Last Friday, in a concert hall not very far away, a medley of Star Wars music blasted out of Thorne Hall. The program cover playfully mimicked the iconic credits crawl of the film series, complimenting the epic, universally recognized tunes which closed out the performance by the Caltech-Occidental Concert Band.
The Caltech-Occidental Concert Band brings together musicians from the student bodies and faculties of California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Occidental College, though the majority hails from the former. Professional musicians from the Los Angeles area, music teachers and members of other local orchestras fill in the empty chairs when insufficient student musicians sign up.
The band is led by the eager and engaged William Bing. Bing has performed with the band for over three decades and seems to approach his job with a childlike sense of pleasure. His conducting and presentation of the show were informal, culminating with the conductor donning a giant Mickey Mouse head (the sort worn by Disney Land employees).
The concert opened with a composition that was written as the score for an unaired television pilot set in the American West. Conducted by its’ composer Jon Manness, a regular member of the band, the song exuded the eagerness and thirst for discovery associated with westward expansion. Manness explained that he used his own childhood fascination with the West to write the piece, which, with its sweeping optimism indeed sounds like a Philadelphia boy’s dream of the West.
“It made me want to herd some cattle,” Greg Toth (senior) said.
Like the band, the audience was diverse. There were Occidental and Caltech students, local fans of concert music and friends of performers. Also among the concert-goers were long-time followers of the band. Jennifer Lakos was one of several in the audience to raise her hand when Bing asked if anyone had been following the band for three decades or more. All told, Thorne Hall was about three-fifths full.
“This might be one of the biggest crowds we’ve ever had here,” Bing said.
Lakos’ late father, who worked as a professor at Caltech, introduced her to the band. She attended many of their concerts as a young woman and continues to do so whenever possible. She lives in the South Bay and generally plans her trips to Los Angeles to visit her mother around the band’s concerts. She too was impressed by the size of the crowd.
“I wish every time it was this cramped,” she said. “The breadth of music coming from Bing, his wife and the students is phenomenal.”
Lakos is particularly intrigued by the link between mathematics and music. The sheer number of skilled musicians coming from a school renowned for it singular focus on the sciences demonstrates this connection. Challenging assumptions about the separation of artistic and technical sphere, the band allows physical oceanographers to take up the conductor’s baton and puts trumpets in the hands of scholars associated with the Jet Propulsion Lab.
The band is in many ways an assemblage of ensembles, something this concert particularly highlighted. In between movements played by the full orchestra, several smaller ensembles played alone. These included an all-flute ensemble and, more interestingly, The Slide Rule Trombone choir. This unorthodox assembly of six trombone players making music without backup created a unique sound that Bing described, perhaps jocularly, as his favorite in the world. The ensemble performances gave musicians a chance to shine in smaller groups.
Indeed, the band’s emphasis is on the ensemble. The band is teaching organ to many students, guided by experienced professionals.
“I’m a facilitator,” Bing said. The conductor clearly takes delight in his central role as organizer of the group, which allows for the collaboration of so many artists, young and old.
He is devoted to live music. While the band rearranged for a new song, he related his recent purchase of a home audio system. The speakers he bought produced the highest quality sound possible, he claimed, yet still paled in comparison to the live event.
“You cannot get music in its truest form without going to a concert,” Bing said. “You’re vibrating with the soul of the composer, the soul of musician.”
The merits of attending a live performance were affirmed by the thrill of hearing John Williams in person. “The Imperial March” burst forth, in all its fascistic glory, accentuated by a piercing, wince-inducing bell at its critical beat. The grandeur of the live performance rivaled the cinematic delight of hearing the iconic theme in the theater.
Later in the medley, when the Star Wars theme began, Bing traded his baton for a lightsaber. In short order, a challenger appeared. A tuxedo-clad Darth Vader strode confidently down the aisle, brandishing his favored red saber. Upon the stage they dueled, trading blows amidst percussive bangs. Finally, Bing, who bears something of a resemblance to Alec Guinness when he was playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, collapsed, and was replaced on the conducting stand by his evil apprentice. But the band played on, as it will no doubt continue to do once Bing retires at the end of this year.