Conductor  Frederick  Fennell
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Frederick Fennell was truly an American original, and he spent his career bringing to life other American originals.

Having been a bassoon player in high school and college, I played in orchestras and bands as well as chamber groups.  I knew of Frederick Fennell through the recordings he was making and the influence he had on all musicians.  As soon as I began my radio career, I included his ever-growing pile of discs in my programs, and in December of 1987 I had the opportunity to interview him. 

Each December, Chicago hosts the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, and young musicians from all over the country converge on the Hilton Hotel
— just a few blocks south of Orchestra Hall — for lectures, master classes, symposiums and concerts.  Naturally, a few major names are invited each year, and that time it was Fennell.  Like Figaro, he was here and there and up and down, but he made a point of giving me almost an hour of his time to speak about things close to our hearts.  It was one of those wonderful times where two people just get together to chat with lots of gestures and much laughter between us. 

Physically short but fit and trim, he was the embodiment of a Human Dynamo.  His happiness with his accomplishments was conveyed by seemingly boundless enthusiasm and a gleeful modulation of his voice.  He spoke without hesitation and revealed how he got things done, and even conveyed some bitterness about how the recording business treated his beloved Eastman School.  On the other hand, he was very proud of his latest discs, some of which were re-makes of earlier items and others contained things he had not recorded before.

More than a decade later, as we neared the millennium, I ran into him again at Orchestra Hall after a Chicago Symphony concert.  By that time he was somewhat feeble, and he shuffled as he moved along in the lobby.  But when I spoke to him and thanked him again for our interview, his eyes lit up and his voice strengthened, and the blazing fire came back into his eyes.  He was pleased that I remembered him (!), but even more glad that I was continuing to play his recordings and present his views on the air. 

For those, and so many other reasons, I am proud to be able to include our conversation on this website.

Bruce Duffie:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of conducting the wind ensemble.

Frederick Fennell:    The sorrows are few, no more nor less than any other concerted ensemble.  Any professional group certainly brings to what they play years and years of experience, training, individual discipline and practice, and so their work is all done individually.  The next thing for any conductor of any group is to just bring it together.  That’s a big challenge to anybody, no matter what the repertory or what the group.  And the bringing it together is the joy because so much of the time it has to start from a separateness and come to a togetherness.  Sometimes the togetherness is a little difficult to get because our history, as a performing group in league with the great orchestras and the great chamber music groups, is a fairly recent one.  People have always had a rather fixed idea of what a wind band is, and a lot of time the minuses that are inherent in such a statement are something that was earned.  Unfortunately, the emergence of a cohesive group of reed and brass and percussion players, sitting down and making music together, has, for too many years, been relegated to a point of human interchange that has been al fresco, bringing with it all of the minuses of playing out of doors and of playing to what is supposedly a public that is the group of people for which the band was supposed to play.  Everybody’s always tried to tell me that the band was the people’s music, which I think is the most notorious bunch of hogwash that I can imagine!

BD:    All right, from your point of view, having worked with wind bands for so many years, what is a wind band, and what should it be?

FF:    Whatever you make it.  Anything you want it to be.

BD:    What does Frederick Fennell make of it?

fennell FF:    A wind band is a wide open category.  When you say "symphony orchestra," because there are so many very well-known, long-famous performing ensembles
like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — I don’t think anybody has to have a picture painted for them of what that is.  That’s because it has had a consistent history for close to four hundred years of gradual evolution to what it is today.  The sit-down wind band doesn’t have that, so we don’t have an immediate focus or idea of what this is.

BD:    Is it being built?  Is the idea being built and is the cohesiveness being built?

FF:    Bit by bit I think we have been trying to do what Pierre Boulez once described as the most difficult thing to do in performing a masterpiece.  He’s quoted as saying that the most difficult thing in playing a masterpiece is to take away the dirt.  Bringing a sit-down wind group together, with people who sit and listen to it and what it plays, takes a lot of taking away the dirt.  We have to take away the dirt of a great, great many years of peanuts and popcorn and kids in the park, and ice cream cones and music that is supposed to soothe savage beasts on a summer evening.  Now, I am sure that there are a lot of people who might be offended by that statement of mine, because there are a lot of people, I’m sure, who have enjoyed a summer evening listening to a band in a park somewhere.  But that, unfortunately, has been the terminal of most of the wind band business in the United States, except for what has been happening in universities, since about the time immediately after the First World War.  That
’s when Austin Harding’s University of Illinois Band began its emergence and development as a serious, sit-down, university concert band.

BD:    So you have no objection to the music in the park?

FF:    On, no.  Oh, no, Lord, no!  How could anybody have objections to that?

BD:    You want that to be just one facet of it.

FF:    As I say, that’s been the terminal, and a very limiting terminal:  acoustics, for one thing; the out of doors, for another thing; amplification, which is always very bad for a group of this kind.  Those are things that are all minuses!  There is not one single plus that I can think of in that situation, except that it entertains someone.  It gives them pleasure, which is fine.  Let’s have all of that we can have.  Nobody says no.  But since you’re asking me where do I think it’s going, or what it might be, it has to have something that transcends that.  We were borne by the military of early nineteenth century Europe.  They put brass players and percussion players, and some reed players, on the backs of horses and they called it a cavalry band.  His name was Wieprecht, and he was a very brilliant man, a very important man in the history of the growth of this organization.  He was the beginning of this organization, but it never quite got out of the clutch of the military until very recent times.  When I say clutch of the military, they paid the bills!  They were the ones that did the hiring and they said what the band could do, and nobody could say that’s wrong!  The mere fact that by the time that bands began to emerge and be something more than organized confusion in the French Revolution, you would have thought that maybe they would have gone a couple of steps beyond where they did.  But for some strange reason, after this enormous splurge after the French Revolution, when the people went to the park with their baskets of food, where the bands played for the people, the medium never developed.  And the people who played in those bands were the forerunners and the founders of the Garde Republican Band, and were the founders of the Paris Conservatory!  But when they got into that department, the development of the sit-down band as an artistic medium of great interest to the composer and of an attractive character for his best creative ideas began to disappear for some strange reason.  There is the great example of the incredible piece by Hector Berlioz.  The first march of his Symphonie Triomphe is one of the wonderful pieces by anybody, not alone by Berlioz!  But it stopped there; it never got any push from all of the great composers of that time, for some very unexplained reason.

