Wednesday, December 08, 2004

He Made Magic with Music

I received word last night that Frederick Fennell, a pioneer in the wind band movement and founder of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, passed away yesterday morning at the age of 90. Dr. Fennell (who was also Brother Fennell to me, being a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia and the recipient of its esteemed American Man of Music award in 2003), led the transformation of the concert band from being "only an entertainment ensemble" and into the serious professional entity of the modern wind symphony.

Here is an excerpt of an email that is making the rounds, composed by Fennell's daughter. Since it's addressed to "the greater music community," I have no hesitation in including it here:
I want you, and the greater music community to know that my father died peacefully in his sleep early this morning, Tuesday, December 7, 2004. Elizabeth and I were by his side. I had promised him that I would do all I could to get him back to Siesta Key so he could watch the sun set over the ocean. With the help of Hospice, he arrived home in time to see the brilliant orange and pinks in the western skies last evening.

A bit before Midnight, dad told me he was "frustrated and disappointed." When I asked him, "Why?" he replied, "There's no drummer here yet. I can't die without a drummer!" I told him that I loved him, and that "Heaven's best drummer was on the way." Moments later he said, "I hear him! I hear him! I'm OK now." This was my final conversation with my dad.
--Cathy Fennell Martensen
I had the great fortune to work under Fennell twice, during recording sessions for two CD's by the Dallas Wind Symphony, Fennell Favorites and Pomp and Pipes (the latter on which I played bass sax!). (I'll link to these recordings when the company's website is back up.) I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that working with him was the greatest experience I've ever had in classical music. He was not a tall man at all, but he used his elfin stature to his advantage, as there was no doubt the man was making magic. The best way to play under his direction was to memorize your part and just watch him. Though many times there was not much of a strict, discernible beat pattern (as if performers at that level really needed one!), it was easy to become enraptured by watching him, as he just radiated pure joy whenever he was on the podium, and that joy was reflected in all those who played under him.. Also, while many of the great wind ensemble directors of his generation were known to be a bit tyrannical, he had the sweetest disposition of anyone around.

I last saw Brother Fennell at the 2003 Sinfonia convention in D.C.; I mentioned to him that I had played bass sax on Pomp and Pipes, and his face brightened even more as he told me that was one of his favorite recordings with that group.

He will be sorely missed in the world of wind music (and music in general), but his contributions live on in his recordings and arrangements, as well as in all the people whose lives he touched.

(A biography of Fennell, as well as a link to his keynote address at the 2003 Sinfonia convention, may be found here.)

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