Whether it is collaborating with composers such as John Williams and Jennifer Higdon or guest artists such as trumpet player Phil Smith or conductor Gerard Schwarz, “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band has demonstrated time and again how lucrative musical partnerships can be. At 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 21 at Northern Virginia Community College’s Schlesinger Concert Hall, Director Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig will conduct a program chock full of examples of great works of music that were inspired by human relationships and tell the tale of partnerships either by the music itself or by those who bring the music to life on stage.
One Marine Band musician who brings the music to life on stage each time she sings is mezzo-soprano Gunnery Sgt. Sara Sheffield, who will perform “Duet for One” from A White House Cantata by Leonard Bernstein. “Duet for One” is a seven-minute tour de force for a singer/actress. In addition to preparing the music, which is full of Bernstein’s mixed meter and rhythmic proclivities, the work hinges on the dramatic and humorous differentiation of two first ladies: Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes. “Preparation for this went well beyond the score,” Sheffield said. “I researched the highly contentious election of 1876, the respective first ladies, and read some great books on the Civil War. This piece gave me the opportunity to delve into a specific and fascinating time in American history. I hope that in developing a deeper knowledge of these ladies and their husbands’ administrations, I can translate some of that understanding—and my passion for it—through Bernstein’s music.”
“Duet for One” requires the same singer to portray two first ladies at the moment of a Presidential Inauguration; as Ulysses Grant prepares to hand the Presidency over to Rutherford B. Hayes, the outgoing Julia Grant laments that her time as First Lady is over and expresses her disbelief and anger at handing over the White House keys to Hayes and his wife Lucy, whom she dismisses as not worthy of the honor. Meanwhile, as the singer’s identity splits, Lucy Hayes gleefully anticipates her new title as the seconds count down to the oath of office. Sheffield’s favorite line is delivered by Julia Grant, packing up her things at the White House, but before knowing the outcome of the election. She mutters:
‘Is it Hayes or is it Tilden?
Somehow no one seems to know.
Thirteen weeks for counting ballots
I would say is rather slow.
I have packed up all the bourbon,
Told them where to send the mail
While the people march in circles
Wondering who the hell to hail!’
“I hope our patrons can approach this in an open-minded fashion and be ready to use their imaginations,” Sheffield said. “In the traditional staged production, you have the advantage of costumes, make-up and lighting to distinguish the characters. Hopefully our audience can suspend reality, find the charm and humor in this ‘Duet for One,’ and enjoy it as much as I do!”
The program also features the world premiere of Schwarz’s transcription of his deeply personal tone poem Rudolf and Jeanette, which was originally composed for orchestra in 2007. At the request of Lt. Col. Fettig, Schwarz created the present transcription for concert band. In the process, he completely reworked several sections of the original composition for the band version and dedicated it to Lt. Col. Fettig and “The President’s Own.” For the première of the original version of the piece in 2005, Schwarz shared his inspiration for Rudolf and Jeanette:
“I decided to compose a work in memory of my mother’s parents, Rudolf and Jeanette Weiss, who, in 1942, were shot at the edge of an open grave at the concentration camp in Riga, Latvia. Rudolf was exactly my age now when he was murdered in 1942. Although my parents emigrated to our country in 1939, my grandparents’ exit was denied, their sad fate sealed in that decision. I have composed this work as a tone poem, so that through music I can honor the grandparents I never knew.”
Program and notes
The Marine Band’s performance of “Banding Together” will take place at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 21 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. Free parking is available in the lot adjacent the concert hall. The concert is free; no tickets are required.