BD:    So there’s a large gap in the development of the wind band?

FF:    No, there’s all kinds of gaps, and I don’t have the answers to where the gaps begin or end.  But I do know they are there because the most important thing, and the only measuring device, is music written by composers.  It isn’t there.

BD:    Are we getting more of it now?

FF:    There is a vast amount of music that is beginning to surface, thanks to distinguished scholars like my friend David Whitwell, who is also a very outstanding conductor.  He’s been rummaging around in every kind of library and archive that anybody will allow him entrance.  He and others have been coming up with an enormous number of pieces that date from the period of the development of the Harmonie Musik of that time in Vienna.  The pieces that are written in the wake of, shall we say, the Mozart Grand Partita, the big B flat Serenade.  There was an enormous activity of this kind going on in Vienna, and a great deal of music was written for that.  Now we’re beginning to have more of that available to us.  People didn’t know that it existed before this unearthing began.  This excavating, literally, is what’s been going on!  It’s beginning to show that there was a motion there, but it never really got to the heart, the center of creativity with the outstanding composers of this time.  Take a man like Mendelssohn who wrote one overture for the [wind] musicians of the Bad, where he went with his family and was taken by the idea of being there.  He wrote this very, very good, really Mendelssohnian overture.  It’s a first-class piece of Mendelssohn.  And there it stops!  And then for others, there’s these enormous gaps where there is nothing!

BD:    So now you have this rebirth of the symphonic wind ensemble or the symphonic band.  Are you participating in the building and shaping of the line for the bands to come?

FF:    Well, people say that I am, but this isn’t a project of mine.  I started as the drum major of the University of Rochester Marching Band.  That was my entrée to being a conductor.  You have to interest someone in the fact that you are a leader, and in this case a musical leader, and that you have the staying power to hack it out with a lot of people to get them to come to a rehearsal.  And after getting them there
bringing the horse to the water troughthey have to drink!  Maybe they don’t drink.  That’s the chance you take when you try to be a conductor, and that’s how I had to start.  But from that point on, I’ve only been interested in how this can be as ultimately musical an experience as possible.  And this went through all kinds of vicissitudes with me at the Eastman School over a period of thirty years, the last ten of which were crowned with the emergence of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, which took the previous twenty years to go through my brain, and practice and rehearse.  We went through every piece of original music that was written for the band.  We studied them, we rehearsed them and we performed them.  We performed all of the outstanding transcriptions extant to that time, those pieces appropriate to a sit-down wind group.  And I felt that after having seen all of that, that I had earned the privilege of suggesting to the Director of the Eastman School of Music, Howard Hanson, that we might have another wind group which I would simply call a wind ensemble, a term which would include the percussion, the harp, and the piano and any other instrument that there was.  But it would be a one-on-a-part group, and therefore open up the door to going back to the sixteenth century brass music of Gabrieli and others, to the wind music that began to emerge, such as the Mozart Serenades, that incredible Serenade by Dvorak, pieces by Strauss and the Stravinsky Wind Symphonies.  These were, as you know, big landmarks along the way, but they were such great beacons of what was there!  If you profess to be a band, I think that’s a distinguished category.  If you are a band and you say you are a band, then I think you immediately owe the public a lot of things.  You must play the band’s literature, whatever that is.  You must be uniformed, like a band is.  You must be able to play outdoors in the open air, like all bands do, or like people think bands do.  You must play the time-honored literature that people have grown to call band music.  Now if you don’t want to do that, then I think you’re not being honest to the band, and should not call yourself that.  So I said, “Let’s change our name.  Let’s just call ourselves the Eastman Wind Ensemble, and strive to perform only the original music for wind instruments.  We will do all we can to create and urge the composer, no matter who this composer might be — be he of very high fame or be he the youngest composer that just walked in the block.  We should reach out to say, ‘We do not offer you any commissions, but we do offer you a performance prepared with love and devotion, and with the utmost of our artistic skills.’”  That was all I have ever said, and that’s all I am ever going to say on the subject.

with Ron Nelson BD:    And this is enough of an inducement to get them to write?

[Photo at right:  Fennell with composer Ron Nelson.  See my Interview with Ron Nelson.]       

