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Long musical friendship leads to residency with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

Long musical friendship leads to residency with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

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Andrew Sewell and Bill Banfield hope to break new ground in the next three years. But in the meantime, they don’t mind revisiting an old memory: The night they ducked out of an official university party and spent the evening with Leonard Bernstein.

Sewell, the longtime music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and Banfield, the orchestra’s newly appointed composer in residence, were both graduate students at the University of Michigan at the time. It was 1988 and Bernstein — the world-renowned composer, conductor, educator and public figure — was visiting the campus on a concert tour with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Banfield and Sewell were among the graduate students invited to meet him at a formal reception following his performance.

“We were all grouped around him like a bunch of young pups,” Sewell recalled. “Then he said, ‘Listen — this is kind of boring.’”

So a group of students sneaked Bernstein into the kitchen, where Bernstein called his driver and they left the party in Bernstein’s limousine, Banfield recounted. They headed to a pub and asked the waiters to put a table in the center of the room, where the students gathered around the maestro.

“I wish there had been a camera over that table,” Banfield said. “To talk to Leonard Bernstein about his life in music, and what he would encourage us to do … and here we are, 30 years later, doing, I’m sure, many of the things he encouraged us to do.”

An ‘organic’ conversation

In the three decades that followed that encounter, Sewell and Banfield ended up in different parts of the country. Their paths would cross from time to time, particularly when Sewell talked to the composer about putting a Banfield work on one of his concert programs.

The music of Banfield — who recently retired from a professorship at the Berklee College of Music — has also been performed by the National, Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, Richmond, Akron, Toledo, San Diego and Sacramento symphonies, among others. At Berklee, he was founding director of the Center for Africana Studies.

Banfield is also author of “Landscapes in Color: Conversations with Black American Composers” and “Black Notes: Essays of a Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age,” and formerly served as an arts and culture correspondent for “The Tavis Smiley Show” on public radio.

Sewell contacted Banfield about the WCO performing one of Banfield’s pieces in 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down most live performances.

During that chat, “The conversation blossomed into a conversation about what more we can do,” Sewell said. “It was just very organic.”

It led to the creation of the three-year residency with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the 30-musician professional ensemble that performs the outdoor summertime series Concerts on the Square and a Masterworks series at the Overture Center.

“We want … to show the community that we’re here for them,” and to also showcase the work of living composers, Sewell said.

At last week’s Concert on the Square, Sewell conducted a work by Banfield — which happened to be inspired by Leonard Bernstein. Titled “If Bernstein Wrote It …,” the work is one of four instrumental movements that make up Banfield’s Symphony No. 6.

“One of the special linkages between us is the role of the conductor and the role of the composer,” Banfield said. “Composers want to have their music loved and championed by conductors who know their music and appreciate it. That’s what we live for.”

An American voice

It was around 3 a.m. last Monday when Banfield opened the leather-bound journal he carries with him, and penned a rough draft of his goals for the next three years in Madison:

“To create an ongoing arts partnership with the WCO,” he wrote. “To achieve completely new works, collaborations, lecture/talks, workshops, with the goal of linking, strengthening, sharing arts partnerships and experiences, community bonds, that (result in) sustained music culture sharing.”

As composer in residence, Banfield will be commissioned to write two pieces for the WCO, including a work for narrator and orchestra featuring the words of Frederick Douglass for summer 2022, and a symphony expected to be premiered in early 2024. The orchestra will also perform existing works by Banfield over the next several seasons.

“We’re trying to focus on the American voice that Bill has, and see where that takes us,” Sewell said.

Banfield plans to do outreach into the community, including collaborations at UW-Madison and mentoring young composers and artists. A native of Detroit, he lives in Boston but will be making trips to Wisconsin throughout his residency.

“I’ll be having coffee and playing pool — I don’t play pool, but I’ll learn it — and talking to the kids in the schools, going to local choir rehearsals,” said Banfield, who calls Madison “a citadel of creativity.”

“Let’s really dial down and look at what composers do, because we write music not to be put away in a museum, or put in a box somewhere. Composers write music for the people.”

“But in order to get to the music, I have to dance with the people first,” he said. “And the music I write has to be about the people — how they resonate. The conductor takes those notes that I create, and his orchestra plays those notes, in what is supposed to be a reflection of how the people live here in Wisconsin.”

“To talk to Leonard Bernstein about his life in music, and what he would encourage us to do … and here we are, 30 years later, doing, I’m sure, many of the things he encouraged us to do.”

Bill Banfield, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra composer in residence


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