by James Garcia Jr.
Whether they fully realize it yet or not remains to be seen, but Kingsburg High School (KHS) students have just experienced a dream come true. On March 4, 2011, myself and fifty-eight others, including forty-six members of the KHS Wind Ensemble, boarded a school bus and traveled to San Francisco International Airport. Our destination was New York City and the world-renowned Carnegie Hall.
“This opportunity came about because Dr. Lawrence Sutherland (Fresno State Director of Bands, retired) recommended our Wind Ensemble to attend the NY Wind Band Festival,” said Mike Schofield, Director of Bands at Kingsburg High School. “Upon his recommendation, we were able to submit an audition CD and were chosen to perform.” It might sound simple, but it wasn’t. They have known about this trip for nearly a year and have been busy conducting one fundraiser after another in order to acquire the necessary monies needed to attempt such an undertaking.
We boarded a red-eye flight that departed at 10:50 p.m. and landed at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport Saturday morning at about 7:20 a.m. local time. Expecting to be greeted by extremely cold temperatures and potentially snow, we were pleasantly surprised to find New York to be much milder and actually quite bearable. We then boarded charter buses, which transported our large group to the Sheraton New York and Towers, which would be our home away from home for the next four days.
Unable to check into our rooms until later in the afternoon, we stored our luggage and instruments and managed to wash up a little bit before heading off to explore The Big Apple. Something that was repeated for the length of the entire trip, we took time to count off each member of the group. Each one of us had a number and called it out in numerical order. I was number fifty-seven.
During free time, as one of the ten chaperons, we would wait for the students to group together with a common purpose, and then simply tag along. My wife, Aida, and I accompanied about eleven this particular time. It wasn’t long before we had stumbled upon Rockefeller Center, the home of the famous ice-skating rink. We were surrounded by NBC Studios and NBC News, Radio City Music Hall, Fox News, the GE building and, much to my chagrin, Nintendo World. Our groups always seemed to want to be near video games. One of the highlights of the afternoon was watching as my son and several of his friends spent an hour ice skating.
After finally receiving access to our rooms, we were then able to refresh ourselves with a much-needed shower and nap. Many of us wanted to burn our clothes at this point, but after this period were ready for more. We headed toward Times Square, which was only about five blocks away. Locating a restaurant buffet which was able to accommodate our entire contingent, we had dinner. We were surrounded by laughter and smiles as we really began to bond together, student and chaperons alike.Our night was capped in style as we all attended the Broadway show, The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theater. Many of us feared that we would sleep through it after having had such a full day with very little sleep, but it seemed to please everyone, including those who had never attended a play before. “My fondest memory was seeing The Phantom of the Opera,” said flutist Hannah Zentner. “It was amazing to see what kind of special effects can be done live when there are hundreds of people watching.”
The next morning was Sunday and many began their day by attending mass at the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Breakfast was followed by more free time, but soon it was time for a bit of structure as the students spent a couple of hours rehearsing and attending a workshop with Virginia Allen, the Artistic Director of the Conducting Workshop for Music Educators at The Julliard School.
A storm was rolling in as we marched toward Grand Central Station for a late lunch and a quick visit. Most of us were properly equipped with umbrellas; however, little did we know how much worse it would get. This was followed by a trek to The Empire State Building for a visit to the observation deck on the 86th floor. It took less than a minute for the elevator to take groups of us 80 floors up. We disembarked and entered another elevator for the remaining six floors.
Our tickets had been stamped with a note that we would be greeted by zero visibility and they weren’t wrong. The top of the building seemed to literally reach into the clouds, preventing anyone from seeing anything. The bravest among us walked completely around the deck and were pelted with heavy rain for our trouble. Afterward we split up into groups for some free time. Our group, which numbered twenty, found ourselves soaked to the bone by the time we had made our way twenty blocks back toward our hotel, finding dinner near Times Square.
Just when we thought that it could not get any worse, the temperatures fell the next day as we headed for The Statue of Liberty. It dipped below thirty degrees with the wind-chill factor. Many of us found that we did not have nearly enough layers of clothing on and suffered for it.
In order to get to our destination, we had to guide the entire group through the subway system. I like to tell people that they have not lived until they have attempted this, but it was largely uneventful, and more anxiety-inducing than anything else. After a lengthy wait, we eventually made our way through security and onto a ferry which shuttled us to the monument for a forty minute visit. Due to time constraints, we were unable to spend much time at Ellis Island, choosing instead to mostly stay aboard and get back to shore. This enabled our entire group the necessary time in our schedule to walk back through town and make our way to Ground Zero.