FF:    That’s enough, as far as I am concerned.  That, to me, should answer your question.  It doesn’t say what instruments or how many of them or what color or what shape or what range.  It says nothing.  That must come from the man who writes the music.  The conductor can simply work with what the composer creates.  Every now and then you may have a good friend who is close to you, who says, “Gee, I think I’d like to write a piece for you.”  That’s fine; that’s been going on happily ever since one composer wrote a piece for another person.  We are just doing what we are doing in an endeavor to set forth something as simply as we can, embracing everything.  We’re all for all the kinds of bands there are in the world, every kind!  I get myself involved with every one of these!  But since you asked me where I think we’re going, I think that’s where we’re going.  In the area of the professional music-making, it has to be that way.  I think in the future you will see what is already a fact, that there will be a special kind of territory and a special kind of repertory which will belong to the large university, college, conservatory symphonic band; the group of eighty to ninety players where the composer writes whatever he wants to write for them, where there is not restriction of any kind.  It is a place where, if you need ten percussion players and five pianos and seven harps, there is the fighting chance that you can get them!  A piece like that, even for the Chicago Symphony would take a little special grant from somebody’s fund.  But the university can do this; the university can provide this.  They can provide you in-depth whatever the composer wants.  So a tremendous amount of music is now being created by highly imaginative composers for groups of this kind.  I’m speaking now of people like Joseph Schwantner and Michael Colgrass and Karel Husa and any number of other composers now writing these marvelous pieces
— wonderful, big, enormous, musical tapestries, that are like vast Rubens!  [See my interviews with Joseph Schwantner, Michael Colgrass, and Karel Husa.]  The period of his time, where the bigger the painting, the bigger, the thicker the volume!  Victor Hugo!  Big, thick volumes, not little, thin ones!  Big ones!  And they’re great at it!

BD:    Is there ever a case where it becomes too big or too broad a canvas?

FF:    I don’t know; I don’t think so.  Not when it’s well-played, no.  Not when it’s well-played.

BD:    So well-played is the bottom line?

FF:    Well-played is the word!  Well-conducted!  How it’s conceived, the composer and the performer have nothing to do with that.  What they do with what they see on the music rack in front of them — that’s where our responsibilities begin, but we can’t do anything much until somebody puts something on the music rack.  I think maybe they didn’t put anything on the music rack because sometimes when they did, we weren’t up to it.  I think that’s the other side of it.  As I said earlier, we’ve earned the black marks against us.  I throw no rocks at any conductor at any period in the history of anything, except there must have been some reason why men like Debussy, Ravel, Ottorino Respighi, the men who understood — and I’ll throw in Richard Strauss who certainly understood the wind instrument, alone, in pairs, triples, quadruples, as many as you can think — these men certainly understood the instruments inside and out, [speaking in a resigned and disgusted manner] and they left us nothing.  There has to be a reason, and the only reason I can see is the guy up front.  That’s me.  I am the problem, the conductor.  I am the problem.  When I say I am, I’m including all of my colleagues.  We are the problem.

BD:    So you’re trying to be a solution now?

FF:    I’m only trying to do the best I can.  Whether I am a solution or not, I don’t claim to be.  But I claim to try to do the best I can do.

BD:    Then let me ask the great big, huge philosophical question:  what is the purpose of music?

FF:    To fill the areas that cannot be measured in life.  Everything else can be measured in these days of ultimate mathematics, the ultimate prediction.  We will land on the moon at a certain touchdown time, the ultimate measurement in the world!  Music is not possible to measure!  And it has to be created every time.  The greatest recordings ever made, or ever to be made, are not the answer.  They are for your repetitious enjoyment, yes, and wonderfully so.  But nothing beats going to Orchestra Hall and hearing the silence before the music begins.  You can’t package that!  There’s a dimension.  I can’t imagine life without that!  And what happens as it is played?  You have to be there!  You have to be in that concert hall.  You have to be in that high school gymnasium, that high school auditorium, or wherever it is.  You have to be there!

BD:    That outdoor shell?

FF:    That outdoor shell, absolutely!  But you have to be there!  You must surrender yourself to a performance of the music.   It’s the dimension of the live performance.  That’s what it is!  It fills the things in life that cannot otherwise be measured.

BD:    Do you look at all of life this way, too?

FF:    Yes, I certainly do!  My philosophy has been built by other people, by musicians, by painters, by writers and poets.  I read a lot.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let
’s approach this whole thing from a little different angle for a moment.  The orchestras tend to get a lot of people saying, “You play the same literature over and over again.”  In all of this that you have just told me, are you saying that in the band literature and the wind ensemble literature we are not faced with this kind of problem, so that you’re freer to play more and more new things and new ideas?

fennell FF:    Yes, I think we are free.  I do believe, at the same time, that we do have a basic literature which is very small and distinguished in its way.  But it’s very, very thin, in comparison to the masterpieces, or the joyful pieces of almost any other branch of the creators’ art in music.  We need literature desperately.  The school band, the university band, they’re green-eyed monsters!  They just chew up material as fast as they can get it!  Frequently a student goes to a very good high school, and by the time he’s gotten to a Northwestern University, he’s played ninety percent of this basic literature!  And at Northwestern, he’s going to get it again.  If he goes somewhere else, he’s going to get some small piece of it, but at Northwestern he’d certainly get a solid dose of the new pieces, also.  They all must spin off of something that is basic, and we do have some things that are basic, but we need more and more and more every day!  We need the most enormous creative outpouring that anybody can imagine!  I don’t know whether we’re going to get it or not, but we really need it.  I think that the enterprise and the work and the skill of any number of men from the beginning of the twentieth century up to now, who have given so much to it are to be thanked.  I think the players deserve everything they can get from a composer.

BD:    What advice do you have for the composer who says, “I want to write something for the wind ensemble”?

FF:    Be wide open.  Have an open mind and no set ideas about anything.  Just write something that you think has a chance to reach someone’s point of receptivity for a piece of music that maybe says what it wishes to say a little differently than someone else.  Most important, however, it must be a sincere piece.  I don’t care what it is or in what style, or borrowed from what style to create whatever aura, it must be sincere.  It will be sniffed out as being insincere, no matter what it is.  That, I think, is very, very important because there’s not much you can do with an insincere piece of music.  Sooner or later it does show, and we need this kind of tremendous enterprise. There are now some opportunities and high stakes money — ten thousand dollars, things like that.  Prizes are being offered, one by Louis Sudler, a distinguished Chicago patron of music and the arts and a great man, by the way!  This is a contest to have music screened by a great many of the outstanding men in this field who come up with a winner and two runners up each year.  There are other contests that are getting to be likewise more lucrative and attractive.  And composers also write for that; they don’t just write alone for the glory of writing.  They know that the money is out there for other things, and they deserve this kind of complete response.

