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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Behind the Saratoga Strings performance lies stories of patriotism, struggles and love

When Saratoga Strings, the most advanced orchestra ensemble, took the stage in Chicago at the 77th annual Midwest Clinic Band and Orchestra Conference in mid-December, it was the culmination of hundreds of hours of practice and planning. 

The group spent four days in Chicago, performing in the convention center, McCormick Place West on Dec. 21. Visiting sights such as the Bean, Christkindlmarket and watching the Chicago Symphony, the musicians experienced the trip as a mixture of music enrichment and exploring the vast city. They got the chance to watch other groups perform, such as the United States Marine Band, and Dublin High School, the only other high school orchestra from the West Coast present at the conference. 

Starting last April after the group’s admission to the clinic, orchestra directors Michael Boitz and Jason Shiuan began compiling the songs to be played in the program, putting stories of resilience, patriotism and love in their one-hour concert. 

The clinic set strict guidelines for directors of each group to follow. Some restrictions include that 40% of the concert set had to be composed in the prior two years. Difficulty levels of the music was also required to be split 50/50 between easy and hard, which are categorized on a 1-6 scale. In addition, one composer from a historically marginalized group must be included in the program. 

For both directors, the guidelines presented a challenge that would require time and thought to overcome.
“In some ways, the requirements were really helpful because they forced us to be thoughtful,” Shiuan said. “We only chose music that we truly wanted to do, so we had to think about what we looked at and where we pulled music from.”

Boitz and Shiuan additionally arranged for the composition and arrangement of three pieces by professional composers for the Saratoga Strings to world premiere at the conference, making them especially memorable experiences for players and conductors on the stage. Each premiere, as well as the piece composed by a marginalized composer, Jessie Montgomery, was designed to encompass a different aspect of personal and national identity. 

“Song For UhmMa”: composed by Dr. Soo Han, George Mason University

Boitz first met Dr. Soo Han during a combined concert with Carmel High School, where Dr. Han used to conduct. The two developed a deep friendship that has survived decades.

Growing up with his brother and two parents in South Korea, Dr. Han moved to Pennsylvania with his family in high school. Both his parents owned factories to support their family in the United States. 

His mother, a talented singer, was denied the opportunity to sing a solo with her choir on Korean national television when she was young, as she could not afford nice enough clothes. She would constantly sing the melody of a Korean folk song “Spring in my Hometown” to Soo and his brother growing up. 

His mother persevered through constant obstacles exacerbated by economic struggles in the aftermath of the Korean War. Only when he was an adult did Soo realize the deeper meaning “Spring in my Hometown” held for his mother. It represented a story of resilience and determination. 

His mother used this song as a means of telling Dr. Han that he should never let anyone or anything stand in the way of his achieving success. Hoping to honor his mom, Dr. Han incorporated the melody of “Spring in my Hometown” with the Korean National Anthem into a beautiful melody for the orchestra, “Song for UhmMa,” which translates to “Song for my Mother.” 

When Scott Lang, a music educator and longtime friend of Boitz and Shiuan, heard about Dr. Han and “Song for UhmMa,” he published it as part of his new endeavor, Project Imagine

The project promotes underrepresented composers by publishing their simple yet high-quality compositions with large publishing companies such as Hal Leonard. These large companies then make the composition free for any Title 1 or underserved school to obtain and play. 

“Banner:” composed by Jessie Montgomery

“Banner,” composed by Montgomery, is the result of a commission by the Joyce Foundation and Sphinx Organization to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner” in 2014. Hoping to portray the modern American experience, Montgomery incorporated elements of the Puerto Rican national anthem “Lift Every Voice,” which is considered the unofficial anthem of African Americans, along with the traditional “Star Spangled Banner.” 

The piece is performed by a quartet of two violins (junior Sarang Narasimhan and senior Angela Zhao), a viola (senior Tejas Tirthapura) and a cello (sophomore Nolan Woo), with the orchestra acting as an accompaniment. The piece explores a variety of musical textures, representative of the multi-faceted nature of American history and culture. 

“There is a big nationalistic quality to Banner,” Shiuan said. “Taking the traditional ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and incorporating all these other anthems feels more like what this country should be represented as.”

“Be Ever the Hope:” composed by Dr. Jay Kennedy and conducted by Dr. Mallory Thompson

Dr. Thompson,the director of bands and a professor of music at the Northwestern Bienen School of Music, is Boitz and Shiuan’s former teacher. Both Boitz and Shiuan described Dr. Thompson as one of the most influential figures in their lives, not only as a musician, but also as a person. 

Boitz and Shiuan maintained a close relationship with Dr. Thompson since their graduation from Northwestern. Thompson married Kennedy during the pandemic, a fellow composer and Vice Provost at Berklee College of Music in New York. 

Dr. Thompson presented Dr. Kennedy with a challenge: write a piece for her. He quickly took up the challenge and composed an emotional, moving piece. He named the piece after Thompson’s middle name, Beth, so he took each letter of her name to spell out the acronym, “Be Ever the Hope (BETH).” 

Hope is the theme of the piece, highlighted in its bright swells and contrasted moments of calm and serenity. Conducted by Dr. Thompson on the Midwest stage, “BETH” captivated the audience with its engaging melodies and boundless emotion. 

“Starlit Fantasy:” composed by Tony Glausi (trumpet), featuring the Tony Glausi Quartet, Charles Yun (violin, co. 2020)

Glausi attended Saratoga schools through his freshman year, later moving to Portland to finish his education. “Starlit Fantasy” was inspired by one of Glausi’s favorite trumpet compositions of the 20th century, “Stella by Starlight.” 

When commissioned by the Saratoga Music Boosters, Glausi completed the piece by drawing from his experiences in Colombia, where he received Ayahuasca, an ancient hallucinogenic plant medicine native to the Amazon. Used by folk healers, this psychoactive brew is the basis for spiritual ceremonies, divination and healing a variety of psychosomatic complaints. 

These thematic elements are present throughout the piece, as it transitions from a section marked as “feral” to a practically silent, wispy tone. Describing “Starlit Fantasy” as a “brief chapter in his life journey,” Glausi hoped to allow the audience to recognize their own divinity and power through his composition. 

In the musical process of rehearsing these pieces, meticulous thought was put into the intention behind and portrayal of each piece. For the ensemble and directors alike, the challenge presented by the requirements of the Midwest Clinic allowed for a much wider scope of music to be played.

“Even when we were auditioning for the Clinic in December of 2022, there were pieces we were hypothesizing to play,” Shiuan said. “Working on this program over the course of months and seeing it come together was amazing.”

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