Northwestern band premiers piece honoring former director Larry Wells

dworthington@heraldonline.comMay 5, 2013 

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    The Northwestern High School band concert is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Admission is free.

— Eric Wells, Clover High School’s band director, chuckled at the question.

“Can you capture my dad’s life in a piece of music? Only if you have a lot of movements,” Eric said of his dad, Larry.

Tuesday evening the Northwestern High School Symphonic Band will spend about six minutes paying tribute to Larry Wells, their former director, with music.

It is, said Eric Wells and others, the most fitting way to honor someone who has spent more than four decades helping students not only make music but also learn life-long lessons.

The 47-member ensemble will premier “Legacy of Honor” by South Carolina composer Jay Bocook.

When Larry Wells announced his retirement in September 2012, former Northwestern band member Ryan Tinker wondered what was the best way to honor his former teacher and mentor.

Tinker, a trombone player in the band from 2000 to 2004, knew Wells had already accumulated more than enough plaques. Rows of plaques are just one of the reminders of the band’s success that current students see when they sit down to rehearse. On the front wall behind the conductor are the plaques. On the back wall of the rehearsal room, behind the students, are the trophies.

Tinker, now band director at Charlotte Catholic, contacted several composers about their availability. He learned that most were too expensive or, if available, they wouldn’t have time for his piece until five or six years later.

Tinker realized he needed someone more accessible and someone who knew Larry Wells.

Bocook instantly came to mind. A director of bands at Furman, Bocook has written music for three Olympics. He had also written the shows for the Northwestern marching band, and knew Larry.

Bocook accepted the commission and began interpreting Larry Wells’ personality musically.

Bocook knew the piece would not be boisterous or loud. Wells’ demeanor is anything but that. Wells puts the attention on others. But make no mistake, Wells is in control, a small gesture of the hand or a few soft spoken words can quiet the loudest marching band.

The gestures or soft words can “make you feel this tall,” said current Northwestern director Mark Yost, his thumb and finger spread about a quarter-inch apart.

Often, Bocook said, the pieces he has been commissioned to write have a roadmap. When York Comprehensive High School asked him to write a piece for a trip to Pearl Harbor, Bocook knew the piece would mirror the events of Dec. 7, 1941, the quiet calm before the storm, the attack, serenity and then a glorious ending reflecting the strength and resolve of a nation.

Events of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks also dictated how he wrote “All the Heavens Were a Bell” for a Wisconsin band. Northwestern’s Concert Band will play this piece Tuesday. The freshman band also will perform “Aztec Fire,” a Latin-themed piece by Bocook.

But for the Wells’ commission there was no roadmap, just an understanding that it would not be a loud, fast piece. This one would be slower and reflective.

Bocook found it harder to write slow well. He usually takes about a month to write a piece. “Legacy of Honor” took three times that long. On a good day, Bocook said he wrote 30 seconds of music. On a bad day he would simply hit the delete key of his computer and wipe out what he had done. On a great day he might write 90 seconds of music.

“Legacy of Honor” has two sections, he said, loosely following Larry Wells’ time as a band director in North and South Carolina.

Bocook says the piece is “vertically” oriented. The melody passes from instrument to instrument, often quickly in the space of just a few notes. It is the kind of piece where no instrumentalist can hide. Each part is essential to the sound Bocook wants to create.

There is no finale in the traditional sense. The piece does swell in volume near the end, but it quickly softens. The end is the theme, played on the bells. The band quietly plays harmony. Bocook said the ending represents Wells at the end of the day, sitting by himself, reflecting on what tomorrow will bring.

Alfred Jenkins, a senior tenor saxophone player at Northwestern, said, “on paper Legacy of Honor is easy. But you need to listen to each other. There are a lot of things going on.”

Ryan Tinker said Bocook has written a piece that “mirrors Larry’s personality. He is a complex person but a simple guy. There is a lot of depth to this piece. The little errors stick out the most.”

Tinker’s Charlotte Catholic ensemble will play the work in concert later this month. The Charlotte Catholic, Clover, Northwestern, Rock Hill, South Pointe, Spartanburg high school bands, as well as the University of South Carolina and Winthrop University bands are part of the consortium that commissioned the piece. The hope is that “Legacy of Honor” will become one of the standard pieces of band literature.

Which, said Eric Wells, makes the tribute even more fitting.

“ ‘Legacy of Honor’ is a perfect tribute,” Eric Wells said. “The music lives on as long as people play it.”

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Don Worthington •  803-392-4066 •  dworthington@heraldonline.com

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