BD:    How can one piece of music, though, compete against another piece of music in this kind of a contest?

FF:    That’s why I, myself, don’t go in for contests; I think they’re for race horses.  But what this does is create pieces.  People would like to grab that brass ring if they can.  And it’s worth it, on the way up, because they may get more performances, or they may suddenly emerge, even though they may be the third prize winner.  Or maybe half of the judges looking at these scores will say, “That
’s something fresh.  This piece wasn’t the winner, but I like that piece and I’m going to play it in two weeks.”

BD:    So there’s hope for the tenth, and twelfth, and fifteenth runner up, too?

FF:    It’s the market.  My fruit market in Tokyo, where I live some of the time, is a wonderful place to go, because I can choose fruit there and it
’s always fresh every day!  Lots of things I’ve never seen before!  Maybe the vender is going to have to tell it to me in Japanese, and that’s when I really strike out, but sooner or later I’ll find out what it is.  Then I’ll go back and ask for it again.  I’m like the person looking for the music!  It’s the same thing.  It’s really true!  And we need this great variety.  Just think for a minute what is at the disposal of Georg Solti in choosing the profile for a season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Just imagine what is at his disposal!  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.] 

BD:    Are you envious?

FF:    Well, who wouldn’t be?  [Both laugh]  Who wouldn’t be?  I’m in that field, too, you know.  I am also an orchestra conductor, which a lot of people really don’t know, and have been practically all my life.

BD:    Then let me cut to the heart of the matter.  When you’re working at your desk as music director of Tokyo Wind Ensemble or the Eastman Wind Ensemble or any other ensemble, how do you decide which pieces you will play and which pieces you will put off ‘til next year, and which pieces you will, perhaps regrettably, have to discard forever?

FF:    The same kind of considerations that Mr. Solti faces when he sits at his desk.

BD:    Which are?

FF:    What was played?  What should be played?  What can be played?  And even in Solti’s case, what will the budget allow?  He wants to make sure that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will continue to always go up and up.  Not a repeat or only the same, but to keep them alive and vibrant and fresh.  The choice of music is there to do that.  All he has to do is jot it down and everybody that is necessary to make it happen will be there to make it happen!  And it’s not an embarrassment of riches or that he’s the curator of a great museum — which of course he is. 

BD:    So you make these same decisions?

FF:    Oh, of course!  I simply don’t have that same wonderful storehouse!  Mine is smaller, but I operate on exactly the same principal.

BD:    Then what do you look for in a piece of music that makes it something you want to play?

FF:    Something that I think the players want to play.  In the case of the wind group, I think that’s very important.  In the orchestra they know it all anyhow, but the players in the wind group don’t always know some of these pieces, or they haven’t played them in many, many years.  I look for something that they will rise to, something that they will respond to; also something that the audience maybe hasn’t heard but might enjoy, or if they’ve heard it, would like to hear it again.  A lot of the time we have to work in borrowed repertory, as you know, and what you borrow
— and how you borrow itis very critical.  I try to make these pieces go together.  Let me tell you about the concerts we play in Tokyo.  In Japan, the school band contest is a way of life, and it’s for bloodlike basketball any place in the American Middle West — the same thing as the High School basketball finals.   The All-Japan Band Contest Association commissions four pieces every year.  Each is about five minutes’ duration because on a contest the band only has twelve minutes out on the stage; five minutes for the required piece and then the rest for a piece of their choice.  So these new pieces are therefore a part of our program wherever we go to play for high school audiences.  They will hear these four pieces spread throughout the program.  In the four years that I’ve been there, I have learned sixteen pieces of Japanese original band music that I didn’t know before I went there!  And gradually this will continue to build.  But out of the sixteen pieces, I have found four pieces that I think have a chance for survival as literature.  The others have done their service and they’ve done it well, and they might find a place somewhere in the literature, but I think there are four of them that have a chance to survive.

tokyo BD:    These are all by Japanese composers?

FF:    Yes.

BD:    Are these pieces specifically Japanese music, or just simply music for wind ensemble?

FF:    This is western music.  This part of Japan is entirely into western music.  They’re never going to get enough western music!  Japanese musical life is enormously busy and active.  In Tokyo there are six major symphony orchestras competing each night for the same repertory, for the same audience, for the same soloists, and so on and so on.  And they’re surviving — or so it seems, anyhow.

BD:    Is this just in Tokyo, or all over Japan?

FF:    No, no, in Tokyo.  These six orchestras are in Tokyo.  We’re the seventh.  It’s insatiable, and of course every performing group in the world is there:  every orchestra, every opera, every ballet company, all the chamber music groups, the soloists.  It’s an endless stream of people coming into Japan, and playing.  They’re all coming, all playing the same music and all advertise the same way with beautiful advertisements
— all there, all playing the same material.  People will come and they will enjoy them, and it will be all sold out!  Thus far, in the high elevations there are no wind groups performing, not even us.  Although we are a world-class group, and deserving of that, we have to work yet on the kind of the fringe of things, but we’re gradually doing a little bit more each time.  We’re approaching it through recordings, and we’re approaching it by reaching the young people, and by playing concerts in the various halls around Tokyo, of which there must be at least forty premiere performance halls!  The happy and ultimate measure of the great Japanese economic boom of the sixties is getting every community of Tokyo — and Tokyo, as you know, is one community connected to the next community — a first-class, brand new concert hall with restaurant and bar and rooms backstage for the musicians, and an operating staff for it that will absolutely wipe you away!  That, I think, is their measure of putting back into the cultural community their great economic boom.  I see it everywhere I go, and their halls are absolutely superb!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re giving a concert and you rehearse the pieces, is all the work done in rehearsal or do you leave anything for that last little bit of inspiration at the performance?

