The Sound of Music: A look at Dartmouth’s ensemble groups
Music ensembles offer performance options at various levels of commitment and experience.
Barbary Coast Ensemble dress rehearsal photographed in Hanover on May 11, 2017. Copyright 2017 Robert C Strong II.
This article is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.
For those looking to perform for the community and pursue the arts during their time at Dartmouth, ensemble groups based at the Hopkins Center for the Arts — including the Coast Jazz Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, Marching Band, Glee Club, Handel Society, Dance Ensemble, Marching Band and Gospel Choir — offer a wide range of opportunities. As the fall term begins, all of these groups are looking forward to new opportunities in the year ahead, including more guest artists, regional performances, a global summit and a world tour.
Each group meets twice a week, with most participating in large culminating performances at the end of the fall, winter and spring quarters, according to Coast Jazz Orchestra director Taylor Bynum.
“All of the Hop ensembles are similar structures and similar commitments, even if they’re sort of different communities [and] different aesthetics,” Bynum said.
Though most ensembles practice in The Hop, the marching band practices on the football field once a week during fall term in addition to their indoor rehearsals. The marching band plays for the football team in the fall and the basketball and hockey teams in the winter.
In addition to playing at home games, the marching band also travels with teams to away games once per season. This fall, they are hoping to travel to the Dartmouth-Harvard football game.
“Two years ago, last time we had a football season, we played at Yankee Stadium as part of the 250th celebration homecoming game against Princeton,” director of the marching band Brian Messier said. “That was pretty exciting, to play on [the Yankees’] field.”
As far as the ensembles go, the marching band doesn’t require much technical ability, Messier said, which he hopes will encourage students of varying musical backgrounds to join.
“It’s an access point for any Dartmouth student to develop skills, regardless of experience,” Messier said. “It’s a very socially oriented group; it has its own social culture.”
The gospel choir is another group on campus that emphasizes social connection. Under director Walt Cunninghman, the gospel choir performs with a 12-piece band each fall and spring in Spaulding Auditorium.
For the gospel choir, students and Upper Valley community members from diverse backgrounds come together to perform spirituals and gospel hits.
The Wind Ensemble also connects Dartmouth students with the larger vocalist community. According to the Hop’s website, the group serves as a “melting pot for the students of Dartmouth College and the residents of the Upper Valley.”
Messier, who also directs the Wind Ensemble, said he sees the group as an invaluable opportunity.
“It’s an immediate way to join a social community of peers and to have a multi-class, multi-age, multi-level network of friends and colleagues,” Messier said. “It’s one of those things that can become really central to your experience at Dartmouth and getting involved with the Hopkins Center.”
As part of their experience in theWind Ensemble, which performs music from the late 19th through the 21st centuries, students also engage in community outreach. This coming year, the ensemble will organize a “U.S.-Mexico Summit,” scheduled for May of 2022. Messier describes the “Mexican Repertoire Initiative” as “a collection of minds on U.S.-Mexican artistic, diplomatic [and] academic relations.”
“A central piece of that summit will be the Wind Ensemble concert, where we will have three world premieres by Mexican composers, with the composers present,” Messier said. “That’s the large-scale musical diplomacy project that the Wind Ensemble is embarking on.”
The Mexican tour in the spring of 2023 will bring the Wind Ensemble to Mexico City and Guadalajara, where they will collaborate academically, working on music with colleges there.
The Coast Jazz Orchestra is also looking into more performance-based travel, in addition to their culminating performances.
“I’m trying to change things up just a little bit so there’s more performances during the year, sort of regionally and in non-traditional venues,” Bynum said.
The Coast Jazz Orchestra is composed like a traditional jazz band, with saxophones, trumpets, trombones, piano, bass and drums.
“The repertoire fits the personalities of the musicians we have and the instruments we have,” Bynum said.
Eli Hecht ’23, a member of the Coast Jazz Orchestra and a Hopkins Center for the Arts Fellow, said that non-traditional instruments, such as the bassoon, french horn, harp and a steel pan, often are welcomed into the ensemble.
Another important component of the Coast Jazz Orchestra is improvisation. Bynum said he looks for this skill in the audition process, adding that free-form soloing is emphasized in weekly rehearsals. Hecht described the skill of improvising as invaluable and something that can be carried beyond music.
“There’s a lot of faith that is put in the students to bring the music that they love and would like to play and the spirit of improvisation,” Hecht said. “I think there’s something about improvisational music particularly that encourages an interesting creativity in group dynamics.”
Another performance group at the Hop that relies on group dynamics is the Glee Club. The Glee Club is open for everyone to try out, although a few basic skills, such as reading music, are required, according to director Filippo Ciabatti. Ciabatti also directs the symphony orchestra.
Ciabatti said that the Glee Club originates from a “long tradition” at Ivy League schools, adding that, historically, the Club would perform the school’s songs such as the alma mater.
On top of cherished Dartmouth songs — which the Hop website says they perform at Homecoming and Commencement — the Glee Club also dabbles in works such as a cappella music and choral arrangements spanning back five centuries.
In addition to the performances at the Hop — each of which Ciabatti describes as a project in itself — Glee Club offers the opportunity to perform around the world. In the past, the Glee Club has toured Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Italy and Spain. In 2017, the group went on an American tour, performing across the South. They have also released five CDs and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“I think that Glee Club offers something on campus that no other group can offer.” Ciabatti said. “In America, there’s a strong tradition of choral music. Everyone is interested in choral music, and experiences of companionship and comradery with other students really tie [it] together from a human point of view and a social point of view.”
Ciabatti hopes the group will be able to return to large-scale live performances this year.
“We need it and we miss it to make our lives more fulfilling. I really hope that Glee Club can be one of those places that will nurture live music,” Ciabatti said.
The Hop’s ensembles offer a range of special experiences, including the chance to work with professional artists in an intimate setting. Bynum said that the Coast Jazz Orchestra gets a chance to work closely with the professional guests by learning from and performing alongside them. This is part of his mission, he said, to connect the band to the larger community of music.
“In a place that has a lot of regimented academic pressures, [the ensemble] gives a community and an experience that’s about something else,” Bynum said. “It’s about trying to make some sound in the moment, and I feel like that’s something we cannot take for granted. The magic of creating new music in the moment with friends and peers and colleagues is one of the great joys of life, of college.”