WPI Concert Band performs world premiere composition 'The Ride'

WPI Concert Band Performs World Premiere Musical Composition “The Ride,” Inspired by Major Taylor

Band commissioned local composer to help tell the story of barrier-breaking athlete.
LISTEN 06:21
May 7, 2024

The story of Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, the second African American athlete to win a world championship in any sport, has gone largely untold. Efforts are underway to change that as 2024 marks 125 years since Taylor won a world championship in cycling.


Major Taylor on bicycle competing in Berlin, Germany

Major Taylor competing in Berlin, Germany in 1901 (Photo: Courtesy of Major Taylor Association)

On April 20, WPI’s Concert Band shined a spotlight on “The Worcester Whirlwind,” as Taylor was known, when it performed a world premiere musical composition titled The Ride. The piece was inspired by the 1899 world cycling champion, who was born in Indianapolis, made Worcester his home, battled racism, and triumphed in sport and spirit.

The Concert Band, directed by Mitchell Lutch, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Humanities & Arts, commissioned the piece from Thomas O’Toole, composer, music educator and Director of Performing Arts for Shrewsbury Public Schools, who was driven by a desire to inform more people about Major Taylor’s story and ties to Worcester.  O’Toole happened to fill in for an ill trombone player at the Concert Band’s 2023 spring performance. On a walk during his pre-show lunch break, he discovered the Major Taylor Museum, which opened in 2021 on Main Street in downtown Worcester. At that moment, he was motivated to compose a musical tribute and soon suggested to Lutch that a piece for the concert band would help students and the public learn about the history of this champion. 

“The seed for this piece was planted literally 365 days ago, from this room,” Lutch told the audience when introducing O’Toole, who conducted his piece during the 2024 spring performance by WPI’s Concert Band and Brass Ensemble at the Worcester Area Mission Society


Thomas O'Toole stands in hall at Worcester Area Mission Society following concert performance

Thomas O'Toole

“Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor was perhaps the greatest athlete of a generation,” O’Toole said; he explained that his goal of showcasing the cyclist’s story stemmed from his personal experience. “I’d been raised in the sporting culture of greater Boston, and I knew all the local sporting heroes of the time, but for much of my life I’d never heard of Major Taylor. His accomplishments have been masked by the racism of his era and the racism that continued long after his death into our time. I hope with this piece I’ve been able to spread the message about what a great athlete and human being he was.”

Members of the Concert Band spent part of the past year learning about Taylor’s story as they prepared for the performance. Some band members viewed a documentary about the cycling champion from WTIU, Indiana Public Media, and visited the Major Taylor Museum. Others participated in a Zoom conference with O'Toole and Lutch last summer that solicited ideas from the students to incorporate into the composition.


WPI Concert Band members play instruments, seated in rows, inside concert hall at Worcester Area Mission Society

WPI Concert Band at spring performance

The Ride details musically four events from Taylor’s life that help illustrate his strength in overcoming challenges. Each is established with a short, live narration over music. During the concert, Chima Ibebunjo  ‘26, a civil engineering major who plays alto saxophone and participated in the Zoom conference, set aside his instrument, rose to his feet, microphone in hand, and proudly delivered the first narration. He says performing the piece took him on a special musical journey with its changes in rhythm, tempo, and time signature, reminiscent of the pace changes of a bicycle ride. Ibebunjo adds that he learned more about and was impressed by Taylor’s story through the piece’s narrations, including the one he delivered. “This was significant to me since I enjoy cycling as a hobby, and as a young Black/African American man, I take pride in discovering the positive contributions and success of other influential Black/African American individuals in society.”

The concert also included performances by the WPI Brass Ensemble (directed by Douglas Olsen, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Humanities & Arts), the WPI Brass Quintet, the Clarinet Quartet, and the Saxophone Quartet. A performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, by the WPI Concert Band, featured piano soloist Binan Gu, a postdoctoral scholar in mathematical sciences.


Binan Gu, Mitchell Lutch, and Thomas O'Toole pose for photo inside concert hall at Worcester Area Mission society

(L-R) Binan Gu, Professor Mitchell Lutch, Thomas O'Toole

WPI’s music ensembles, including the Concert Band, proudly exemplify how the university prioritizes and provides opportunities for students to explore the humanities and arts, embrace creativity, and consider the richness of the human experience.

The performance of The Ride is one of the ways Taylor is honored in Worcester. There is also a statue at the Worcester Public Library; the Major Taylor Museum; and the annual George Street Bike Challenge for Major Taylor—a challenging hill climb for cyclists held every July, which raises funds for the Major Taylor Association.