When it performs later this month at Orchestra Hall, “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band will have a strong Chicago flavor — but the group will manage something similar at nearly all the stops on its 29-city tour.
The ensemble, in the midst of its annual United States tour, with a stop Oct. 24 at Symphony Center, will perform a piece written as a tribute to Adolph “Bud” Herseth, the late, legendary principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “The Storyteller,” written by Chicago native James Stephenson, is “something to connect the band to the orchestra and the city of Chicago,” said Col. Jason Fettig, the band’s director. In Chicago, the piece’s offstage trumpet solo will be performed by CSO trumpet John Hagstrom, himself a former member of the Marine band. (Tickets are free but must be reserved online, by phone or at the Symphony Center box office. The concert is part of a WWI-themed series of events, co-sponsored by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library.)
To balance a tour program is a challenge, Fettig said, because “different kinds of people come, whether it’s people with a lot of classical music knowledge or people who want to feel patriotic. We always want to have something for everyone, with continuity in the program, and sometimes that’s difficult to achieve.” But there are some rules: always at least one Sousa march, always at least one featured soloist from the ensemble, some classic band repertoire.
One march on this program will be John Philip Sousa’s “The Belle of Chicago,” but Fettig said that all the marches on the tour have a regional connection. For instance, they will play Sousa’s “University of Nebraska March” in that state, and Henry Fillmore marches in Ohio, where that composer was born and raised.
In addition to the standard fare, Fettig has made a point of commissioning and performing new works for wind ensemble. But for anything that he programs, “the common denominator is that it’s good, and represents something of our musical heritage.” Stephenson’s piece, Fettig said, is “contemporary, but very accessible to people hearing it for the first time.” Hagstrom’s offstage solo is a quotation from Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale, which Stephenson remembered hearing Herseth play on a recording as a child.
Musicians of “The President’s Own” perform at more than 200 White House functions per year — everything from one pianist providing background music for a reception to full concerts for visiting dignitaries on the South Lawn. The touring ensemble of about 65 leaves enough musicians at home in Washington to cover its other responsibilities.
But education is an unofficial part of the group’s core mission. “We serve the American people in as many ways as possible,” he said. “The President’s Own” musicians maintain an active outreach program to schools in the Washington, D.C., area, and on tour, Fettig said, musicians visit schools at every stop they make, at no charge. Musicians report “a tremendous enthusiasm from the students to learn,” and visitors from the Marine Band are also in a position to teach on the topics of history and government as well as music.
The band also shares many performances and recordings on its YouTube channel, including an ongoing project to record every one of the 136 marches written by Sousa, the group’s music director from 1880 to 1892. Corrected scores and parts are also available online for free.
The performances are “altered in the way Sousa himself would have done,” Fettig said. “He thought a march should not sound the same all the way through. He wanted his performances to be special,” so he would vary the written score by changing the dynamics or instrumentation — asking all the brass and percussion to drop out for the first time through a strain, for instance, and then playing the repeat “with fire and tongs, as they said back then.”
Sousa deliberately never wrote these variations down, to keep them for the use of his own group, which he formed after leaving “The President’s Own” in 1892. But the instructions were passed down by musicians who played under him, and are now being codified as the group works through his output in chronological order.
The project has reached the World War I years now, which is convenient timing, since the band’s tour this year also contains music to mark the 100th anniversary of that conflict’s end. “The marches from this period are some of his masterpieces,” Fettig said. “Every single one of them is fantastic.”
TOP: Col. Jason Fettig leads “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band. | Photo: Master Sgt. Kristin duBois/U.S. Marine Corps