Marine Barracks Annex, D.C. --
Marine Band at 225: Masterpieces and Musicmaking with John Williams
It was described as a “day to remember” by Marine Band Director Colonel Jason K. Fettig, a “pinch me moment,” by Associate Director Major Ryan J. Nowlin, and a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” by Marine Band musicians and guests when almost 2,500 concertgoers from all over the United States packed into the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to see and hear “The President’s Own” conducted by one of America’s most popular and successful composers: John Williams. There was a celebratory and almost reverent anticipation as everyone in the hall recognized the significance of this rare and historic collaboration. The concert opened with the band performing Williams’ poignant setting of the National Anthem with thousands of patriots belting out “and the home of the brave” before lending their raucous applause, signifying a unanimous excitement and approval. Fettig then welcomed the crowd to the very special concert—a beautiful chapter in the long history of the band that will reverberate for many, many years to come.
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“This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first time Maestro Williams led ‘The President’s Own’ on this very stage in 2003,” Fettig said, “and in the two decades since, we have had the privilege of working with him on multiple occasions, culminating in today’s performance.”
The program featured compositions spanning more than half a century of Williams’ remarkable career with recognizable pieces that have deeply entered the American public consciousness—the classics that people always love to hear live, as well as new music composed by Williams as recently as 2023.
“John is a master programmer in his concerts, mixing old and new, exciting action sequences with gorgeous slower themes, and telling diverse stories through his music,” Fettig said. “He also always finds a way to include featured solos for the musicians with whom he works, allowing their talent to shine through his notes. What we hoped to achieve with this program was a retrospective of John’s inimitable work while showcasing his close relationship with the Marine Band and the music that he most loves to conduct with our musicians.”
After the anthem, the band performed The Cowboys Overture followed by the Theme from Jurassic Park. Fettig shared his own personal experience with the audience about what he thought as a teenager seeing the newly-released film in 1993.
“This movie just seemed so incredible to me—one of Mr. Spielberg’s classics of course. I remember the feeling I had coming out of the theater. I was just in awe. I was shaken by the effects, the score, the fantasy. But really it was the music. I realized that it was the music that brought these majestic dinosaurs to life. I ran out to the record store and bought the album—it was the very first film soundtrack I ever owned and I played that thing over and over again. So to have the opportunity to play this gorgeous music with my colleagues in the Marine Band and to perform it for the gentleman who created this magical music, it’s really a dream come true.”
The magic continued as the band performed a collection of some of the most beloved tunes from the Harry Potter series in two works: “Fawkes the Phoenix” and “Harry’s Wondrous World.” Throughout the pieces, the music allowed listeners to immerse themselves in Harry’s universe with a stroll through Diagon Alley, a ride on the Hogwarts Express, wizards flying on broomsticks, and other scenes of amazement and peril with Harry, Ron and Hermione of the House of Gryffindor. But after traveling through the world of Harry Potter, Fettig turned over the podium to Maj. Nowlin to conduct Marine Chamber Orchestra Concertmaster Gunnery Sgt. Karen Johnson in Theme from Schindler’s List. In introducing the piece, Fettig shared with the audience:
“You may not be aware of this, but Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List were released in the same year, which of course the two films could not have been more different. When you think about the fact that John wrote the music to both films, it’s astonishing that he was able to do that. You would not find a film that is more thought-provoking, more vulnerable, more haunting than Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. And by design, there’s less music in Schindler’s List than probably any of the other 29 collaborations between Mr. Williams and Mr. Spielberg. What John did compose for Schindler’s List is simply stunning. … all these years later this movie is still a masterpiece, this score is still a masterpiece, and I think we could all agree with respect to our great Maestro that he is exactly the composer we needed to tell this important story through this music.”
On how he felt conducting the piece, Nowlin simply said, “Devastated.”
But he added, “It is an extraordinary piece of music. The sweeping sixths just weep and Karen filled it with love. I remember the first time I saw that movie in 1993 when it came out. It’s difficult to find the words. And that’s why there’s music.”