FF:    You always have to leave something, because you can’t get it all done in a rehearsal.  You can just read the player; you can read his mind.  There is a classic story that’s well known, of Bernard Adelstein, the First Trumpet player of the Cleveland Orchestra.  A well-known Viennese conductor was rehearsing a Mahler symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra the morning of the concert, and he stopped the orchestra and said, “First Trumpet, fortissimo,” to which Adelstein says, “Maestro, when do you want it — this morning, or tonight?”  There are a lot of things you can’t have in the morning and have again at night.  Do you think people imagine how much energy that must take?

BD:    Should the public be aware of all of the tortures and tremors that have gone on before that moment?

FF:    No.  No, they shouldn’t!  That’s the whole point!  But they go because they have learned that it’s always there.  That’s one of those remarkable things.  And music does have a constant point; its changes are infinitesimal, always inching forward.  At the University of Miami, my studio was adjacent to an outdoor covered walkway between one building and another.  There was this young student bassoon player, and I knew when he had arrived for rehearsal that morning, because he had unpacked his bassoon out on a bench, and the first thing he played was the beginning of The Rite of Spring.  And he played it very well!  But I couldn’t help ruminate on the time when I was a high school boy.  We all went to the concerts of the Cleveland Orchestra, sitting on the edge of the chair wondering if the bassoon was going to make it.  Is it going to happen?  Is he going to play?  And you know this guy had been making a reed for three weeks, and fretting and stewing, and his wife had been making special food, and his kids had been away from him, and Lord knows what else! 

BD:    Now, the high school kids play it.

FF:    Now, the high school kids play it every day!  It’s nothing to them.  But the range of the bassoon has gone up and up, and who put it up there?  Stravinsky.  The composer.  He’s the guy that created it, and he makes that challenge there for the kids.

tally ho BD:    So the technical ability has gotten better over the years.  Has the musicianship also gotten better over the years?

FF:    Yes, it has!  It certainly has.  When I was in high school, John Adams High School in Cleveland, it had one of the best of the high school orchestras.  We were third in the nation in the big contest in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1930.  We had superb technical people at this time, and we had the best emotional control of any kids at that time.  But today, the kids have got it all!  They have many examples in front of them.  They have a very close relationship to good players.  They have the video, they have the audio, they have every opportunity to expand, to quickly grow up in the standpoint of phrasing and musicianship.

BD:    Do they grow up too quickly?

FF:    I don’t think so.  I spent a lot of time, as you may know, at Interlochen, which is one of the great places in the world — to me it is the greatest place of training of the world.  There, listening to the National High School Orchestra play any piece of major symphonic literature you can think of, you don’t know that the kids are still in, or just about to get out of high school.  It’s just in how they play.  They play with a sense of style and a sense of phrasing, and a maturity that a lot of people find impossible to imagine.  But it’s there, and it’s there in great, great measure.  And of course, it’s there more in the orchestra than it is in the band.  I conduct the band there more frequently than the orchestra, but the band isn’t there because it’s not taught to them to be there.  It’s taught for the orchestra and that’s one of the things we’re trying to work on.  There are things to be learned every day about how you play anything!

BD:    Do you conduct any differently from the band to the orchestra?

FF:    No, I have the same downbeat.  It is a fully transposing baton.  [Both laugh heartilly]

BD:    Do you conduct any differently in concert than you do in the recording studio?

FF:    Occasionally there is a terribly difficult technical passage which you may not necessarily play cleanly every time in the concert hall, but maybe, with some sort of subdivision, you can get it right the first time.  Why not do it that way, rather than doing it the other way and having it need nine takes?  You have to think about the ecology of the chops, as we affectionately call the embouchure.  You must think about how much they can do today and how much you still have to record.  There are all these ecology matters that one has to consider.  Otherwise, I don’t conduct any differently in the recording studio than I do in concert, and I don’t think anybody else does.

BD:    Do you ever feel that because the recordings can be cut and pieced together, that they’re too perfect, or that they set up too rigid a standard that cannot be duplicated in the concert hall?

FF:    Gee, I don’t know.  I hear a great many live concerts in Tokyo, by way of Armed Forces Radio, which is a very important part of my life!  I get the sports I love and we get concerts of many of the orchestras of the world.  I hear performances by the orchestras of the United States and Europe that, as I’m listening to them, I think I’m listening to a recording.  I know in my own case I have always opted for a performance with architecture.  Maybe something got dropped along the way, but after all, the Eastman Wind Ensemble wasn’t a machine; it was people.  It still is a most magnificent ensemble, maybe better today than it ever was!  However, for example, the bassoon is just a marvelous piece of machinery, and when it plays a pianissimo solo, there is going to be some residual sound of rollers and keys and springs to make it happen!  And sometimes, there’s a whistle in one of the reed instruments, or little clicks in the brass.  But if a performance has architecture and pizzazz, I would opt for that anytime and let it fall wherever it falls. 

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the recordings you’ve made over the years?

FF:    Yes, I have, and I say that as a very open, immediate answer.  I’ve been pleased with them because in most cases there was nothing before them.  Of all the recordings that I made with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, practically none of the pieces had been recorded before.  Just a very few titles.  The Goldman Band had recorded one of the pieces that we did, but otherwise, everything we recorded was for the first time!

