MIT Concert Band Memories
Dave Strauss, '75
In good MIT tradition, it's now 5 a.m. on the morning on which this is due, and I still haven't started it. So it's not going to be as polished as I would like, and it's not going to be as complete or as accurate as I would like, but that about sums up the MIT Concert Band -- it's not as polished as we would like, and it's not as complete or accurate as we would like, but there's a lot of good stuff in there somewhere.
This is almost all based on my memory of events which happened 25 and more years ago, most of which events I didn't pay a lot of attention to. And memory can play strange tricks. So take everything with a grain of salt; dates and events may not be that accurate!
Who I am:
Dave Strauss, '75, G '77 (which is to say I graduated twice, because the first time didn't stick). But other than the winter '76 tour I wasn't active in the band after I my first four years. I played oboe and English horn.
When I was in the band:
September, 1971 through May, 1975, plus the tour of January 1976. Plus maybe the post-tour concert, but I'm not sure about that.
Why I joined the band:
Mostly because it was easy -- I just walked into the first rehearsal, took a seat, and that was it. Also because I was intrigued by what I had heard about the band, the fact that they only played pieces written for band. And no Sousa marches! It was different, and I always wanted to be different. Also, I forgot to go to the audition for the MIT Symphony.
I stayed with the band because it was fun, it was interesting, I liked the music we played, I liked that the music was different from almost everything else going on at the time, and I liked the tours. And because of John's stories. I really liked John's stories. I still do.
And did I say it was different?
Band Offices I held:
Librarian, spring 1973 through spring 1975.
Tessa made me do it. She was one of the librarians when I joined the band and, in good Concert Band tradition, when we needed a new librarian that spring, she nominated me, and, again in good Concert Band tradition, I didn't object strongly enough and so I was elected.
Being librarian was a great job. The responsibilities were minimal -- all I had to do was be at all of the rehearsals a little early so I could pass out the folders. I didn't even have to do all of the folders, because we always had two librarians -- one for brass and percussion, and one for woodwinds. Sometimes I got to see the music before anybody else did, although often John handled the initial distributions. During tours I got to feel useful and important, and I got a special listing on the concert programs along with the Concert Band officers.
At the end of the season it was the librarians' job to help John put away all the music, and sometimes to help straighten things out a bit. This was always a bittersweet time, but it did allow a sense of closure for the year.
First band concert:
My first concert with the band was in the fall of 1971, and it wasn't actually a concert, it was Jerry Weisner's inauguration as President of MIT. I have no idea what we played; I only have a vague recollection of Archibald MacLeish reciting a poem in which "I rinse my mouth in praise of a good man" was a repeated phrase. We called him "Mouthwash MacLeish" after that.
At that time the band wore some sort of blazer (I think it was gray) with white shirts and bow ties and (I think) black pants. I didn't have a white shirt or a bow tie or black pants, so I had to make a quick run to the Coop to get them. The Coop didn't have any clip-on bow ties left, so I had to get a tie-it-yourself one. Little did I know how hard it is to tie one of those things; I have a vague recollection of the salesman demonstrating it to me, and it seemed easy at the time, but 10 minutes before the ceremony there I was struggling with the thing in front of the mirror in the men's room. Luckily one of the upperclassmen took pity on me and tied it for me. I still have that bow tie, and, in fact, if I can remember how to tie it I'm going to wear it for the 50th reunion concert.
That was the last time (while I was there, at least) that the band wore those blazers. After that we decided to wear suits (for the men) and dresses (for the women). This being the 70's, of course, some of the suits were rather, umm, different, shall we say. Now the band is doing the black and white thing, which looks more professional but is less interesting.
Last band concert:
My last concert as an undergraduate would have been the spring concert of 1975. I have absolutely no recollection of this concert, although Frank Kreimendahl and Dan Christman were surely there.
My last concert as a student would have been either the post-tour concert or the last tour concert in January 1976. Again, I have no recollection of these concerts. Frank, Dan, and Toby were there.
I also played in the 40th anniversary concert in May, 1989. Does that count?
And of course, this one, the 50th.
Most memorable band moment:
Probably after the family concert in the fall of 1997, which I participated in as a member of the audience; I went up to talk to John, and during the conversation just "casually" mentioned how my son was enjoying playing in the band under him. For once, I managed to surprise John; he hadn't realized that Jacob Strauss is my son.
