Alexandria, Va. --
Twenty years ago this month in May 1998, a young trumpet player named Michelle Rakers traveled to Washington, D.C., to audition for the United States Marine Band. Not only did she win the audition, making her only the third female trumpet player at the time to win an audition with the Marine Band, but within six years, she was commissioned a first lieutenant and became the first female officer and Assistant Director in the more than 200-year history of the Marine Band. On Sunday, April 29 at 2 p.m., the Marine Band will celebrate the historic career of Assistant Director Maj. Michelle A. Rakers and bid her “fair winds and following seas” as she conducts her final Marine Band concert, filled with selections by iconic American composers. The performance, which is free with no tickets required, will take place at Northern Virginia Community College’s Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center in Alexandria. Free parking is available in the adjacent garage.
“This [the Marine Band] was the only band I was interested in,” Rakers said. “It was elite and in a category of its own.” Rakers actually auditioned for the Marine Band a few times while in school, and advanced to the final round each time. However, it wasn’t until after completing a master’s degree and taking a hiatus from trumpet playing for a couple years that she returned with more determination and won the audition in 1998. Immediately she felt right at home.
“I felt I had really earned the position and I felt like I belonged here,” she said. She excelled in the trumpet section and loved playing with so many talented musicians. While in school she had done some conducting and studied conducting, but it wasn’t until she had the opportunity to conduct a piece on the band’s Chamber Music Series in 2000 that she realized how much she truly enjoyed it. “It was such an energizing and refreshing experience,” she said. “It made something come alive within me and I realized I had more of a passion for conducting than I had known.”
In 2003, pending the retirement of then-Director Col. Timothy W. Foley, one of the Assistant Director positions would be available as then-Assistant Director Maj. Michael J. Colburn would be appointed as the new Director. Rakers decided to audition for the position, even though she knew it would be a challenge to get up in front of her peers to conduct at the level required. She won the audition to become an Assistant Director and also made history as the first female commissioned officer and Assistant Director in the history of “The President’s Own.”
During her tenure as Assistant Director Rakers has performed with the Marine Band at the White House, in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and across the country during the band’s annual concert tour. As an advocate for education outreach, she led the band’s Music in the Schools, Music in the High Schools, and Concerto Competition programs from 2007-14. Additionally, she served as a conductor and supervisor for the acclaimed fall and winter Chamber Music Series, which feature the virtuoso musicians of “The President’s Own.”
For her final concert with the Marine Band, Rakers has chosen five works by iconic American composers. The performance will begin with Joan Tower’s Made in America, transcribed for wind ensemble by Marine Band Staff Arranger Master Gunnery Sgt. Donald Patterson. In 2001, a consortium of small-budget orchestras, also backed by the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Ford Motor Company Fund, came together to commission a new work. For any of these smaller orchestras to commission a new work from a nationally known composer would have been cost prohibitive, but as a consortium it was possible. Joan Tower, one of the most successful composers in the country, was asked to compose the Grammy Award winning work that would eventually be performed in all 50 states by 65 orchestras over the course of a year and a half. Tower says about the work:
“So when I started composing this piece, the song ‘America the Beautiful’ kept coming into my consciousness and eventually became the main theme for the work. The beauty of the song is undeniable and I loved working with it as a musical idea. … This theme is challenged by other more aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, unsettling it, but ‘America the Beautiful’ keeps resurfacing in different guises (some small and tender, others big and magnanimous), as if to say, ‘I’m still here, ever changing, but holding my own.’ A musical struggle is heard throughout the work. Perhaps it was my unconscious reacting to the challenge of how do we keep America beautiful.”
Following Tower’s work, the band will perform Kent Kennan’s Trumpet Sonata featuring soloist Gunnery Sgt. Amy McCabe. This piece hearkens back to Rakers’ time as a trumpet player in the Marine Band and she is excited to conduct the piece with another female trumpeter as soloist.
The first half will conclude with Leornard Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront. This year marks the centennial of Bernstein’s birth and ensembles across the nation are paying homage to the iconic composer and conductor. Bernstein composed the score for the widely anticipated 1954 film On the Waterfront starring a young Marlon Brando. Unfortunately much of Bernstein’s music ended up on the cutting room floor. Although the composer won an Academy Award nomination for best film score of the year, Bernstein was completely soured by the callous process of film score editing and never again composed for movies. The following year, Bernstein salvaged much of the music that was lost or miscast in the film and created a concert suite. The suite is crafted in six continuous movements and paints a vivid sound portrait of the film’s central emotional themes as Bernstein first envisioned them. Because his music was symphonically conceived from the start, one doesn’t need to have seen the film to appreciate the music on its own terms.
The second half of the concert will begin with Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, Opus 9, Symphony in One Movement, transcribed for wind ensemble by Guy M. Duker. For Rakers, this work represents one of the most memorable moments conducting the Marine Band during her service as Assistant Director. She has only conducted the piece once before, in 2010, but the event was so moving and stretched her as a conductor, that she felt the opportunity to conduct it one last time with the Marine Band couldn’t be missed.
Rakers will conclude the concert with Percy Grainger’s Danish Folk-Music Settings because, according to her, “How can you not have Grainger on your final concert?” The work, which is based on Danish folk tunes collected by the composer and Evald Tang Kristensen during the years 1922-27, is a fitting conclusion to the concert and historic chapter of Rakers’ career as she will be retiring to live in Denmark and continue her next chapter there.
“I am grateful for having had the experiences I’ve had with the Marine Band,” Rakers said. “This is a unique organization and the people are just as unique and remarkable. I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything.”
The concert is free and no tickets are required. Doors will open at 1:30 p.m. and a string quartet will offer pre-concert music in the lobby beginning at 1:15 p.m.
Directions and parking