BD:    Was that exciting?

Eastman Wind Ens FF:    Very exciting.  The Eastman time was the fruition of many years of thought.  And we were able to do what I don’t think anybody ever thought that the Eastman School of Music would do, because we were known to the profession as an orchestral school.  And of course, it’s a music school; it’s an all-kinds-of-muisc school.  The wind ensemble was such a simple idea whose time had come, and there was this repertory there that nobody had recorded.  My own background, love and belief in a wide range of music opened up the whole door to recording an album of marches the way, frankly, nobody else had ever recorded them.  They were recorded like they were the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.  We put that kind of energy into rehearsing them and I put that kind of energy into making sure what was down on the page was just the way it should be.  It had an interpretive characteristic of my own and of the players that was different.  That’s the way I always thought marches should be played!  As a matter of fact, regarding the marches we recorded with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, I worked those out marching my way through high school.  I always said, “Someday, when I have my own group, this is how we’re going to play the National Emblem.”  And that’s how we’d play National Emblem.  It wasn’t something I started to work at when they said, “How would you like to make a record?”.

BD:    It was the culmination of years of experience.

RR:    Oh, years of thought, years of experience!  Years of real belief in that literature!  Not just, “Okay, I’ll do it,” but a real belief in it!  I was born in a fife and drum corps.  My family had a fife and drum corps, so all of those pieces that I learned when I was a kid, that was right for me.  So making those recordings of the fifes and drums, and of the bugles and the drums was just a natural part of my life.  I didn’t go out and cook up a record.  That’s something that I’d wanted to do ever since I could remember!  I thought nobody would ever let me do it, but fortunately, the Eastman School of Music let me.  I must say I’ve been very unhappy about the way the foundations have treated the Eastman School of Music on this subject.  This program began in the late thirties when Howard Hanson
whose energy had gone so much into the development of a program of music for the American composer, along with concerts and publications and symposia for young composersconvinced the board of managers of the Eastman School to give him ten thousand dollars to start a program for recording some of this material which had never been recorded.  This was done first for RCA Victor and then he did some things with Columbia.  They were in libraries, but he was never really happy with the merchandising and the marketing.  Then he finally ran into this wonderful relationship with Mercury Records by way of the great David Hall, who most likely has forgotten more about recordings than any man will ever know.  He was the man who put the Mercury Record program together with Dr. Hanson and the Eastman School.  And the Eastman School, then, put all of its money into those records.  Every record that Dr. Hanson made, every record that I made, was paid for by the Eastman School of Musicthe musicians’ fees, the rehearsal fees, everything — what we call, affectionately, "the donuts and coffee."  All of that, up until when Mercury went out of Rochester with the master tapes, was our money.  That’s when their money began.  But when it came time to pass out the money to make recordings of American music, or of music for the wind band, they didn’t give a dime to the Eastman School of Music.  None of them.  Not ever.  Not one foundation!  Not one single American dime!

BD:    Why not?

FF:    Why not?  You asked the question.  I ask you, why not?  They have just completely... [slaps hands].  They assumed that Mercury Records paid for those records, and they didn’t pay for those records.  They paid for the production after that, the distribution and so on and so forth, but you don’t have a record until somebody makes it, and we paid for that.  Most people don’t seem to know that.  I know that the foundations, the people with the money, don’t know that, and don’t think that I don’t remember it, because I do!  [For more about Mercury Records, see my Interview with producer Wilma Cozart Fine.] 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’ve asked you what advice you have for the composer.  What advice do you have for the young conductor coming along?

FF:    Number one, learn to play the piano
not to be a pianist, or maybe to be a pianist, but to be an accompanist, to have at your disposal the single instrument that can do more for you than any other one.  That also is because it’s a needle’s eye, through which, if you wish to be a conductor, you must pass.  Everybody expects you to play the piano and you are a persona non grata unless you do.  I did not pass through that needle’s eye.  I am not a pianist because the size of my hand and the way I was put together.  It just wasn’t me!  I never play the piano for anybody; I only play for myself as I study scores, and I could never have passed Mr. Fritz Reiner’s examination for the conducting program at the Curtis Institute.  But I’m glad I wasn’t denied being a conductor because I just couldn’t get through that needle’s eye.  I guess I overcame that by a long and a vast study of everything.  I was born with very good ears and good eyes and a good brain.  Next is to learn every instrument.  That’s what I did.  Learn every instrument as intimately as you can.  Learn everything you can about every instrumentits functions, its characteristics, its literature.  You must learn to play one instrument, and you must run that instrument to your particular infinity, whatever that may be.  You must run it as far as you can.  By the time you have run that instrument through its chamber music literature, its solo literature, opera, oratorio, symphony orchestra, wind ensemble, you’re going to know a rather large amount of music rather well.  That’s if you run it to its infinity, and I don’t mean just around the corner!  You must have one instrument that you can play for anybody anytime.  My instruments were percussion instruments, and I started to play them when I was six years old.  I’m a little rough at the edge now because I don’t practice every day, but I can play all my instruments anytime for anybody. 

BD:    That’s interesting because it’s just in the last forty or fifty years that the percussion instruments have really come into their own.

FF:    There’s an interesting parallel:  the emergence of the percussion ensemble at the University of Illinois, at the hands of the students and Paul Price, and the Eastman Wind Ensemble, side by side.  In the early 1950’s they came together — two things whose time had come, even though they’d been there for many years!  And then the other thing:  after all of these instruments, the conductor has to be turned on every waking minute of the day.  He must be listening for everything, everything!  He must learn to listen for sounds, like what’s going on right now in this air shaft outside our window.  He must listen and develop the habit of blocking off sounds to practice isolating individual lines when he goes to a concert.  Don’t go with scores, go with ears.  Go with eyes.  Never say no to anything you’re asked to conduct.

