Music News & Reviews

Big shoes to fill at bandfest

The symphonic piece “A Child’s Garden of Dreams” is probably the toughest one the Cal Poly Wind Ensemble has had to learn, said Andy McMahan, the new director of bands. But, he added, bands need to be challenged, just like football teams.

“At the beginning of the year, a lot of football teams will play a team that they really don’t necessarily expect to beat,” he said. “But they do because that makes them better. It gives them an opportunity to go up against an incredible challenge. And this is the same kind of idea.”

While McMahan considers the piece “high-end repertoire,” he thinks his students will be up to the challenge when they perform it at this weekend’s Bandfest 2010.

“I really do believe Cal Poly has one of the best university music programs in the state,” he said.

If the challenging music didn’t provide enough pressure for his first big show, McMahan is replacing retired director William Johnson, the man who created Bandfest more than 40 years ago. And Robert Glidden, the current university president, is guest-conducting a piece during the event.

“I asked (Glidden), ‘Would you be willing to conduct a piece in the concert? We’d love to have you,’ ” McMahan recalled. “And he goes, ‘Only if it’s an interesting piece.’ ”

Luckily, McMahan has a strong background to give him confidence. He received his doctorate from the University of Minnesota, and has taught at both the high school and college levels. In August, he arrived at Cal Poly from his most recent stint, at CSU Stanislaus, where he taught and directed the wind ensemble. At Cal Poly, he is both an assistant professor and director of the band program.

Growing up in western North Carolina, McMahan was exposed to bluegrass more than wind ensembles. Despite that — and despite coming from a nonmusical family — he took up the trumpet at age 10 and eventually pursued music in college. Halfway through Western Carolina University, he decided he wanted to conduct.

“I think everybody is born with a gift for something,” he said. “I felt very comfortable conducting. And it just seemed to be my gift.”

Bandfest, featuring 200 students from the Cal Poly Wind Ensemble, Pride of the Pacific Marching Band and the Wind Orchestra, is an annual event kicking off the year of musical performances. This year’s Bandfest, titled “Garden of Dreams,” features pieces by David Maslanka, Rolf Rudin and John Fogerty.

Glidden will conduct Gustav Holst’s “First Suite in E flat” — a challenging, three-movement work, but one Glidden can handle, McMahan said.

“All three of his degrees were in music,” McMahan said. “And he started as a band director.”

Glidden was a professor and dean of the school of music at Florida State for 15 years before becoming president of Ohio University. He retired in 2004, but agreed to join Cal Poly as its interim president after Warren Baker announced his retirement a year ago.

“Having him on campus kind of falls under the idea of garden dreams—having a band director as president,” McMahan said.

Christopher Woodruff will be the Bandfest associate conductor.

After spending several years in the Midwest and Turlock, McMahan said he’s pleased with San Luis Obispo.

“People in San Luis Obispo County are happier than people in Stanislaus County, where I was before,” he said. “And it’s so obvious when I go to work. It’s such a refreshing place to be.”

One thing he does worry about in California is the state of school funding — slated to become the worst, per student, in the nation —which will affect collegiate music education.

“If they don’t have that music in school, they won’t come here able to play, and, therefore, it will impact us,” he said. “That’s my biggest fear.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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