A weekend celebrating the career of John Stevens
For the weekend of March 7 through 9, 2014, tuba and euphonium players from all over the country traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to celebrate the career of John Stevens. Professor Stevens has announced that he will retire from the University of Wisconsin-Madison after the Spring 2014 semester, concluding a very decorated tenure at UW that started in 1985. For these three days in March, we his former and current students, along with his family, friends, colleagues, and supporters, gathered together to honor his prestigious career. The scheduled events included a chamber music concert of John’s compositions, an alumni tuba-euphonium ensemble concert of John’s music along with his favorite arrangements, and a final concert with John Stevens conducting the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra performing his work Journey for contrabass tuba and orchestra, featuring Chicago Symphony Orchestra tubist Gene Pokorny. The symphony orchestra concert was also part of the Wisconsin Union Theatre 2013-2014 concert series. Along with all of the fabulous concerts, there were plenty of gatherings, parties, and fun Madison nights.
The celebration weekend began with many of us gathering at John’s house for an opening party. According to John, “The scene in our kitchen was like eight layers of déjà vu! It was fantastic to see so many people all together who had only partied there separately in their own generations.” Many of us at John’s house knew of each other, and even work with each other, but this was a great opportunity for all of us to interact as fellow alumni. We would all soon realize that this weekend would be one of the best experiences we ever had.
The following morning we met in Music Hall to begin rehearsing as the Alumni Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble. Our group consisted of 41 tuba and euphonium players who were all previous members of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble under the direction of John Stevens. Among the players were professional ensemble musicians, soloists, collegiate professors, music educators, and current UW-Madison students. In describing the alumni ensemble John Stevens remarked, “I’ve conducted many, many tuba/euphonium ensembles, but this group of 41 alumni was the best ever. What an incredible, glorious sound-right from the first notes of the first rehearsal.” Our rehearsals were full of fun and exciting moments and we all realized how successful this tribute performance would be. Also during rehearsal, John made sure to introduce everyone, sharing when people graduated and where everyone is now. Not only was it special for John to see all of his students together in one ensemble, but it was also a great experience for all of us playing in the group. It was enjoyable to meet everyone and exchange stories. But along with that, the sound we made together was incredible. David Spies, low brass instructor at Carroll University, commented on the ensemble experience by stating:
My initial reaction to the first notes of the 41-person UW Alumni Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble rehearsal in Music Hall on Saturday was that this was going to be a FUN weekend. I had participated in great massed tuba-euphonium ensembles, but this was special because every member had similar views on musicality, balance, intonation, clarity of articulation, and blend due to John Stevens’s coaching over the years. We all remembered what a great sound John fostered in our respective student tuba-euphonium ensembles. Now that we had years (or in some cases, decades) of improvement under our belt, we were excited because we were able to bring our cumulative musicianship and technique to the table.
Triangles . L-R Dan Grabois, John Stevens, Mark Hetzler
Saturday at 4:00pm was the first performance of the celebration weekend, a concert that showcased some of John’s favorite chamber music compositions. The program included Viva Voce!, Diversions, Tournament, Triangles, Music 4 Tubas, and Hodesanna. Featured on the concert were The Wisconsin Brass Quintet, the Sotto Voce Quartet, and the Chromos Tuba Quartet. (Chromos consists of members from the Wisconsin Tuba Quartet and the Willson Tuba Quartet.) John remarked that, “To be able to share this celebration with my professional family, the members of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, was very special indeed.” The members of the WBQ included UW Professors John Aley, trumpet, Dan Grabois, horn, Mark Hetzler, trombone, and John Stevens, tuba, along with doctoral candidate Jessica Jensen, trumpet. Their ensemble is always very exciting to hear, however this night was about emotion as much as music. Everyone on stage and in the audience shared in a sentimental moment when the WBQ presented John with a signed photograph to commemorate the occasion. After the WBQ talked about their favorite moments with John in the group, they performed the final work of the evening, John’s newest composition for brass quintet, Hodesanna. John composed this work as a remembrance for his former student Jeff Hodapp, who passed away in 2009. The piece is essentially a work for solo tuba and brass quartet, and John performed as the soloist on this night. It was great to hear John perform and to hear this work honoring Jeff Hodapp.