BD:    Anything?

fennell FF:    Anything.  Never say no.  Conduct anything you can get your hands on!  You’re bound to learn something from it if you want to.  Then start working your way to the way you want to go.  But most of all, do anything you can in any kind of pit
— any kind of Broadway show, any kind of bawdy show, any kind of anything in the pit.  Get in that pit!  That’s where it is!  Then after that, be lucky enough to convince eight or ten other people to sit down and make music with you.  If you do that, you’ve got it made.  I believe firmly that people let you conduct.  The world lets you be a conductor, or not, and there isn’t very much you can do about it!  If somebody likes what you do, they’ll maybe ask you to do it again — maybe.  No guarantees.  No guarantees!  The only guarantees are people who have certain jobs at schools that seem to go on and on, and I hope they will always try to be more up and up with it, instead of just on and on with it.  But nothing is guaranteed.  There is no tenure in the music business, not really!  No guarantees of employment.  And people literally let you conduct!  And when I say people, that means lots of peoplemanagers, stage managers, concert managers, boards of directors.

BD:    Where does the public fit into that?

FF:    The public, too!  Who knows how these things, these wonderful conflagrations happen?

BD:    Is the public always right?

FF:    I don’t know, but the public’s always there.  Or, it better be!  The public is always right in the sense that they come to be present where something is happening, and we are, unfortunately, always being measured.  There’s a strong element of measurement!  It’s not that you do or don’t like Erich Leinsdorf’s performance of excerpts from Salome as much as you like Fritz Reiner’s.  That has nothing to do with it!  [See my Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf.]  But people always say, “Oh, well Reiner, he was a great Strauss conductor!”  He certainly was.  Reiner was a great conductor, period, whatever it was.  And Leinsdorf is the same, a great conductor on all accounts.  It’s just different people; the pulse beats differently and the blood’s a little different in the veins.  The things are different.  We’re different people!
  Think of Leonard Bernstein.  I’m one of Lenny’s longest and strongest admirers, since the day I met him at Tanglewood in 1942, when we were both in Koussevitzky’s class.  I met him at the first garden party where we were sipping little pink tea and I knew from the first hours I spent with him that he was a man who was not going to be denied!  And needless to say, he hasn’t been! [Laughs]

BD:    Is Frederick Fennell a great conductor?

FF:    Oh, don’t ask me to answer that!  I am just very happy that I became a conductor.  Whatever I am, someone else must decide that.  I can’t even think about that at all.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

FF:    Highly.  Highly optimistic, very much so!  I cannot feel any other way but that.  The way young people play today, the exposure that is there, the transformation of artists like the great Vladimir Ashkenazy, who’s got to be one of the great treasures of the twentieth century.  He’s certainly likely to be one of the great conductors of all time, as far as I can see, simply because of what he is as a music-maker.  If he can become the kind of conductor that he is pianist...  A lot of people can’t; not every pianist, in spite of my needle’s eye, is going to become a first class conductor like James Levine and André Previn and some others of this time have done.  Ashkenazy has to become one of the great conductors.  If I was a gambling man, I’d put everything on him.

BD:    One of the ironies you mentioned a moment ago is that music is something that cannot be measured, and yet the musical performance is something that is always measured!

FF:    Oh, yes, but then it’s done.  It’s gone!  Two weeks later it recedes, in some way, in the mind.  There are some things that will stay, but just to have a confirmation, someone will go back again to hear it next year or with some other group.  People frequently ask me, “What’s your favorite orchestra?” and I have to say, “Gee, if I was in New York, and there were three halls on the same street, it depends on what you were in the mood to hear that night, and who was playing what.”  Any one of them that you went to hear would be a completely wipeout experience if you were turned on and ready to receive it in any way at all.  The orchestras of the world are so great today!  My gosh!  Everywhere.

BD:    Thank for you spending the time with me today.  I’m glad we finally got together.

FF:    Me, too.  It was my pleasure.

Frederick Fennell (1914-2004) began his career as a conductor almost as soon as he arrived at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in the fall of 1933 when, to his amazement, he discovered that no wind band of any kind existed at either campus. He then devoted a considerable portion of the next 30 years of his life to the amicable amelioration of this condition, organizing and conducting outdoor and indoor groups, which led him to establish the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952. He conducted the group for its first decade, and spread wide its simple message through the Eastman/Mercury Records American music recording project at the invitation of composer and Eastman Director Howard Hanson. The Wind Ensemble’s original 23 LPs, now in crossover to CDs, caused reconsideration of the wind medium as a serious artistic pursuit. Dr. Fennell later joined the Minneapolis Symphony as associate music director, and then moved to the University of Miami as conductor in residence. He was principal guest conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy, and other guest conducting appearances include the Boston Pops Orchestra as well as performances with the Carnegie Hall Pops Concerts and the Boston Esplanade concerts. He also conducted the Denver, San Diego, National, Hartford, St. Louis and London Symphonies; the Buffalo, Calgary and Greater Miami Philharmonic Orchestras, the Cleveland Orchestra and the New Orleans Philharmonic. In 1984, at the invitation of its players he became the initial principal conductor of the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra of Japan and later, conductor laureate.

