Orchestra Steals a Few Tricks From Ringling Brothers’ Book

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Author: Caroline Osborn

Last Saturday, a moderately-sized but enthusiastic crowd gathered in Thorne Hall to hear the CalTech-Occidental Concert Band’s winter performance. The band incorporates members from the student body, faculty, and alumni of CalTech and Occidental, the CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory and musicians in the Los Angeles community. Director William Bing began the show by declaring that he has played in such prestigious local halls as Ambassador Auditorium and the Disney Concert Hall, but that Thorne is “one of the best halls in Los Angeles.” And it certainly did sound good. The performance featured the talents of Ben Faber, a horn player from CalTech, Stephen Bent (senior), Oxy’s own trombonist and juggler, and Mitchell Cyman, bassoonist and guest conductor. The orchestra played pieces by famous composers such as Peter I. Tchaikovsky, Frank Ticheli, and George Frederick Handel, as well as the less familiar but equally enjoyable Jack Stamp, Saint-Saens, Michael Gandolfi, Vic Firth, Jonathan Newman, and Warren Barker.

During rehearsal, the band had the opportunity to work with Frank Ticheli himself on his composition entitled “Shenandoah.” This is a distinct honor, as Ticheli has written music for such momentous occasions as Obama’s inauguration, and, on a more somber note, 9/11 and Columbine commemorations.

The highlight of the evening was “Vientos Y Tangos” by Michael Gandolfi, a piece which, as the title suggests, centers around the idea of a tango for a wind ensemble. It opens with sliding, playful woodwinds before flowing into a mysterious midsection, and closes with a rousing romp of glissandos and hand claps. During intermission, several patrons in the lobby requested a CD including the song they had enjoyed so immensely, but learned that the band has not yet recorded it. Jane Bae, a freshman clarinetist from CalTech, agreed that “Vientos Y Tangos” is her favorite song of the set, noting the prominence of the percussion section and its dance-like quality.

After intermission, the second half of the show opened with a piece exclusively for the percussion section entitled “Encore in Jazz,” which was another crowd pleaser. However, the main thrill of the night came from the inspired collaboration between the band and Stephen Bent (senior), a talented juggler who has recently joined the ranks of The Flying Karamazov Brothers, a well-known juggling and comedy troupe. Director Bing was only half joking when he introduced the act, explaining, “I had to get him while I could still afford him.”

When the band struck up a march reminiscent of a circus, Bent bounded out from the trombone section sporting bright red sneakers beneath his black trousers, tossing balls and juggling pins in intricate patterns that seemed to defy the limits of physics and coordination. He flung balls from under his leg, threw two or three in the air at once, and even dropped a ball just to prove that he could pick it up again without dropping the other three. In a particularly complex maneuver, he tapped airborne pins with the pin in his hand so that it fell at precisely the right angle for him to catch it again. Toward the end of the song, Bing turned around and made eye contact with Bent, allowing him to conduct the band’s final note at the exact moment that Bent caught his final ball. The audience exploded into applause. Bent took an encore by juggling a few balls with one hand while playing trombone with the other, and closed the act by catching his last flying ball in the bell of his instrument. An audience member behind me pronounced it the “best concert ever.”

The most striking difference between this event and others at Thorne Hall was the varying ages of the audience members. Elementary school children with their parents sat near college students who mixed with the silver-haired and bespectacled older generation.

Numerous listeners had a background in classical music. Annie Tran (first-year) “used to play piano, but not anymore.” She played for ten years, and still practices recreationally, when the mood strikes her. Amy Ishiok (first-year) has played cello for six years and is a current member of the CalTech-Occidental Orchestra. Ishiok listens to classical music in her spare time “sometimes…just to relax.” Apparently the concert drew spectators from miles away. Audience members discussing the concert during intermission boasted that they had come all the way from Newport and Redondo Beach to hear the performance. The band clearly has its share of fans and followers, and it is not difficult –to understand why.

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