Thursday, July 19th, 2018

Retiring music professors bring alumni community together

Meg Davis '03 Pic Perfection Photography

Posted on April 26, 2016 in Arts & Culture
By USM Free Press

Meg Davis '03 Pic Perfection Photography

By Jimmy Dority, Free Press Staff

There are good teachers,  who present cogent solutions and answer questions succinctly, with wisdom and wit. There are also not so good teachers, who can describe the house of knowledge but don’t open the doors to it. Then there are transcendent teachers: those whose work in the classroom stretches beyond the scope of academic discipline, whose lessons resonate with significant truth.

Last weekend, the careers of two such teachers were celebrated at a concert in Merrill Auditorium. Dr. Peter Martin and Dr. Robert Russell both recently retired from their posts at the USM School of Music after 36 years of teaching. In commemoration of their inspiring work, hundreds of alumni from decades past and present returned to play under the batons of these great conductors.

Known endearingly by his students as “Dr. Bob,” Dr. Russell’s work, both as music historian and vocal conductor, has always been charged with gravitas. Having worked with church choirs nearly all of his life, his direction and control were unwavering, even while maintaining a light, buoyant energy in his ensembles.

“He taught me something about humanity. His poise, demeanor, grace, patience, passion, love of music, and love of life always struck home and was an inspiration,” wrote 2007 alumni Philip Hobby, who had a variety of other praising words that were found in the program notes.

Many other students had the sense, under his direction, that something was being shared that was deeper than historical and musical study. Sarah Mawn, another alumni from the class of 2008, stated that Dr. Russell’s taught her the importance of listening, preparing and most notably, loving the music and one another.

As any student of Dr. Peter Martin will attest, the words of wisdom in his classrooms and ensembles were so abundant that one barely had time to write them all down. USM graduate Kate Beever, explained that her notebooks from his class were often covered with the professor’s quotes.

“These quotes were both inspiring and hilarious from him, that to this day they continue to push me to be a better musician and a better person,” she stated. She stated that most notebooks from his classes were bound to be covered in aphorisms like “music sounds like feelings feel” and “it’s not enough to know your part; you must know what you’re a part of.” His bright intensity demands the rapt attention of every student, performer and audience member.

The first half of the concert featured four thrilling pieces performed by the Alumni Band, conducted by Peter Martin. The orchestrations were sculpted with the grace and care that characterizes Dr. Martin’s work. In particular the Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Galop” conjured fantastic colors. The first half of the concert concluded with a mesmerizing piece by Frank Ticheli, “Angels in the Architecture.” A whirlwind of a work, “Angels” featured Merrill Auditorium’s famous Kotszchmar organ, as well as the glorious soprano voice of USM alumni and current faculty member Elisabeth Marshall echoing mysteriously from the rafters, as she intoned cryptically beautiful poetry. She began and ended the piece by singing, “I am an angel of Light / I have soared from above.”

One of the most deeply moving moments of the concert occurred immediately before the intermission. As the notes lingered and the words faded, voices rang out,  “I have come / To protect my chosen band / And lead them to the promised land.” Dr. Martin slowly looked up at his ensemble. For what seemed an eternity, the entire auditorium was suspended in silence. Dr. Martin looked toward the left side of the stage, then to the right side. The audience waited, reverently still.

There are only a handful of works that can follow such a moving experience, one of them is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Joining the huge Alumni Chorus was the equally impressive Alumni Orchestra, among whom several USM faculty and staff were featured. Rounding out Beethoven’s grand ensemble was an all-star vocal quartet comprised of alumni and current faculty member Elisabeth Marshall, faculty member Margaret Yauger, USM graduate Martin Lescault and faculty member Malcolm Smith.

Dr. Russell conducted a breathtaking performance of the last, choral movement of this monumental work. The chorus shined with the unique sound that only a master can bring to light. His mindful attention to the powers of the human voice made for an overwhelming effect in the movement’s ecstatic finale, when more than a hundred voices glorified joy and brotherhood, all under a masterful hand.

The entire evening was truly momentous and spectacular. Current student Melody Hasbrouck, who joined the Alumni Concert Band on the flute, expressed her own joy at having had the privilege to study with Drs. Martin and Russell.

“In the many hours I have spent in their ensembles and classes I have found them to be individuals who aim for excellence, inspire others to do the same, genuinely care about those around them, and somehow also have an awful lot of fun in the process,” she said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you to these two wonderful men… May we carry on your legacy wherever we go.”

In his words of welcome, Dr. Martin reminisced on his extensive teaching career, noting that one might ask “Where did the time go? Well, look at this ensemble,” he implored. “I don’t wonder where those years went: They went right here on this stage.”

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