Best thing about playing in the MIT Concert Band:
I was reminded of this while rehearsing with the band for this concert. There's this way John beams at you when you play something "just right". It's great! It's even great when he's beaming at someone else.
Worst band moment:
Completely muffing a solo during a tour concert. I've forgotten which year it was, and I've forgotten which piece it was, but it was one of those times where the solo was coming up and John pointed to me instead of the 1st chair oboe and said "you play it", and I panicked. John never did that to me again, and I always regretted that he didn't; I really wanted a second chance.
The annual tours, of course, were the best part about the band. Something about the long bus rides, the late hours, all those rehearsals and concerts, brought the band together in a way that is hard to describe. The post-tour concerts were always the best of the year because the band was so cohesive at that point. By contrast, the spring concerts tended to be more of a let down.
Tour itineraries tended to firm up very late, and I remember at least one tour where we weren't sure until a week beforehand whether there was going to be a tour or not. One of the results of this is that all the tours have blurred together in my memory and I don't really remember where we went. I do know that during my years with the band we never went anyplace other than by bus, and the farthest away we got was Chicago, in 1976 (I remember that one because one of the concerts we played, at a high school north of Chicago, was the only band concert either of my parents attended). There was talk on and off of a European tour, but it never happened while I was there.
Tessa Gorenstein was tour manager for the 1973 tour; I always understood that Tessa wanted to be tour manager so that she could prevent us from getting the same bus driver we had for the winter '72 tour. It seems this guy had a reputation for rolling buses over, and in fact some of the maneuvers he made during the '72 tour were rather, shall we say, exciting. I thought it was fun, but I guess it was a little much for Tessa.
Places I remember being:
John always traveled separately from the band, and there were times when we wondered if he would arrive in time for the concerts. The equipment truck also went separately (and was driven by members of the percussion section) and there were often times when we wondered if we were going to have to play a concert without any equipment. Maybe we did once. In any case, I learned as librarian always to keep the music in the buses and not in the equipment truck. Even if none of the equipment showed up we could at least sing the parts.
Most of our concerts were at high schools. We usually tried to arrive at our concert destination in the early afternoon. We would have a quick rehearsal, then get paired with our hosts for the evening, go home with them for dinner, then return for the concert (usually at 8 o'clock), then off to our hosts for the night. Then the next morning up early and off to school, where we boarded the buses to take us to the next stop.
I always felt a little sorry for our hosts. I wondered what they expected when we showed up, and what they thought after they had heard us play. The music we played was so very different from what the average high school band of the day played. I don't remember any of them commenting on the music afterwards; perhaps they were just too shocked.
I remember at least once playing two concerts in one day, one in the morning and one in the evening.
A lot of our time on the buses was spent sleeping. But I also remember singing Tom Lehrer songs and telling stupid jokes ("because the higher, the fewer!").
John gave me my first, last, and only gigs as a professional musician. Sort of. As well as directing the MIT Concert Band, John conducted the Hingham Civic Orchestra and taught at the Boston Conservatory. At some point during my MIT career (probably in 1972 or 1973) he needed an oboist for the Hinghan Civic Orchestra, so he asked me to fill in. I remember driving down to Hingham stuffed into the back seat of his AMC Gremlin. There were at least a couple of concerts I played in; one was a Pops concert of some sort in which we played Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri" overture, which has a really lovely oboe solo at the beginning. I think "Bugler's Holiday" was also on the program. So I went to the rehearsals, played in the concert, and a week later I received a check in the mail from the treasurer of the HCO for $10 (or whatever it was, some nominal amount). I was impressed; I hadn't realized I had turned pro. Another time I played second oboe in a "real" concert; we played Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. The first oboe was a high school kid who did a really great job.
Then another time they needed an oboe for the Boston Conservatory band, so I attended a couple of rehearsals there and went with them to play at a grade school some place in western Massachusetts -- out the Mass Pike somewhere. One of the buses broke down on the way home, and we spent what seemed like forever waiting for a replacement. I think I got back to MIT some time after midnight. I don't remember getting paid for this one, though.
