Stephen K. Steele & Wind Symphony Alumni Ensemble Perform to Thunderous Applause

The following article is the first in a series on Stephen K. Steele and the Wind Symphony Alumni Ensemble. Check back every week as we feature special audio & visual media from this collaboration.

Stephen K. Steele & Wind Symphony Alumni Ensemble Perform Symphony No. 10, Angel of Mercy, and Requiem to Thunderous Applause

By: Richard Nobbe                                                                                                                                                                    of the David Maslanka Foundation

They came from places like Washington DC, Tucson, Arizona, and Salt Lake City, Utah. They came from the greater Chicago area and all around the state of Illinois. They even came from London, England. All to experience the passion, the love, and the fellowship of one man’s music, and to reverence another man who devoted much of his life to the genesis of that music. By week’s end, all would walk away refreshed, renewed, rewarded, and refined – just as they had done as university students so many years ago. Like a giant locomotive, the music of David Maslanka continues to roll by with vigor and exhilaration. And Dr. Stephen K. Steele is the engine.

As the final notes of the last movement of Symphony No. 10 – The River of Time rang out in Wentz Hall on the campus of North Central College on that rainy summer night, there was a feeling of frozen time – a kind of hypnotic trance somewhere in-between the conscience and the subconscious where the life forces of everyone in attendance seemed to combine and share in a moment of peace and transcendence. For those who have had the privilege of performing the music of David Maslanka, it is an experience so rich in meaning and palpable in feeling, it becomes a source of physical and spiritual healing. For the former students of Dr. Steele in particular, the experience of David’s music had been so strong during their university years that nothing – not even living on another continent – would keep them from sharing in this music again.

Coming Home

For six days in the middle of July, nearly sixty of Dr. Steele’s finest Wind Ensemble alumni from a span of twenty-five years (1988-2012) came to Naperville, Illinois – on their own dime – to rehearse the music of David Maslanka and put the rest of their personal and professional lives on hold. A quick glance at their resumes reveals the quality of people that made this sacrifice. Of course, there were the professional musicians from military bands, orchestras, and universities from around the country. There were also other musicians who had taken up the baton and become directors and teachers of bands and orchestras in various locations – both local and throughout the country. But this was a group that also contained corporate professionals, sales managers, print managers, a C.E.O., and even a dog trainer among its ranks.

So just what makes a group of almost sixty adults say “Good-bye!” to their loved ones, pack their bags, leave their jobs, and go away for six days – not to some fancy seaside resort – but to a hot, humid suburb of Chicago to work for free?

Well… The music of course.

Jen Smith, former flutist with The United States Navy Band and Wind Symphony alumnus explained, “It’s been an emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting week and worth every second. I was lucky enough to fall in love with David’s music all over again. There are so many devastatingly beautiful moments that there are no words to describe it.”

Christine Ewald, saxophonist and Wind Symphony alumnus says that “David is my favorite composer. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again – his music is so powerful to me…in ways that words cannot describe…And to play with such a phenomenal group. I mean really, these musicians on stage with me are truly some of the best out there.”

Many describe David’s music as beautiful and moving while also being technically and artistically challenging. For alumni like West Carroll High School Band Director and Wind Symphony clarinetist Emily Nunemaker, “It’s (all about) the payoff!” Thinking back on her formative experiences with David’s music, Emily admitted there was a time when she thought, “I’m in the wrong place. I don’t belong here. I can’t do this…I couldn’t possibly be expected to play this. But something made me stay and work harder than I ever had in my life to earn the right to play it and to do so among the most superb musicians I had ever encountered and for the most intense, terrifying, and utterly brilliant conductor I had ever encountered.”

Megan Lomonof, principal piccoloist in The United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own,” and Wind Symphony alumnus is used to playing demanding wind literature every week. But after just one rehearsal playing with the alumni band, she mentioned “This stuff is intense but so impressive! It is cool to see where everyone has been and how great they sound. This concert will be the greatest of all time!”

Clarinetist, band director of 21 years, and Wind Symphony alumnus Ryan Krapf articulated the cumulative effect of being together with some of his favorite people. Leaving a tender post on social media, he said “I didn’t know how badly I needed this past week…It has been twenty years since I’ve sat in a performance seat like the one I sat in tonight. Covid did a number on all of us in that we lost our course as individuals with such uncertainty. It has taken a while for me to get back into performer mode…”

“Maslanka University”

After having spent many years as a successful high school band director in California, Oregon, and Arizona, Dr. Stephen K. Steele moved to Normal, Illinois in the fall of 1987 as the new Director of Bands at Illinois State University, a position he held until his departure in 2012. Dr. Steele recently shared some thoughts about the “early days” at ISU. According to Dr. Steele, “When I arrived on campus, I found a small, disheveled, underdeveloped group of students. We set about building an ensemble in an environment that previously had no wind band offering in the fall semester.”

