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Harris expands wind-instrument program with new ensemble

As MIT's new director of wind ensembles, Fred Harris hasn't wasted any time tackling his goal of developing and expanding MIT's current wind ensemble program. After arriving on campus this fall, he assumed leadership of the MIT Concert Band (now the MIT Wind Symphony) and the Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE) and formed a new group, the MIT Wind Ensemble.

Dr. Harris came to MIT from the University of Minnesota, where he had recently received the PhD in music education with an emphasis on conducting. He is, however, by all accounts a New Englander: born and raised in New Hampshire, he received a mas-ter's degree in conducting from the New England Conservatory and was a conducting student at the Tanglewood Music Center. As a percussionist, he has performed a diverse body of music ranging from chamber to jazz ensembles and has played professionally with various groups around New England.

Formerly an instrumental music director in the Belmont (MA) public schools, Dr. Harris is a strong advocate for music education; on November 6 he hosted, at MIT, a first-of-its-kind meeting of leaders of collegiate music education programs in Massachusetts to discuss the preparation of future music teachers.

Mary Haller of the Office of the Arts spoke to Dr. Harris about his plans and goals for his MIT ensembles and his early impressions of MIT.

Haller: Tell me about the three groups you're directing.

Harris: The Wind Symphony is the largest ensemble -- 74 members who all play woodwind, brass or percussion instruments. The Wind Ensemble is about half that size and performs music for a more varied instrumentation ranging from octets to full wind ensemble with usually one person per part. The Festival Jazz Ensemble is comprised currently of a standard jazz ensemble -- saxophones, trumpets, trombones and rhythm section -- with a total of 18 members.

Why did you change the name of the MIT Concert Band to the MIT Wind Symphony?

I felt the term "wind symphony" more accurately reflects the "symphonic" nature of the ensemble due to its size and its repertoire: original music composed for a large body of wind and percussion instruments and/or choirs of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. This concept expands the amount and styles of literature that students may be exposed to.

Tell me about the new Wind Ensemble you've started.

It's an expansion of what was formerly known as the Brass Ensemble. Now there's greater flexibility for more diverse repertoire as the wind ensemble may perform woodwind octets, brass ensemble literature, full wind ensemble works or combinations with various mixed media including string instruments.

What are some of your short-term plans for these groups?

In spring of 2000, the Wind Symphony and Wind Ensemble will join the MIT Concert Choir to perform a work by Vincert Persichetti entitled Celebrations. I don't believe this work has been performed in the Boston area and it should be a wonderful collaborative experience for all involved.

The Festival Jazz Ensemble will host a series of events celebrating the 70th birthday of Herb Pomeroy, the Boston jazz legend who founded the MIT FJE in 1963 and led it for 22 years. There will be various educational events for the MIT community and beyond, culminating with a special tribute concert on April 29 featuring the FJE and Herb.

What are some of your long-range visions and goals?

I want to become very involved in MIT's Artist-in-Residence Program; I'd like to bring outstanding composers and performers to MIT who could have an impact on students across various disciplines.

I would also like to build a stronger audience relationship with students and faculty in the MIT community who are not directly involved in music performance ensembles. We have now begun presenting pre-concert performances and lectures in an effort to connect with students and also with people outside of the MIT community.

Finally, I think it's also important that the MIT music ensembles perform off-campus, serving as ambassadors of musical excellence and innovation. This sends a message to the outside community of the importance of music in the lives of people who don't necessarily aspire to become professional musicians. Their love and passion for music combined with a fantastic work ethic can sometimes produce the kind of music-making that everyone ultimately strives for.

As a conductor, a percussionist and a commissioner of new works, you've worked with both traditional wind ensembles and jazz ensembles, genres with quite different styles. Do you see opportunities for overlap?

Although improvisation is more prevalent in jazz, I'd like to see it incorporated more into the Wind Symphony and Wind Ensemble. I don't think musicians should be limited in experiencing the freedom of improvisation because they may not play a "jazz" instrument, so to speak. Eventually I would like to see the lines cross more so that students who play oboe or string instruments are involved with jazz ensembles here at MIT.

What's the biggest challenge you face in directing three different ensembles?

Maintaining high musical integrity with so many diverse styles. Over the next several weeks, for example, we have concerts that include music from 1597 to 1970! So it may be a symphony by Paul Hindemith or a 12-tone work by Walliford Riegger or the music of Duke Ellington or music from the Renaissance.

What are some of your early impressions of MIT?

I see MIT as a community with endless possibilities for musical innovation, outreach and diverse educational growth for the students and for myself. I feel extremely fortunate to be in the company of such esteemed colleagues and exceptionally gifted students. Sometimes you can just sense that a community is very special and it makes you want to strive to create the best possible experiences for others and to grow individually on many levels.

What do you think are some of the most important qualities for a conductor to have?

Musical integrity, human compassion and vision. And all of these qualities depend on how well prepared you are. There is so much to know to be a good conductor -- let alone a great one -- that sometimes it's overwhelming. I recently interviewed a well-known conductor who said that "after about 45 years you begin to know what you're doing." I believe he was right and I'm well aware that I have a long, long way to go.

Dr. Harris will lead concerts by the Festival Jazz Ensemble and Wind Ensemble on November 20 and 21, and performances by the Wind Symphony and Wind Ensemble on December 4.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 17, 1999.

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