Orange Alert

A joyful noise

Partnership between SU Brass Ensemble and Hendricks Chapel hits all the right notes

July 17, 2013, by Rob Enslin

James T. Spencer leads the SU Brass Ensemble during "Holidays at Hendricks"
James T. Spencer leads the SU Brass Ensemble during "Holidays at Hendricks"

Anyone who’s ever picked up a brass instrument is probably familiar with the famous Richard Strauss line: “Never look at the trombones; it only encourages them.”

Don’t be surprised, then, if James T. Spencer—an avowed fan of Romantic period music—is caught staring down the barrel of the low-brass section from his podium in Hendricks Chapel. Spencer not only plays trombone (and, for that matter, everything else in the brass family), but also writes for and directs the Syracuse University Brass Ensemble.

“All of us are familiar with Strauss’ epic brass writing, such as ‘Also sprach Zarathustra,’” says Spencer, during a recent rehearsal break in the historic chapel. “But he also composed some fantastic brass ensemble literature. Our arrangement of ‘Feierlicher Einzug’ [for brass and timpani] is one of our most-requested pieces during Commencement Weekend. When it came to low brass, Strauss knew what he was doing.”

Housed in The College of Arts and Sciences, SUBE exemplifies the University’s commitment to the creative and liberal arts. The group is made up of more than 40 brass players and percussionists, many of whom are doctors, lawyers, and teachers by day and semi-professional musicians by night. The group is committed to the core, as evidenced by the handful of people who come from as far as Ithaca and Herkimer, in almost any type of weather, for Monday night rehearsals at SU and to play some 15-20 concerts a year throughout the region. Recent performances have included world premieres by such luminaries as Robert Ward, Arthur Frackenpohl, and Joseph Downing; Fourth of July celebrations by Owasco Lake in Auburn; and special thematic programs, ranging from “Bach Fest” to “A Night at the Opera.”

Many of the concerts, says Spencer, are captured for posterity. He speculates that during the group’s 30-year history, more than 200 pieces have been professionally filmed or recorded or both. As a result, some enjoy a second life on WCNY TV and radio, as well as on the Internet. “When you count [WCNY announcers] Bill Baker and Bruce Paulsen as among your biggest fans, you should consider yourself lucky,” says Spencer, adding that Paulsen has become a regular fixture at SUBE events as an emcee, narrator, or singer. “Their support means everything to us.”

The same may be said of George M. Langford and the Rev. Tiffany Steinwert, deans of The College and of Hendricks Chapel, respectively. “We wouldn’t be here without the enormous support and vision of Dean Langford,” says Spencer, a Meredith Professor in the Department of Chemistry and The College’s associate dean for science, mathematics, and research. “At the same time, we are privileged to be embraced by Dean Steinwert, as part of Hendricks Chapel’s mission of serving as portal into the wider community.”

John Warren
John Warren
Motioning toward the chapel stage, Spencer adds: “In fact, some of our most memorable concerts have taken place right here.”

He’s referring, of course, to “Holidays at Hendricks.” For more than 75 years, this concert has been one of SU’s most-anticipated holiday traditions. For SUBE, which joined the lineup more than a decade ago, after doing years of stand-alone concerts in the chapel, it’s arguably the highlight of their season. The program balances the traditional and contemporary with protean performances by SUBE, the Hendricks Chapel Choir and Handbell Ringers, the university organist, and various soloists.

Spencer credits Steinwert and John Warren—associate professor of music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, as well as director of choral activities and conductor of the Hendricks Chapel Choir—for making the program diverse and accessible, without sacrificing aesthetics. “’Holidays at Hendricks’ is probably the high-water mark of our year because so much planning and preparation goes into it,” says Spencer, who personally arranges many of the pieces for the concert. “Everyone involved brings their ‘A’ game, and there’s rarely an empty seat in the house.”

Seven years ago, Spencer and Warren ratcheted it up a notch by involving WCNY. Their broadcasts of the concert—which, this past year, were picked up by sister stations in Utica and Watertown—are fast becoming another holiday tradition. So are “Holidays at Hendricks” DVDs, which often sell out in the SU Bookstore.

Although Warren is stepping down from his Hendricks Chapel post this summer, his legacy remains intact. “I will miss working with John. All of his hard work, passion, and creativity have helped make ‘Holidays at Hendricks’ into what it is today,” says Spencer. “At the same time, I am excited about working more closely with Dean Steinwert on this and other projects. I can’t think of a better place in which to make a ‘joyful noise.’”

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Rob Enslin