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Masterworks program music reflects the year at Bethel College

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The annual Masterworks program, a May tradition at Bethel College, will be a bit different this year.

The Masterworks concert is Sunday, May 6, at 3 p.m. in Memorial Hall on the Bethel campus (note time change from some previously printed material, made to accommodate the USD 373 All-District Band concert in Athletic Park that evening).

The Masterworks music this year is for wind ensemble rather than orchestra, and written by two contemporary composers – one of whom will be present for the Bethel performance of his work.

The first half of the program will be Symphony No. 1 ‘Blue’ (1999) by James Syler, for wind ensemble, chorus and soprano solo, with Bethel’s instructor of voice, Soyoun Chun, featured as the soloist. The second half will be David Maslanka’s popular Symphony No. 4 (1992), written for a large wind ensemble.

The Bethel College Wind Ensemble will form the core of the instrumental group, with the addition of 22 guest musicians, many of them professionals.

“People don’t usually think of wind ensembles playing symphonic literature,” says Timothy Shade, a member of Bethel’s music faculty who directs the Bethel College Wind Ensemble and was in charge of organizing this year’s Masterworks program. “You think of a band, playing marches and things like that, but the [symphonic] literature is out there. It’s a personal charge of mine to spread that word.”

For the last number of years, Bethel’s Masterworks programs have featured the Newton Mid-Kansas Symphony Orchestra and the Bethel Oratorio Chorus, which comprises all Bethel vocal groups and the Newton Community Chorus. William Eash, Bethel professor of music, has chosen the music and directed the combined choirs and orchestra.

This year, however, Eash accepted an invitation for the Bethel College Concert Choir to sing with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the Beethoven Mass in C Major, April 14-15. Eash knew, Shade says, that preparing for that event, plus the spring tour in March, would make it hard for him to also organize the Masterworks concert.

“I was not very far in the door at Bethel College,” says Shade, who began teaching at the college in 2008, “when I heard the Concert Choir, and said to Bill, ‘We have to do the Syler.’ So as soon as he asked if I would like to do the Masterworks this year, I knew that would be one of the pieces.”

A last-minute, special addition is that the composer will be present for the Bethel performance. Shade knows James Syler and David Maslanka and has been in e-mail communication with both of them as he’s been preparing the Masterworks program.

“Out of the blue, [Syler] called,” Shade says. “He asked how things were going, and he was very excited to learn about the size of the chorus. Then he said, ‘I don’t know if you have the budget for this, but I would really like to come.’

“I still remember the experience, as an undergraduate, of meeting a composer,” Shade continues. So Bethel is flying Syler from his home in San Antonio, in time for him to meet and talk with the students before the May 6 concert.

Because Syler’s Symphony No. 1 is “not what you’d call a ‘happy’ piece,” Shade says, he was looking for something a bit more upbeat for the second half. Maslanka’s well-known Symphony No. 4 seemed an obvious choice.

“Maslanka is very popular among contemporary wind ensembles,” Shade says. “He’s our Mahler. He’s written nine symphonies, and he writes with such scope and broad form.” So Shade went with Symphony No. 4, even though it is “the hardest material [my Wind Ensemble has] ever seen.”

Shade didn’t think of it as he was initially planning the Masterworks program, he says, but the combination of the two pieces reflects this year at Bethel College.

In the program notes for Symphony No. 1, Syler says, “For many years, I have wanted to write a large work that would combine my musical and literary interests. So much of 20th-century fiction presents despairing characters who find their resolution in some form of self-destruction. In writing the text for this work, I wanted to create a narrative that would resolve despair in a different way. This free-verse lyrical narrative, titled ‘Blue,’ is in a broadest sense about the loss of love and the process of reconnecting with love.”

Maslanka says of his work: “The roots of Symphony No. 4 are many. The central driving force is the spontaneous rise of the impulse to shout for the joy of life. Out of this, the hymn tune ‘Old Hundred’ [‘Doxology’], other hymn tunes (the Bach chorales ‘Only Trust in God to Guide You’ and ‘Christ Who Makes Us Holy’) and original melodies that are hymn-like in nature form the backbone of Symphony No. 4.

“I have used Christian symbols because they are my cultural heritage, but I have tried to move through them to a depth of universal humanness, to an awareness that is not defined by religious label. My impulse through this music is to speak to the fundamental human issues of transformation and rebirth in this chaotic time.”

“It made sense, given the year we’ve had,” Shade says, “starting out losing [Seth Dunn, a student killed in a skateboarding accident], someone so young and vibrant and full of life. His death hit many of the music students hard. The shape of the concert is something like: With Syler, going down; feeling lost; then a beginning of the way out; followed by a return to the light with Maslanka.”

Shade says it’s similar to what Eash did with the Concert Choir, who for their spring tour program sang Eric Whitacre’s long lament, “When David Heard,” followed by “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.”

“The ‘Doxology’ has such a powerful resonance for this community,” Shade says, referring to the Maslanka symphony. “I thought, ‘We have to go there.’ I think we’ll all be changed by this.”

His Wind Ensemble players have been “working their tails off,” he says. “We thought we couldn’t get much bigger than our KMEA performance [last February]. We got a lot of acclaim – people are still talking to me about it. But they’re up for this challenge.

“Concerts like this don’t come around often,” he says. “It’s important for the students and the community to experience literature of this breadth.”

Vocalists for the Masterworks program are, in addition to Chun as soloist, members of the Bethel College Concert Choir, Men’s Ensemble and Women’s Chorus and the Newton Community Chorus.

Instrumentalists are Bethel College’s 67-piece Wind Ensemble with the following guest musicians: Amy Hoffman, piccolo; Jennifer Kirk and Kristen Shaffer, flute; Cindy Thompson, oboe; Gabrielle Baffoni-Shade, E-flat clarinet; Jill Gatz, James Pisano and Kristen Pisano, clarinets; Mary Rose Biltz, contrabass clarinet; Zach Hague and Heather Garrison, bassoons; Vanessa Davies, contrabassoon; Richard Benson and Melissa LeBlanc, French horns; Benjamin Fairfield, principal trumpet and piccolo trumpet; Levi Morris, trumpet; Matt Blauer and Mark Robinson, trombones; Richard Evans, tuba; Karen Bauman Schlabaugh, piano; Rosanne Penner Kaufman, organ; and Faith O’Neal, harp.

Tickets for the Masterworks concert are available at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center on the Bethel College campus during regular business hours, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., phone 316-284-5205, or at the door. All seats are general admission.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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