Director Schofield cautioned the students that we were about to visit a graveyard, and rightly so. Although only between five and eight years old during the events of September 11, 2001, the students seemed to know without a doubt that the land upon which they were standing was holy ground. The faces surrounding me were somber ones and their normally loud and joyful voices were struck silent. I remember all too well the events of that fateful day, and will never forget the opportunity to stand in that place. On our way to the site, we passed a sculpture, The Sphere. It formally stood in Austin Tobin Plaza, the area between the two towers that made up The World Trade Center. It was recovered from the rubble and half a year later was rededicated to Battery Park, which is at the southern tip of Manhattan. No repairs were made to it, making it that much more powerful to behold.
We boarded the subway system once again and made our way back. We divided into groups with our group heading for a pizza place. In the afternoon, we boarded charters and headed to Central Park and the Naumberg Bandshell where the Wind Ensemble took the stage and performed for family and strangers alike. Interestingly, two other groups canceled this performance due to the extreme cold. After their three song set, Schofield was told by event volunteers, themselves military musicians, of how impressed they were by the ensemble’s performance under such extreme circumstances.
We finished our day by circling Manhattan on a dinner cruise where the students enjoyed dinner and dancing with other schools, with the beautiful skyline of New York City as the background. We passed beneath the majestic Brooklyn Bridge and circled the Statue of Liberty one last time.
On Tuesday morning, our last full day in New York City, the students assembled in the lobby of the hotel before making their way toward Carnegie Hall for a sound-check. “Carnegie Hall was like a dream,” said clarinetist Mary Hosler. “When I walked in, [the hall] was glowing and the sound was just so perfect, I couldn’t help but get choked up. Just our sound check, which was just a few chords [and] some regular exercises, sounded like nothing I have ever heard. It resounded and you could feel the music being pulled from you. It was an out-of-body experience for sure. I never wanted the moment to end.”
Afterward, the chaperones rejoined the group and we separated for lunch. Our group headed toward the famous Carnegie Deli where the sandwiches are much larger than the normal appetite.
At long last, The 2011 New York Wind Band Festival began at 1:00 p.m. with Kingsburg High School taking the Ronald O. Perelman stage in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall at just after 2:00 p.m. They performed “Liadov Fanfare” by Brian Beck, “Irish Tune from County Derry” by Percy Grainger and my favorite of the three, “The Hounds of Spring” by Alfred Reed. By all accounts, the performance was excellent.
“When we started playing in Carnegie Hall and released a note for the first time,” said flutist Hannah Zentner, “it seemed like everything was suddenly perfect…like we had all, somehow magically, breathed and (had) been completely together from then on.”
“This was such an indescribable moment,” added Hosler. “I will remember every detail of it right up until the last chord.”
Director Schofield conducted his band of students with a flash and flare rarely seen, and was beaming when their set had been completed. It was not only an event with special meaning for the students, but their director as well. His parents and other family members had made their way to New York City to share the momentous event. “That stage is hallowed ground,” Schofield said. “To perform there is one of the greatest honors a musician can receive. Tschaikowsky, Bernstein, Toscaninni, Copland, and countless others have graced that stage.”
Their performance was attended by approximately 1200 people and the Wind Ensemble was greeted with a standing ovation when they were done.
KHS was joined by schools from Ashville NC, Port Charlotte FL, Orlando FL, a concert band from Modesto CA, and an orchestra from Mystowice, Poland. After the performances, we were dismissed to head back to the hotel to change out of concert attire and a bit of free time before returning in the evening for a special night concert featuring the Saratoga, California High School Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Strings Group.
At the end of the concert, the band directors were summoned back to the stage to be thanked and, in the case of the schools, informed of awards that they had won during the adjudicated performances. KHS was awarded the Silver Award, although you could never convince those of us in the audience that they had been anything less than gold.
We had dinner as a group at the Hard Rock Café Restaurant and celebrated the 18th birthday of alto saxophonist Isaac Raven. We then spent our last waking hours in New York City by doing a bit of shopping and sightseeing. Our group headed back to Times Square and soaked it all in one last time.
That next morning we were up bright and early in order to pack up and depart our temporary home. We loaded onto charter buses and headed back to JFK in order to make our way back to California, more specifically San Francisco and then ultimately Kingsburg.
I asked Director Schofield what he hoped the students took away from this experience. “I hope that the students experienced a joy that they’ve never felt before. Also, I hope they feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I think they know how special it is, but I think as time passes, they’ll fully realize how few people get an experience like that.”
Perhaps some of the student-musicians did fully grasp what they had just experienced. “The New York City Wind Ensemble trip was absolutely incredible,” said Raven. “Performing in Carnegie Hall was phenomenal and definitely a once-in-a lifetime experience. The trip [to Ellis Island] was also very emotional for me, walking inside the immigration buildings [that] my Grandfather walked through on March 8th, 1925 when he was eleven years old. Also, my 18th birthday was the day we performed in Carnegie, which made the trip even better. In other words, the stars aligned and made for a very remarkable and unforgettable experience.”
Watch for an article on theatre in New York in next week’s issue.