Ensemble touring Italy, ‘serving the culture’ over January

This January, the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, St. Thomas’ premiere instrumental band ensemble, will travel to Italy to perform five concerts in 11 days.

<p>Matthew George directs the Symphonic Wind Ensemble during reherseal this week. The ensemble travels to Italy Jan. 16 - 26 and will play five concerts. (Aaron Hays/TommieMedia)</p>
Matthew George directs the Symphonic Wind Ensemble during rehearsal this week. The ensemble travels to Italy Jan. 16 - 26 and will play five concerts. (Aaron Hays/TommieMedia)

This is the first international trip for the Symphonic Wind Ensemble since their trip to China in 2007. From Jan. 16 – 26, the ensemble will travel throughout Italy, making stops at major cities such as Rome and Venice and spend nearly half the trip on the island of Sicily.

“It should be a very fulfilling experience for students,” said director of the Symphonic Wind Ensemble Matthew George. “Every time we do international performing I always consider it the idea of serving the culture.

“We are actually immersing ourselves and performing for that particular audience in that country. It’s a little bit of a different spin on how to experience a culture.”

The 45 students that make up the Symphonic Wind Ensemble are the most accomplished woodwind, brass and percussionist performers at St. Thomas, according to George. Each member must have prior performance experience and tryout at the beginning of each year.

The trip will count as a one-credit course, with 50 percent of the $3,600 funded by St. Thomas and the other half coming out of students’ pockets.

Why Italy?

As director, George gets a say in the where the group will perform and he said he wanted to go with a destination less exotic and one with a rich musical history.

“I’m excited because it’s an area that is very passionate about music,” George said. “Italy seems to make very good sense with the connection to St. Thomas and there is also some very good instrumental music going on in Italy.”

Junior saxophonist Matt Potter said he is excited to visit a part of the world he has never been to.

“For me, I’ve never been to Europe, so I’m just excited to see what it’s like and see some cool places in history,” Potter said.

Before setting off, the ensemble will learn a handful of new arrangements that will make up their full concerts. They are set to perform four pieces that were played during the fall semester and will learn the new ones in the week leading up to the trip.

To master the new pieces before Italy, George said preparation will likely include a week-long stretch of daily rehearsals from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. He said this should be enough time to learn the new repertoire.

Junior percussionist Jon Dostal said that although the rehearsals will be tough, the end reward outweighs the stress.

“My attitude is that even though those rehearsals are going to suck and be long, we are going to Italy. So it doesn’t even matter,” he said.

‘Bringing an American program’

George said the ensemble will play a piece by well-known Italian composer, Puccini. But for the most part, the arrangements will be by American composers to display the true essence of the Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

“Generally speaking, I’m trying to bring an American program, so composers like Leonard Bernstein and Copeland,” George said. “But there are also some that are more modern-day composers to show off the different abilities of what the Symphonic Wind Ensemble can do.”

During the 11-day trip, the ensemble will play in a variety of venues for various audiences. Most of the concerts will be held in churches that double as concert halls and some will be connected to conservatories where they will perform to students and faculty. All of the performances will be open to the public.

“It will be fun to play in some real nice venues like churches and old cathedrals,” Dostal said. “We are playing with a few other colleges and high schools over there so it will be nice to see what the music is like over there.”

Experience in performing abroad

Dostal has experience performing internationally with his high school jazz band as he has traveled to France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. He said he knows what to expect from the foreign audience.

“I feel like people are more welcoming over there than over here,” he said. “The towns we played in it seemed like everyone was there and that was the place to be.”

He said this trip is a great opportunity.

“This will be our only international trip at St. Thomas,” he said. “So I don’t think I will have the opportunity to do something like this ever again.”

George is confident that the ensemble will do St. Thomas proud.

“This is good group and the demeanor in the group is very positive,” he said. “I think it’s a group that will be enjoyable to travel with because they are just great people. They worked very hard and by the time we perform I think we will represent the university very well.”

Matt Linden can be reached at mdlinden@stthomas.edu