The conclusion of Journey with soloist Gene Pokorny
Following the chamber music concert everyone met at the new Gordon Commons building at UW to share laughs and stories over food and drinks. John remarked that, “It meant so much to me to have so many alumni come back, many from quite far away. It meant even more to see what a wonderful time everyone had being together musically and socially.” This night was a great opportunity for everyone in Madison wishing to honor John Stevens to get together and have fun as a community. Even though the room was filled with people of different ages and career paths, there were no real strangers among us. It was fun for all of us to socialize and reflect on our times in Madison, WI. Tubist Tom Curry said,
One of the remarkable aspects of the weekend to me was the automatic bond between all the alumni of John’s studio. Regardless of whether or not you had been close friends or had even met before, there was a strong sense that we all shared something significant. The friendship and sense of community we felt that weekend is a clear testament to the impact of John’s teaching and mentorship on all of us.
On Sunday the celebration included two more outstanding concerts. The first was the Alumni Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble at 2:00 in Mills Hall. For all of us that made the trip to be a part of this ensemble, it was an absolutely amazing experience. After rehearsing this ensemble in the morning and the previous day, we were all eager to perform together. The program included Fanfare for a Friend, John’s arrangement of Five Dances by Tylman Susato, Adagio for tuba-euphonium ensemble, Power, John’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Anna Magdelena Suite, Dances performed by the Sotto Voce Quartet with John Stevens on tuba, Moondance, and Benediction. John’s daughter Katie and son in law Griffin also performed with the group, and John reflected, “It was even more special to have members of my actual family on stage and in the audience.” David Spies spoke about the ensemble:
The camaraderie that John fostered every year at UW-Madison came through in the rehearsals right from the very beginning of the weekend. Inside jokes, good-natured ribbing, helpful suggestions, and leadership by example all were present. We wanted to make great music with each other and with John. Having fun doing so was the icing on the cake.
After the alumni ensemble concert, everyone met for dinner at a local Irish pub. In John’s words, “In addition to everyone who played in the ensemble, I was so honored to have dear friends, colleagues and alumni there-the Sotto Voce Quartet, James Jenkins, Mike Roylance, Mickey Moore, Jerry Young, Marty Erickson, John Tuinstra, Claude Kashnig, and more.”
Even with all of the fun we had during the past few days, we were all highly anticipating the Sunday night concert. At 7:30pm in Mills Hall the UW Symphony Orchestra performed a concert that included John Stevens’s famous composition Journey, a concerto for contrabass tuba and orchestra, as part of the Wisconsin Union Theatre concert series. Chicago Symphony Orchestra tubist Gene Pokorny was the soloist and John Stevens conducted the orchestra. Gene’s sound was powerful and engulfing, yet still sweet and singing, and the overall performance was absolutely remarkable. This performance of the work was also especially unforgettable because John was the conductor. As the music concluded, the audience jumped up to a rousing standing ovation. This prompted Pokorny to hold up the conductor’s score like a championship trophy. He was obviously thankful to John for providing such a piece of music to the world. After the performance John stated, “I am so grateful to Gene Pokorny for being a part of the celebration. Getting to conduct Journey, with Gene as the soloist, was a huge thrill.” He went on to say, “If you don’t count family weddings, births, and that sort of thing, that had to be the most amazing weekend of my life! The whole thing was just a joy beyond belief. I’m a lucky man.”
“I’m thrilled to refer to myself as a product of John Stevens. He liberated me!!! I will continue to trumpet his great name and artistic teaching.”
– Demondrae Thurman
Rehearsal with the UW-Madison Alumni Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble
“It was an unforgettable celebration of the incomparable career of John Stevens. After a weekend of getting to know his many former students, hearing emotional performances of his music, and an alumni ensemble performance for the ages, it is easy for anyone to see that his lasting imprint on the tuba world is immeasurable. I can never thank John enough for the tremendous impact he’s had on my life, both as a musician and as a human being.”
– Blaine Cunningham
It was a real pleasure for us to organize this weekend for John Stevens. From all of us involved with the celebration, and all of us in the low brass and music education community, we are happy to congratulate John on a magnificent career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We know he will continue to provide guidance, leadership, advice, and friendship to everyone he knows and meets. We also look forward to all of the new music he composes. Congratulations, John!
Dr. Matthew Mireles is Director of Bands and Instructor of Low Brass at Cameron University