Hooked on Brass
Following up on the success of a concert in fall 2014 that celebrated the 150th anniversary of Mechanics Hall’s Hook Organ, WPI was invited back for another musical collaboration.
“Mechanics Hall is one of the top concert halls in the country—possibly the world,” says Doug Weeks, director of the Brass Ensemble and associate department head of humanities and arts. “For students to have an opportunity like this is amazing.”
The brass and organ concert is arranged in eight musical pieces opening with “Fanfare” from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Other arrangements include “Salvation Is Created,” “Thaxed” (adapted from The Planets), “Adante Sostenuto,” and the finale “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in which the audience is invited to join in singing the last verse.
“There is a ceremonial aspect to the music because of the brass and organ,” says Weeks. “It lends itself to that kind of sound.”
“Mechanics Hall is one of the top concert halls in the country—possibly the world. For students to have an opportunity like this is amazing.” – Doug Weeks
According to Weeks, the students have been practicing since January in preparation for a concert of such complex pieces. They rehearse separately from the organists, who are local musicians with the Worcester Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Some of the organists will come to WPI to practice on the piano in WPI’s rehearsal space. The two groups will come together for one final rehearsal at Mechanics Hall before the performance.
Professor Doug Weeks, director of the Brass Ensemble.
Although Weeks would love to have the students rehearse with the organists at Mechanics Hall several times, he says this schedule mirrors how professional musicians work. But the two groups worked collaboratively on the musical selections. “There was some research on both our parts,” he says. “This is a professional quality musical repertoire. There’s not a chance for us to do this every day.”
Built in 1857, Mechanics Hall is a pre-Civil War concert hall in downtown Worcester. The hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Weeks says the hall’s acoustics are renowned and exceptional.
Music majors in other universities don’t usually have chances to perform works in such a high-caliber venue, Weeks says, and the students appreciate the history of the hall. One of his students even wrote a paper about the various concert halls the groups perform in. “I tell them Yo Yo Ma comes here for the recordings,” he says. And even WPI musicians will have the benefit of having their ensemble recorded.
“They are playing with professional musicians and with a big audience,” says Weeks. “That raises the bar.” But the WPI musicians do take it in stride, too. The Brass Ensemble is an invitation-only group, meaning the students are already accomplished before they even begin. “This is very challenging music,” says Weeks of the Hooked on Brass lineup. “It’s not easy for them. But what I have learned is that with WPI students, you might scare one off if you challenge them, but you might lose all of them if you don’t challenge them.”
“This is a great opportunity for the students,” says Weeks. “These are students in engineering-, math-, and science-oriented majors having a phenomenal opportunity to participate in this as part of their education.”
Many of the Brass Ensemble students might have even debated over majoring in music before choosing a more technical path. These opportunities to perform at such a professional level give them an idea of how they can still do both, says Weeks. “They see they can still do their full-time work and have an active musical life.”