When the average person hears the word “military,” the typical mental image is one of fighter jets, tanks and artillery. But one aspect of the United States Armed Forces that tends to go overlooked are the men and women armed with trombones and drumsticks.
Each branch of the U.S. military has a number of musical ensembles, and on Wednesday evening, the Air Force Concert Band and the Singing Sergeants came to Eastern Michigan University’s Pease Auditorium to perform for an audience of music students, veterans and the Ypsilanti community.
Led by conductors Colonel Larry H. Lang and Lt. Shanti Simon Nolan, the world-class musicians, whose duties have included performing at the White House tree lighting ceremony, played a night of moving musical selections centered on their spring 2014 tour’s theme, “Destinations.”
The auditorium was packed to near-capacity for the free event. The show kicked off with a piece titled “Departures,” written by the chief arranger and composer of the Air Force, Robert Thurston.
Appropriately, music from the king of American patriotic marches,
John Philip Sousa, made an appearance, and the band also performed the world premiere of Christopher Calliendo’s “Ender’s Game Suite.”
A small group of students from the EMU wind symphony and choir were also selected to accompany the Air Force’s musicians during a few of the pieces. Among these students was senior music performance major and flautist Dakota Williams.
“It was really inspiring to play with them,” Williams said. “Being in a military ensemble has been my dream for a long time, so it meant a lot for me to play on the same stage as them.”
The collaboration between the professional and student musicians began earlier in the day, when the members of the Air Force band led master classes and conductor Nolan worked with EMU’s wind symphony.
“Everyone was so inviting, [there are] wonderful musicians here,” Nolan said. “It was an incredible experience.”
A last minute change to the program came after the performers realized how well the acoustics in the auditorium fit the Singing Sergeants’ voices. Instead of the Broadway showcase that had been planned for after intermission, the Sergeants threw together a “night at the opera.” Highlights included dueling vocalists performing a comical rendition of the “Figaro” aria from Gioachino Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville,” made famous in cartoons like “Looney Tunes” and “Tom and Jerry,” and the soaring, chilling final note of an aria sung by a solo tenor, which prompted a standing ovation from nearly everyone in the audience.
The final five pieces performed were the official songs of the five U.S. military branches. For each song, audience members who had served in those branches were invited to stand up, and friends and family were encouraged to stand in solidarity with the soldiers in their lives.
Conductor Lang felt that the enormous turnout and positive feedback from the community was a powerful reflection of the nation as a whole.
“This is our seventh concert [in the spring tour] and every concert has been sold-out, so to speak,” Lang said. “We don’t sell tickets, but they’ve been full audiences. I think that’s a statement about the country, people still being patriotic.”