In addition to conducting, Nowlin also had the opportunity to contribute to the concert program by transcribing Williams’ “Throne Room and Finale,” the grand, celebratory fanfare from the end of Episode IV: A New Hope. In the week leading up to the concert, Nowlin assisted throughout rehearsals to oversee musical administrative details; Guests Paul Lavender and Jay Bocook also attended rehearsals, as they contributed transcriptions to the program as well, re-working masterpiece orchestral scores into beautiful creations for band. Throughout the rehearsals, Lavender, Bocook and Nowlin diligently checked and re-checked the arrangements—not just for correct notes, but ensuring the orchestrations worked well for the band.
“There were a lot of new arrangements, and Paul did the lion’s share of them,” Nowlin said. “He’s a great writer, and he’s a good friend of the band and a good friend of mine.”
“Jay Bocook did the transcription of ‘Hooray for Hollywood,’ which is sensational,” Nowlin continued. “It was one of my favorite arrangements from when I was younger. When I first heard it more than 30 years ago, the Boston Pops had released an album, and it got in my bloodstream. So fast forward and suddenly I’m an arranger, so I can see where some of those things were birthed.”
They tweaked the music by cutting down, adding, and re-allocating parts and sometimes reducing section size to make sure the balance felt right.
“We didn’t want Maestro Williams to miss the orchestra—to re-create those colors is challenging,” Nowlin explained. “We hear it in our heads but we’ve got to make sure all the colors work in a way that represent the original intent of the music.”
During the band’s rehearsal with John Williams prior to the performance, the conductor finished reading “Throne Room and Finale” with the band; he didn’t rehearse a note—just turned to the panel of arrangers and said, “I think it’s fantastic.”
“I just exhaled,” Nowlin beamed. “It certainly was a pinch me moment; the biggest honor I could imagine.”
The first half of the concert closed with “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which is not merely a concert piece but the entire last act of the 1982 classic from Steven Spielberg. In the finale of the film, viewers hear 10 minutes of unbroken music when Elliot and his friends jump on their bikes and fly through the air to get the beloved E.T. back to his ship. Fettig declared: “This piece ends with one of the greatest melodies that has ever been composed whether for film or otherwise.”
The second half of the concert began with Fettig reading a letter from President Joseph R. Biden honoring the American institution’s 225th anniversary. While John Williams and thousands of others helped the Marine Band celebrate its quasquibicentennial, Biden also extended heartfelt congratulations to the Marine Band on its 225 years of service to our country and our Corps. The letter from the Commander in Chief read, in part: “For 225 years, the United States Marine Band has been a staple of American culture and military excellence, inextricably linked to some of the most important events of the nation’s storied history. Whether performing for the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, accompanying Abraham Lincoln to Gettysburg, touring the country under John Philp Sousa, or laying to rest fallen heroes at Arlington, the Marine Band is a steadfast reminder of the very best that our nation has to offer.”
The concert continued with the band performing “For ‘The President’s Own,’” an original composition Mr. Williams graciously penned in 2013 as a token of esteem for the Marine Band in celebration of its 215th anniversary. Generously named for the ensemble by the composer, the piece combines virtuosic, intertwining lines with a series of playful themes and bright fanfares that brilliantly capture the many colors and textures of Williams’ music.
Finally, it was the moment everyone in the Kennedy Center was waiting for. Maestro Williams came out on stage to thunderous applause also with intertwining lines: this time of shouts and clapping from the audience and foot tapping on stage as a sign of respect from the musicians. He first conducted “Hooray for Hollywood,” followed by Selections from Indiana Jones, which the composer prefaced by joking with the crowd regarding the 2023 Indiana Jones movie and film score release: “Harrison Ford—it’s no secret that he’s 80. But you also know that to me he is a teenager. So I figured if he could do it I would also do it.”
One nine-year-old little boy seated with his mother made it clear that Indiana Jones was his favorite part of the concert, as he squealed with delight with the band’s final notes of the iconic composition.
