When the Western Illinois University Wind Ensemble takes to the stage during the university’s 32nd annual Showcase of Bands, it will perform a piece never before played for an audience in Illinois. The symphony will take listeners through a story of love and loss, grief and healing.
The concert featuring the Illinois premiere of Maslanka Symphony Number 10 – The River of Time begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 22, at the COFAC Recital Hall on the Macomb campus.
The Story Behind the Symphony
Mike Fansler, Director of Bands for the WIU School of Music, said the story begins in 2016 when Western and several other schools commissioned David Maslanka to write the symphony. Fansler said Maslanka was deliberate in composing pieces.
“He was a very introspective and contemplative composer. And he would take time to write. And he would go into deep meditation to seek musical ideas or thoughts or direction for his works,” said Fansler.
Fansler said Maslanka completed sketches for several movements. Then, in early 2017, his wife Alison became terminally ill, which altered Maslanka’s approach to the composition. The first movement became a love song for his dying wife.
“It’s just a beautiful, skippingly happy melody,” said Fansler, adding Maslanka chose to celebrate her life rather than mourn their loss. “And that’s the way he went with that even though the weight and magnitude of this death was happening in his life.”
Tragedy struck again as Maslanka continued working on the symphony. He was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Knowing his time might be limited, he turned to his son Matthew – who plays the euphonium and is also a composer -- to help him finish the symphony.
Matthew Maslanka said his mother died in early July of 2017. His father’s health took a quick turn for the worse and he passed away about a month later.
Though filled with grief, Matthew knew he had to keep working to complete his father’s final symphony.
“This piece needed to happen now,” he said.
“And if I waited now, I would wait forever. If I put it aside, it was going to be a weight around my soul for the rest of my life.”
So Matthew canceled everything else in his life and poured his heart and soul into finishing the symphony.
The third movement reflects Matthew’s grief as the music becomes more and more distressed. “This is a heartfelt and anguished cry for much of this music,” he said. “The euphonium shrieks out into the darkness at the end of the movement as the world kind of uncaringly rolls along behind it.”
He called the fourth movement “A balm on that open wound from third movement,” reflecting his healing process. The fourth movement includes chorales written by his father. They bring the symphony to a peaceful and quiet conclusion.
Working with Students
Matthew Maslanka spent several days at WIU working with the musicians prior to the Wind Ensemble’s performance.
“One of the really interesting things about working with students is seeing them come alive in the music. Seeing them grasp the intent, realize where they need to be as a player, and then achieve that,” he said. “I am excited every time I get to work with students.”
One of the students he worked with is Michael Rockstroh of Davenport (IA). Like Matthew Maslanka, Rockstroh is a euphonium player, and he received a private lesson from Maslanka.
“I’m very excited to work with someone who creates music that’s so close to me and evokes so many emotions,” Rockstroh said a couple days before the lesson. “In my lesson I’m excited to work over the solos in the piece and figure out exactly what he meant when he wrote them.”
Rockstroh said he’s enjoyed playing those solos, and added it’s refreshing to perform new music.
“It’s really cool to be part of a school that supports new music, especially music as revolutionary as David’s,” he said.
Camber Flick, an oboe player from Mendon (IL), has also enjoyed learning the new composition.
“I like the depth that goes behind every single line, every single measure that he writes. It’s very well-orchestrated for this ensemble,” Flick said.
Flick said she looked forward to meeting Matthew because she got to perform another of his father’s compositions, A Child’s Garden of Dreams, last year.
Tammie Walker, Chair of the WIU School of Music, credited Fansler with making it possible for Western to be involved in the Maslanka project.
“These sorts of opportunities don’t come up very often and they certainly don’t just show up at the doorstep of people that haven’t gone out to seek them,” Walker said.
She said later this year the School of Music will bring in the top two wind ensemble recording engineers in the U.S. to do a professional recording of the symphony. She said it has been 40 years since the WIU Wind Ensemble has done a professional recording.
“It’s the right time. It’s the right ensemble. It’s the right people,” she said. “This is a legacy that’s going to live on for generations.