I was in the ‘burbs of Chicago from February 25-28. I flew there to work with two schools — St. Charles East High School and Lake Zurich High School — on their premieres of my newest piece, “Turning.”

There was a big winter storm in Chicago on Saturday — the night before I was scheduled to fly there — and it wasn’t clear whether or not I’d actually make it there until, well, until the plane took off on Sunday. I arrived on time (Chicago seems to be pretty well experienced in dealing with snow), and aside from some slightly slick roads, there were no lingering weather issues by the time I landed. It was awfully pretty, though. We don’t get a lot of snow in Southern California.

That night, Jim Kull (the director of bands at St. Charles East, and an all around great and fun guy) and his assistant Gil Wukitsch (and their respective spouses) made a great rib dinner. Both Jim and Gil made their own ribs, both different, and both delicious. Here are Gil’s ribs, pre-serving…

And here’s the whole spread.

Jim has an adorable Siamese cat. We totally hit it off.


The next day, I met with Gil’s music theory students, who all came to class armed with great questions. I was a little slow to get started, due to the early hour, but once my quad-shot latte kicked in, I was good to go. After class, Jim, and I had lunch — an egg salad sandwich from the school cafeteria. (It was Monday, so I was assured that the egg salad was, in fact, not likely to kill me.)

The rehearsal that afternoon went very well. Jim’s group was not only doing “Turning,” but they were also doing “Turbine” on the same concert! This was the first high school band I’d heard even attempt the piece, and they totally pulled it off. Both pieces worked great on the concert. There was even a pilot from American Airlines in the audience (the father of one of the percussionists), and he had some mildly-reassuring words for me after the concert about my fear of flying. Before calling it a night, Jim and I headed to Giordano’s, the famous (for good reason) Chicago-style pizza place.

It was spectacular. Have you ever seen so much cheese on a single slice of pizza?!

The next day was quite an adventure…

Jim picked me up bright and early and drove me to Lake Zurich High School. My friend from high school, Josh Thompson, is now the director of bands there, and it was Josh who put together the consortium for “Turning.” We had run into each other at Midwest several years ago — after not seeing each other in more than 10 years — Josh asked me to write a piece for his group. Josh quickly put the consortium together, and the result is my new (and very dark) piece, “Turning.”

I had received an email from Josh two days before I left for Chicago, telling me that his wife was very pregnant, and could give birth while I was in Chicago, meaning Josh might have to miss the concert. Josh wondered if I could possibly conduct “Turning” in case he couldn’t be there. The answer, of course, was a horrified, “no, no, please god, no — you don’t want that to happen.” I’ve only conducted one of my pieces in the past — the performances of a piece called “Annuals.” It was a 22-minute ballet score, and I had to conduct to make sure the tempi were consistent for the dancers. Other than an ability to keep good time, I suck at conducting. I mean, maybe I could learn to do it, but I’m pretty scared. I remember in one performance of “Annuals,” I was supposed to conduct a bar in 5, then a bar in 6. By mistake, I conducted two bars in 5. To my shock, the players all followed me, with every one of them skipping that last beat of the bar. I didn’t realize that players actually watch the conductor. Once I figured that out, it was game over for me.

We hadn’t heard a word from Josh for days, but Jim took me to the high school that morning, hoping all was still as planned for the concert. Well, it turned out that Josh’s wife had given birth that very morning at 7am. So here it was, 10am, with rehearsal starting at 11am, and all anybody knew was that Josh’s wife had just given birth hours before. I spent the next hour frantically studying the score for “Turning,” hoping I wouldn’t have to stand on the podium, but preparing myself for the worst case…

At 11:05am, Josh walked it, eyes somewhat dazed, and I felt the pressure lift from my shoulders. Josh had left the hospital for his two rehearsals, and would head back that afternoon, to return to conduct the concert that night. And that’s just what happened.

Josh and his students did a very good job with a very difficult piece. I was relieved that the audience really seemed to “get it.” Somebody said to me after the performance, “I won’t be humming that on the way home, but you set a mood incredibly effectively. I loved it.” Whew! That was entirely thanks to the performance. “Turning” isn’t a piece that’s particularly, um, “catchy.” It’s dark, very dissonant, and extremely challenging, not just for high school players, but for any players. My sincere thanks to Josh for allowing me the opportunity to write a piece that sounds so different from my other works, and for giving it so much dedication when he and his students performed it.

Oh, and Josh, congratulations on your fourth baby in five years. Better you than me, buddy!


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