The crowd also loved the next piece: “With Malice Toward None” from Lincoln, featuring Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he has held since 2012. Hooten began his professional career in 2000 as a trumpet/cornet player in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band. But he enjoyed being back with the band at the Kennedy Center, saying: “It feels like home. It’s exciting and nerve wracking because the band plays at such a high level. There’s no other band like this in the world, and playing with John Williams is the chance of a lifetime. So when you combine those two things, it’s really unique and special.”
Following three selections from Star Wars, Williams conducted the band in March from 1941, praising the band with its performance of vigor, swagger, and perfection.
“I was saying to Colonel Jason, I only need one reason to come to Washington, D.C. … to hear the Marine Band play 1941.”
“John is clearly an incredibly passionate musician and collaborator, and we have felt that time and again with his generous and warm musicmaking with us,” Fettig remarked. “He gives everything he has to the musicians from the podium, and he lights up when the musicians return that energy and vigor in their performance. His March from 1941, with its bombastic ‘cannon fire’ bass drum part in the finale, are ideally suited to the style and precision with which the Marine Band performs. Our many performances with him of this rousing number are simply the perfect embodiment of the special synergy and connection between Maestro Williams and the Marines of ‘The President’s Own.’”
That synergy and connection has resulted in five collaborations with the United States Marine Band. And while the living legend has received five Academy Awards, 25 Grammys, four Golden Globes, three Emmys, and seven BAFTA awards, during the concert he received another title: Honorary Marine. The title of Honorary Marine was conferred by former Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger and presented by Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps General Eric M. Smith for his “unwavering support and devotion to Corps and Country.” Watch Video
The title was simply one way to recognize the relationship between the musical giant and “The President’s Own”—and the Marine Corps—while honoring the composer’s generosity with his time and talents. The announcement was complete with the band’s proud and perfect performance of The Marines’ Hymn. “You will not find a more humble, kind and generous human on this earth,” Fettig stated about the composer. “In many ways he has written the soundtrack to our national identity and our national spirit, and I think for many people he’s written the soundtrack to some of our own lives and our own experiences.”
That sentiment was evident by the number of people who traveled from all over the country to attend the rare collaboration and performance. Brian Vinick, who traveled almost five hours by bus from New York City, was the first person in line at the Kennedy Center to exchange his reservation for a confirmed ticket. “I was able to get in the front row and am having the time of my life,” Vinick exclaimed. A self-proclaimed “massive John Williams fan” and member of an online John Williams fan group, Vinick said he has seen Williams live in concert with orchestra before but truly enjoyed hearing the band arrangements. During the concert’s intermission, he said, “I love the sheer power of the music, and I can see the enthusiasm in all the players’ faces; I can tell none of them are taking this for granted.”
They weren’t. Especially the members of the horn section, who loved the face time with the musical genius whose music they performed all through school and served as the soundtrack of their youth. “There are so many iconic ‘horn moments’ throughout all of John William’s works, and you could hear the love and energy that the horn section played with all through the concert,” said Marine Band Assistant Director 1st Lieutenant Darren Lin. “They were consistently amazing, from the first downbeat to the surprise encore, Imperial March from Star Wars.”
Rising UCLA senior Jamiel Liu flew from Los Angeles to D.C. to see the Marine Band and John Williams in concert. The euphonium player grew up loving the music of Williams as well as the movies he composed for, including Star Wars. And high school band director Brooks Gorst drove with his family from Toronto for “the chance to see John Williams with the best band in North America.”
After the concert, he said, “It was incredulous to me. What an honor to see this band and to share this level of musicianship with my kids. That alone was worth the 10-hour drive.”
Whether it was a 10-hour drive, 5-hour bus trip, flight from LA, or simply a Metro ride in D.C., the concert attendees, musicians, and all involved at the Kennedy Center witnessed something truly special on July 16, as the Marine Band celebrated 225 years of playing America’s music. Sharing with a musical icon an anniversary celebration of masterpieces and musicmaking, “The President’s Own” looks to the future, viewing its history and tradition as the foundation upon which to build its third century of bringing music to the White House and to the American people.