It was around this time that Dr. Steele attended a concert at Northwestern University that would change his life forever. “I vividly recall sitting with Gary Green listening to the premiere performance of David’s Symphony No. 2 during the 1987 CBDNA Convention in Evanston, Illinois, gripping the seat, spellbound. The performing group was the combined Symphonic Band and Symphonic Wind Ensemble of Northwestern University conducted by John Paynter. Mr. Paynter had David say ‘a few words’ prior to the premiere performance and I remember how this quiet, introspective individual speaking from the heart about his music captured me…

“David was very receptive to phone conversations, helping me realize the nature of his composition(s). He also spent time talking with a particular student who was having extreme misgivings about origins and the deeper meaning of his music…I (took) advantage of the opportunity to spend some quality time with David on a couple of occasions, growing closer to his music and this quiet, generous man who would become my dear friend.

“We programmed David’s Symphony No. 4 at ISU in the fall of 1994. That final week of rehearsals with David was the seminal experience for me, making a connection that lasted two decades. Following the stunning conclusion of the symphony and multiple ‘curtain’ calls, I recall that David and I stood in the adjacent room for what seemed like an eternity waiting for the ensemble and audience to emerge from the performance space. Students and audience members alike said they were just ‘too drained’ to move.”

From that point onwards, David Maslanka became a household name at Illinois State University. Over the course of his career, Steele would go on to commission and premiere several works from the composer, including A Carl Sandburg Reader, Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Wind Ensemble, David’s Book, O Earth, O Stars, Procession of the Academics, Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 7, Symphony No. 8, and Symphony No. 9. A prolific record producer, Steele also conducted and produced many compact discs for Albany Records, often showcasing David’s music with the mature and vibrant sound of his Wind Symphony.

Now what about Symphony No. 10?

O Sacred Head Now Wounded

Fast forward to November of 2011. David has come to Normal, IL to work with the Wind Symphony on the premiere of Symphony No. 9. Plans are in the works for another commission – another symphony. Steele remembers that “David was adamant about needing to write (Symphony) 10. We decided to let a bit of time lapse following Symphony No. 9 before building plans for Symphony No. 10. Our goal was to premiere and record Symphony No. 10 in the spring of 2014, which I projected to be my retirement concert. Things came to a sudden and unexpected end when I left ISU in the spring of 2013.” Symphony No. 10 would have to wait.

And wait…

For several reasons, Symphony No. 10’s consortium got off to a slow start, only beginning to take flight in the summer of 2016. Meanwhile, David was hard at work on the road coaching his music at colleges and universities across the country. Steele remembers that “(His) residency travels between November 2016 and May 2017 were particularly grueling…He complained of constant fatigue and the inability to compose. When he was finally finished and returned home for the summer, his wife Alison was bedridden. Very soon after that, David not only found that Alison was terminally ill but that he was in an advanced stage of colon cancer.”

Alison would pass away on July 3, 2017. David, in the middle of orchestrating the second movement of Symphony No. 10, marked the score with her name above the very measure he was orchestrating. It was a beautiful, private dedication to a woman that was his rock, his support, and his loving wife of 36 years.

His colon cancer rapidly progressing and his physical strength waning, David soon found himself composing on his sickbed. Notwithstanding his willingness to keep writing, (Alison had strongly encouraged him to keep composing), his body became weary, and in the late-night hours of August 6, 2017, David passed away in his home in Missoula, MT. Symphony No. 10 lay in his studio, unfinished.

David and Alison

Like Father, Like Son

In 2012, David’s son, Matthew, founded Maslanka Press to engrave and publish his father’s music. Growing up listening to his father compose at the piano, Matthew was involved at a young age in helping his father make photocopies of his music and dub cassette tapes to send out to interested band directors. A gifted and versatile musician himself, Matthew has an intimate connection with his father’s musical language and style. In his own words, he “built up a deep understanding of the underpinnings of (his father’s) writing and long-term development as a composer.” Towards the end of David’s life, Matthew frequently accompanied his father to work with university wind ensembles and observed many of his interactions with conductors and musicians.

