As guests walked into the Scheidt Family Performing Arts Center, musicians, clad in black attire, could be seen rushing around the lobby, tuning their instruments and confirming they had all the last-minute items they needed before heading on stage. For students in the Wind Ensemble, the pressure was high, as the concert on Sept. 29 served as the first major performance of the school year.
Concert attendees, comprised of ensemble members' families and friends, students and colleagues, filed in shortly after and settled into their seats in the new music hall. The ensemble musicians then anxiously awaited behind the wooden doors that lead onto the stage. It was the night of their first concert – "Lights, Camera, Music," an exploration of John Williams' works.
As the musicians made their way onto the stage, the lights dimmed. Silence settled over the concert hall for a few moments. Finally, Dr. Albert Nguyen, director of bands at the University of Memphis, appeared from the wings and shared a few opening words. He introduced Chris McCoy, the Film/TV editor for The Memphis Flyer, who provided a few words about the Oscar winning composer John Williams. Then, like Tinkerbell zooming through the London sky, the ensemble energetically sprang into their first piece of the night, Williams' Flight to Neverland from the movie "Hook" starring Robin Williams.
"I knew that we were going to have an outstanding brass section," Nguyen said. "All of the soundtracks are available. It was an intersection of a lot of the music finally being available for a band – like this is what was played in the soundtrack studios. We have the players that can do it - it was the right time."
Nguyen attributed his proclivity for the horn to the hours he spent as a child listening to Williams' classic movie soundtracks and their signature brass sound.
In addition to students, a few guest soloists played with the ensemble. For "Schindler's List," associate professor of violin Marcin Arendt accompanied the student ensemble. Prior to playing the heart-tugging violin solo from the 1993 film's Theme, Arendt told the story of his violin, which was a gift from his great-grandfather at 13 years old. His great-grandfather was given the violin during World War II, and through the years, it remained in the family, being passed down from family member to family member. The story of Arendt's violin added to the emotional weight of the already heavy piece from "Schindler's List."
The ensemble played another piece called "Escapades" from the movie, "Catch Me If You Can," which featured three guest soloists. Associate professor of percussion Bill Shaltis played the vibraphone, Kaleb Ritchie played the double bass and professor of saxophone Michael Shults played saxophone. The piece featured extended solos that showcased each soloist's specialty instrument and field of study.
"The guest soloists are all my friends, and making music with your very close friends is really great," Nguyen said.
Madeline Miller, a senior majoring in French horn music performance, said she felt energized after the concert. "I hit my pedal notes. After all the rehearsals, it feels really good."
The concert was well attended and highly anticipated by members of the Memphis community, like Joan Allison, the creative director and managing editor for Focus Mid-South.
"A concert at Rudi Scheidt auditorium to hear @The University of Memphis Wind Ensemble perform nothing but John Williams music? Yes please!!," Allison wrote on Facebook.
John Williams is one of the most famous and decorated movie composers of the 21st century, with 53 Oscar nominations and five wins. From the Indiana Jones franchise to the first three Harry Potter films, almost all of Williams' musical contributions are from hit movies and culturally accepted classics like Star Wars.
Friday's concert included "Jedi Steps" and "Finale," two pieces from one of the more recent Star Wars films, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
"I am partial to the Star Wars piece that we did because I have a cute little duet at the beginning with the euphonium, and that's really fun,” Miller said. “I really enjoyed the ending of that piece because it's just horn-central. The horns are going crazy, doing a bunch of riffs and a bunch of fun stuff. It's great for [the horns] because a lot of times we are doing backup music to other people, but now it's us [playing melodies].”
Miller continued. "I think it hit every good John Williams movie. We got Harry Potter. We got Star Wars. We even got some of the underappreciated movies that we don't normally hear, like Schindler's List and 1941. Having a good mixture of the popular stuff and the stuff that isn't as popular is amazing."
The next University of Memphis Wind Ensemble concert, entitled "Voices," featuring Jim Stephenson's Symphony No. 2, Voices., will take place on Monday, Oct. 30.