorporated in Holt, Michigan. ETI specializes in arranging trips for musical organizations.

One of the first major issues for band members was the cost, which was $1899 per performer based on two people in a hotel room.  Of that cost, $750 of each person’s share was the rental fee for Carnegie Hall. The cost for non-playing people (spouses, friends, etc.) was $1150. For some band members, the cost seemed overwhelming.

So O’Toole and ETI developed a payment plan. People going on the trip would submit four payments, so the cost could be spread out. The first payment was due in October of 2015, and the last was in April of 2016. ETI collected the payments, which could be made from a credit card or check. Scholarships were also available for people who just couldn't afford to make the trip.

“A number of actions were taken to help individuals make the trip,” said Howard Meade, Executive Director of the West Michigan Concert WINDS. “Manhattan Concert Productions waived performance fees for several individuals. Muskegon Community College arranged to pay performance fees for several students performing with the WINDS. The President of MCC and his wife are members of the WINDS, which helped secure those funds.”

Since the planning really started a year before the performance at Carnegie, Brechting had a lot of time to think about programming.

“To prepare for this program we played many of the Carnegie selections throughout the season, so members could ‘live with’ the music longer than the usual 6 or 7 rehearsals we have between concerts,” Brechting said. “We also had an all-day rehearsal on a Saturday in April, which included sectionals in the morning and a full band rehearsal all afternoon.”

“I programed carefully, opening with ‘Gloriana,’ a fanfare written by Jay Bocook for the first female president of Furman University. That piece was followed by “Bandancing” by  Jack Stamp. Choosing a Sousa march is always a treat, so, after some research, I discovered that Sousa first performed ‘The Hippodrome March’ in Carnegie Hall. The march was conducted during our performance by my colleague, Brian Olian.”

Brechting continued, “I also chose Eric Whitacre’s ‘Seal Lullaby,” which featured my husband, Frank, on piano. To finish our performance I selected ‘Michigan on Parade,’ by Karl King, an obvious reference to our home state.”

ETI handled the air travel arrangements. But with work schedules and other commitments how do you get everyone to agree on a flight? The “boy scout” in O’Toole took over. He divided the band into two troops…..Troop 60 (60 people) and Troop 20 (20 people). Troop 60 was bused out of Muskegon to Detroit Metro for one flight and Troop 20 left Muskegon a little later in the day for the second flight. Some people, who wanted to shorten or extend their stay in New York, booked their own airline travel.

The WINDS also had to come up with a travel plan for large instruments. They rented a van to drive the instruments from Muskegon to NYC at a cost of $2500.

Two-thirds of WINDS members made the trip. There were 82 performers and 25 non-performers. The group stayed at the Fairfield Inn on 44th street in New York City. Everyone arrived in NY for a group dinner Friday night.

The performance at Carnegie Hall was on Sunday, June 17. A rehearsal was arranged in the ballroom of the Westin Hotel, just a few blocks away from the Fairfield Inn on Sunday morning, so musicians could walk to the rehearsal. The rehearsal room also had to be paid for by the WINDS.

Some band members had never been to New York City. O’Toole’s experience living in there came in handy. He gave band members a list of suggested activities from going to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, to getting discounted tickets for a Broadway show, visiting the 911 Memorial and Museum, or taking a boat tour around Manhattan. Restaurant suggestions were also given. ETI was the travel agent for the tour, but O’Toole was the band’s own private tour director. He provided band members with Metro cards for the subway as part of their fee, and arranged a tour of the Empire State Building at the observation deck at sunset. The WINDS group was scheduled to leave New York City on Monday evening, so everyone packed in a lot of sightseeing in a day and a half.

“I actually had previously performed in Carnegie Hall in the collegiate chorale when I was a park ranger in New York,” O’Toole said. “I was excited to go back and perform with the WINDS. Being a part of a group of people who had never even been to New York was really exciting. There was so much excitement and anticipation in the group.” 

“It was a success. There was really nothing that went wrong.”

“In my contract I was told I couldn't speak to the audience,” Brechting said. “So to connect with them, I turned around on the last strain of ‘Michigan on Parade’ and started clapping to the beat to get the audience involved. They responded by clapping with me, and giving us a standing ovation. What an amazing opportunity!”