When David suddenly passed away, Matthew knew in his heart that it would become his privilege and burden to finish Symphony No. 10. Looking back on such a monumental task, Matthew remembers “at the time of his death, my father had fully completed the first movement and half of the second. The remainder of the second movement and the whole of the fourth movement were sketched out. The third movement…had an opening sketched, but the rest was in fragments. Dad asked me to finish the work if he were unable to complete it. I drew on my long experience working with dad and his music to first understand the sketches and then to piece them together.”

Matthew finally completed Symphony 10 in March of 2018. The work received its premiere performance one month later at The University of Utah with Scott Hagan and The University of Utah Wind Ensemble. Emotionally jarring and hauntingly beautiful, Symphony 10 has received sensational reviews and has continued to touch and inspire everyone who encounters it.

Everyone, including – no – especially Dr. Stephen K. Steele.

A Song of Coming Awake

After nearly a decade of waiting for the stars to align, Steele was finally able to assemble the masses from the four corners of the earth and give Symphony No. 10 the performance he had envisioned all those years ago. Recruiting members of the Wind Symphony, securing a performance & rehearsal space, and finding the funding to subsidize this monumental endeavor were just three of the many challenges Steele faced at the onset of this project. And then there was the Covid-19 pandemic which threw a monkey wrench into things, moving the project even further into the distance. But Steele never wavered in his optimism, courage, and leadership. “He did a DAMN good job putting this group together and from the first night we all knew that we would put on an amazing concert” said Ryan Krapf.

Mark Iwinski, Wind Symphony alumnus and Director of Bands at Victor J. Andrew High School commented that “It has been a long but fulfilling road to get this to come together. What was most incredible to me was the process Dr. Steele has instilled in his students… There were no pleasantries at the first rehearsal. Dr. Steele got up on the podium, called out the chorale, and we were ALL back in Wind Symphony rehearsal like it was yesterday. It elicited an emotional response in me. The ensemble responded to intonation QUICKLY and the sounds were…stunning.”

Obviously, there was grief and sadness that David could not be there to listen and coach the ensemble this time around. His presence was missed by all – not just in a fleeting sense – but in the same way you miss a family member who is no longer living. Indeed, David had become important to the lives of so many in the Wind Symphony, that it would not be an exaggeration to number him among their most treasured family & friends.

But whatever the lingering sorrow and anguish left by David’s absence – and the void was real and unmistakable – the joy and happiness of having Matthew Maslanka in residence with the Wind Symphony was healing and transforming for all who were there. Tre Wherry, a current saxophone major at ISU and baritone saxophonist with the ISU Wind Symphony said that “Having Matthew there was special. He brought such an array of emotions, knowledge, and a deep connection to David’s music.” Mr. Wherry was certainly not alone in his feelings. Many of the musicians went up to Matthew throughout the week to express their love for the music and for the opportunity they had to play it for him and his late father.

And after the final bows had taken place, there was a feeling of love that permeated throughout the hall for what seemed like an eternity. Perhaps David was present all along, slowly pacing back and forth with his head down in deep concentration, looking up every now and then to encourage a soloist or smile at a section in the ensemble. Just like he always had before in the Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois State.

One Breath in Peace – An Epilogue

Many of us come and keep coming back to the music of David Maslanka because it seems to embrace the pain of the world in a visceral yet deeply personal way. And yet through all the grief in the music, the way in which David’s themes are transformed often leaves us on the brim of emotional ecstasy. The themes of melancholy, fear, and depression are turned into themes of hope, peace, and joy. This is part of the healing power of music as David understood it: “Music is specifically healing. I know that I am alive today, and essentially well, because of it. Healing through music is not always miraculous in the instantaneous sense, although a powerful musical experience can change a life in an instant. I have experienced this myself, and seen it happen to others. Music’s healing power is most often a life-long process, which is finally no less miraculous!”

I often remind myself that without rain there can be no rainbows. In a sense, without wounds there can be no healing. Because David’s music offers so much in the way of restoration, mending, and healing, there are also deep wounds in the music that need to be discovered, diagnosed, cared for, and finally nursed back to health. And like a broken bone usually grows back stronger than before, so too can wounds of the heart and soul be healed to the point where the capacity to feel love, joy, hope, and peace has increased. We experience a real catharsis. Like the earth in David’s Symphony No. 4, the joy is overwhelming. We are left to “shout praises of thanksgiving.” The welling-up of our feelings cannot be denied.

A very special thanks to Stephen K. Steele and the Wind Symphony Alumni Ensemble for their devotion to David and his music.

Would you like to be featured in an upcoming edition of From the Maslanka Archive? It’s easy! Please send us anything you have (picture, audio, video, concert poster, concert program, correspondence with David, etc.) and we will feature you!