Dr. Fennell was also part of pioneering recordings with the Cleveland Symphonic Winds and Dallas Wind Symphony. A legion of additional honors include an honorary doctorate from the University of Rochester; the Honor Medal of Interlochen, the Midwest Clinic, and the John Philip Sousa Society; a concert hall built in his name in Kofu, Japan; and the 1994 Theodore Thomas Award of the Conductor’s Guild. The 1993 Roger Rickson bio-discography, Fortissimo, (Ludwig Music, Inc., publisher) covers in a fat format the past 40 years of the Fennell story as well as Robert Simon’s new book, Fennell: A Tribute to Frederick Fennell, which includes the following quote:

For over seven decades, Frederick Fennell has been America's Ambassador of music around the world. I have loved his editions and recordings since I first played them in high school. It was an honor to have him conduct the Marine Band as President and I congratulate him on this richly deserved lifetime achievement tribute and award.
– The Hon. William J. Clinton
42nd President of the United States

[From the Eastman School of Music Website]

For an interesting article and several photographs of Fennell at the Tally Ho Music Camp, click HERE .

Frederick Fennell, 1914-2004

Principal Guest Conductor, Dallas Wind Symphony

Dr. Frederick Fennell passed away peacefully at his home in Florida on December 7, 2004.

fennell Dr. Frederick Fennell was one of the world's most active and innovative maestros. The globe-trotting nonagenarian was principal guest conductor of the Dallas Wind Symphony, principal conductor of the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra in Japan, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Miami School of Music.

The internationally-acclaimed conductor was widely regarded as the leader of the wind ensemble movement in this country, one of America's most recording living American classical conductors, and a pioneer in various methods of recording.

While maintaining obvious devotion to the band and its music, he pursued such illustrious and wide ranging activities as conductor of orchestra, opera, and popular repertoire. He made guest conducting appearances with symphony orchestras and bands all over the world, was a member of many organizations, and won numerous awards.

Born July 2, 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio, the maestro studied at the Eastman School of Music on the University of Rochester campus, earning a Bachelor of Music degree in 1937 and a Master of Music degree two years later. He became a member of the Eastman conducting faculty in 1939, founded the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952, and received an Honorary Doctorate from Eastman in 1988.

High-fidelity and stereo performances on 22 albums for Mercury Records grant him a unique position in the annals of the recording art. He was conductor of the Cleveland Symphonic Winds when he made the first symphonic digital recording in the United States for Telarc Records in 1978. The maestro also pioneered high definition compatible digital (HDCD) recordings with the Dallas Wind Symphony. The maestro also recorded for CBS-Sony, Nippon-Columbia, King and Kosei labels.

Dr. Fennell served as conductor of the Columbia University American Festival, the National Music Camp, the Yaddo Music Period, the Eastman-Rochester Pops Orchestra and the Eastman Opera Theatre, among others.

He was principal guest conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy, and other guest conducting stints included frequent appearances with the Boston Pops Orchestra as well as performances with the Carnegie Hall Pops Concerts and the Boston Esplanade concerts. He appeared with the Denver, San Diego, National, Hartford, St. Louis and London Symphonies; the Buffalo, Calgary and Greater Miami Philharmonic Orchestras, the Cleveland Orchestra and the New Orleans Philharmonic.

He was also Musical Director of the School Orchestra of America with which he toured Europe in the mid '60s.

Through the years, Dr. Fennell rose to legendary stature in the world of music and this is reflected in the honors bestowed upon him. These include an Honorary Doctor of Music degree from Oklahoma City University, membership in the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, honorary chief status in the Kiowa tribe, and a fellow in the Company of Military Historians.

In 1961, he received a citation and a medal from the Congressional Committee for the Centennial of the Civil War for two volumes of recordings of the Music of the Civil War.

Also, he was the recipient of the 25th Anniversary of Columbia University Ditson Conductor's Award in April of 1969, and of the New England Conservatory's Symphonic Wind Ensemble Citation in 1970. He was also awarded the Mercury Record Corporation Gold Record in 1970, and the National Academy of Wind and Percussion Arts Oscar for outstanding service as a conductor in 1975.

beachcomber The Fennell/Eastman Wind Ensemble recording of Percy Grainger's Linconshire Posy was selected as one of the Fifty Best Recordings of the Centenary of the Phonograph, 1877-1977, by the Stereo Review. In 1977, he was named consultant to the Scala Memorial Fund Library of Congress. That same year, he received the Eastman School of Music Alumni Citation for the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Eastman Wind Ensemble.

He received the University of Rochester Outstanding Alumni Award in 1981, and the Kappa Kappa Psi Distinguished Service Medal in 1982.

He was presented the Star of the Order in 1985 from the John Philip Sousa Memorial Foundation.

Other distinctions include the Interlochen Medal of Honor and the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic Medal of Honor, awarded in 1989. The following year, Dr. Fennell was inducted into the National Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame for Distiguished Band Conductors. In January of 1994, he received the Theodore Thomas Award presented by the Conductors Guild, Inc., in recognition of unparalleled leadership and service to windband performance throughout the world. The last two recipients of this award were maestros Solti and Bernstein.

He was the initial recipient of the Medal of the International Percy Grainger Society for Distinguished Services in 1991.

Frederick Fennell Hall was dedicated in Kofu, Japan, with a concert by the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra on July 17, 1992.

Dr. Fennell authored several publications with musical topics, including his 1954 book "Time and the Winds", which is still the only text of its kind. He also authored the continuing series "The Basic Band Repertory Study/Performance Essays", and was editor of contemporary editions of classic military, circus and concert marches for Theodore Presser Co., Carl Fisher, Inc., Sam Fox Publishing Co., Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., and of the Fennell Editions for Ludwig Music.

[From the website of the Dallas Wind Symphony

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on December 16, 1987.  Portions were used on WNIB (along with musical examples) on eight different broadcasts during the years 1989-99.  The transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this website in November of that year. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.