It's a small world:
I live in Needham, Massachusetts, which is not a huge town but it's not that small, either. There's one guy in town I've been friends with for many years -- our kids went (and still go) to school together, and we play volleyball together. He works at Brannen Brothers in Woburn, making flutes, and I've known for many years that he is a percussionist. I've mentioned to him several times about playing in the MIT Concert Band, and about going to the concerts, and he always responded something like "Oh, is John Corley still conducting there?" I figured that, being the type of person he is, he just knew by name everybody in the Boston area connected with music. Anyway, I was talking to John last week before rehearsal, and I happened to mention my friend Payson Greene, and John looked at me and said "I know him! He used to play for me in an orchestra in Brookline. It was in 1966 or 1967. He was a percussionist; a high school kid".
Then I found out that Adrian Childs, who is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago, lives across the street from my parents in Chicago.
I have in my possession a red ribbon with a small bell attached and the following printed on it:
The Opening of
April 19, 1975
This event was the only time I was in a band conducted by Arthur Fiedler. They had a bunch of college bands there at Boston City Hall Plaza; I remember the Harvard Band, and BU, and possibly BC, and of course us; the idea was that Fiedler would conduct this bunch in something, probably The Start and Stripes Forever, although I don't remember for sure, with each band's conductors following Fiedler's beat and trying to keep us together. I recall that we all finished within about a measure of each other, which wasn't bad considering our lack of preparation and the acoustics of the place.
I showed this ribbon to John last week, and of course he had a story about it, which I will try to relate as he told it to me:
"I remember that event, and I almost got into trouble with Fiedler over it. We were arrayed around the plaza, and of course I was looking back at Fiedler picking up his beat, and [then Massachusetts governor] Mike and [his wife] Kitty Dukakis walked up behind him; Fiedler couldn't see them, of course, but Kitty waved to me and of course I waved back; Fiedler thought I was waving at him so he waved at me." [sorry if I messed up the story, John]
I also have in my possession a copy of The Tech from Friday, May 12, 1972. The headline is "Riot police hit MIT campus", and the article reads as follows:
"Cambridge and Somerville tactical police, using tear gas, dogs and clubs swept hundreds of demonstrators from the MIT campus yesterday. The police action came after antiwar protestors, only a few of them MIT students, smashed windows, vandalized railroad tracks and block Massachusetts Avenue with dumpsters and debris.
For three hours, under sporadic rain showers, police and crowds parried back and forth across Kresge Plaza. Police lobbed dozens of canisters of tear and pepper gas at demonstrators, and at spectators gathered on the roofs of dormitories and on the dome of Building 7.
In several instances, police aimed tear gas projectiles directly at people. Gas was thrown into Kresge Auditorium as the Concert Band rehearsed for a Friday performance; hundreds of people took refuge in the Student Center.
Gas grenades were lobbed into Kresge, and when the band attempted to leave, the police told them to get back inside. They escaped through the rear exit."
I was at that rehearsal. If I recall correctly, it was actually a woodwind sectional held in rehearsal room A (at that time there were three rehearsals a week -- a brass/percussion sectional on Monday at 5:30, the full band on Wednesday at 8, and a woodwind sectional on Thursday at 5:30). When we came out of the rehearsal we had no idea that anything was wrong until we got out into the Kresge lobby. I remember going outside and being yelled at by the police to get back into the building. It must have been before they gassed Kresge, because I don't remember any tear gas at that point. It was almost surreal to come out of a rehearsal into this riot.
Mostly, that I didn't pay enough attention to what was going on around me, although I tend to think that about my life in general.
Also, I kept absolutely nothing to remind me about my time with the band. No programs, no pictures, no posters, nothing.I kept most of my notebooks and almost all of my textbooks, but nothing that relates to the band.
And I wish we had recorded all of our rehearsals so we would have a record of John's stories.
Band People I mentioned:
Tessa Gorenstein Lebinger, '73, oboe
Ron Gittelson, ’73, alto sax
Dan Christman, '77, oboe
Frank Kriemendahl, '77, oboe
Toby Montroll Kreimendahl, oboe
But looking back on it now, it's the things outside classes I remember most, and especially I remember the MIT Concert Band and John Corley. Going to rehearsals, listening to John's stories, feeling the special bond that tour brought to the group, feeling the excitement when pieces we were rehearsing stopped sounding like a big muddle and started to make sense. It was such a privilege to be able to be a part of that, even for only four years, and it's such a privilege to be able to be even a small part of that again. It is such a privilege, it is so thrilling to me, that my son is also able to be a part of this.
I don't know what else to say. Thank you, John.
-- Dave Strauss, '75
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Copyright © 1999, 2003 David W. Strauss
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