Frederick Fennell

Innovative conductor of wind ensembles

Decades before his death this Tuesday at the age of 90, Frederick Fennell had become an iconic figure in the symphonic wind-ensemble movement, a genial figure of near- biblical authority respected and loved not only in his native United States but the world around.

Frederick Fennell, conductor and teacher: born Cleveland, Ohio 2 July 1914; three times married (one daughter); died Siesta Key, Florida 7 December 2004.

Decades before his death this Tuesday at the age of 90, Frederick Fennell had become an iconic figure in the symphonic wind-ensemble movement, a genial figure of near- biblical authority respected and loved not only in his native United States but the world around.

The international wind-band community owes a good deal of its youthful vigour to his example, and his involvement with youth orchestras saw several generations of musician benefit from his experience and guidance. For his fellow conductor Jonathan Sternberg, Fennell was

an extraordinary individual and conductor whose enthusiasm for music, and particularly the wind ensemble, was overwhelming. His transcriptions of many masterworks of the symphonic repertoire made available to millions of amateur wind-players musical experiences they would otherwise be deprived of. His activity and influence will remain a lasting memory.

Fennell was conducting before he was out of his teens, spending the summer of 1931-33 at the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. He then went on to study at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, taking his Bachelor of Music degree in 1937 and his Master's in 1939.

He was to be associated with Eastman for most of his career. He joined the conducting faculty there in 1939 and regularly conducted a number of ensembles until 1965. But it was his foundation of the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952 that brought him international acclaim: his recordings with the ensemble first astonished their listeners - wind-playing of this standard was something new - and then became classics. Their recording of Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy, for example, was selected by the magazine Stereo Review as one of the "Fifty Best Recordings in the Centenary of the Phonograph, 1877-1977". Eastman paid homage with an honorary degree in 1988.

After his lengthy spell at Eastman, in 1965 Fennell took up a position as conductor-in-residence at the School of Music of the University of Florida at Coral Gables, remaining there until 1980. Four years later, at the age of 70, he was named conductor of the Kosei Wind Orchestra in Tokyo, becoming their conductor emeritus in 1989.

Fennell's recording career proceeded apace. With the Eastman Wind Ensemble he made 22 recordings for Mercury Classics, among them two albums of British Band Classics which included music by Grainger, Holst, Jacob, Vaughan Williams and Walton. He was a pioneer of new technologies, being among the first to make stereo and high-fidelity recordings, and in 1978, with the Cleveland Symphonic Winds, for Telarc, he made the first American symphonic digital recording. And with the Dallas Wind Symphony, whose principal guest conductor he remained even as a nonagenarian, he recorded using high definition compatible digital (HDCD) technology.

But Fennell's conducting appearances were not limited to wind groups. He conducted symphonic concerts, light music and opera, with orchestras as prestigious as the London Symphony, St Louis Symphony and the Boston Pops. And for over half a century he was a prominent feature of younger American musical life, conducting at summer festivals across the continent, and sometimes touring Europe at the head of the School Orchestra of America.

A grateful music community responded with a slew of honours, their sheer variety itself a tribute to the number of lives he touched: they included an honorary doctorate of music from Oklahoma City University, membership in the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, honorary-chief status in the Kiowa tribe, fellowship in the Company of Military Historians, a citation and a medal from the Congressional Committee for the Centennial of the Civil War, the Columbia University Ditson Conductor's Award, the Interlochen Medal of Honor, the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic Medal of Honor, the Star of the Order from the John Philip Sousa Memorial Foundation, the Symphonic Wind Ensemble Citation of the New England Conservatory, the Medal of the International Percy Grainger Society, the Mercury Record Corporation Gold Record, and the National Academy of Wind and Percussion Arts Oscar for outstanding service as a conductor.

In 1994 he received the Theodore Thomas Award from the Conductors' Guild in recognition of "unparalleled leadership and service to wind-band performance throughout the world" - the previous two recipients of the award having been Sir Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein. And the town of Kofu, Japan, boasts a Frederick Fennell Hall, inaugurated in 1992.

Fennell was active also as a writer, producing Time and the Winds in 1954 and The Drummer's Heritage in 1956. He penned the ongoing series "The Basic Band Repertory Study/Performance Essays". And he edited contemporary editions of classic military, circus and concert marches for a number of prominent publishers.

Although his diary was full right to the end of his life, when the end approached he was determined to return to his home in Siesta Key, Florida, to watch the sun set over the sea one last time. Having been granted a spectacular display of colour, shortly before midnight he complained to his daughter that he was "frustrated and disappointed":

When I asked him, "Why?", he replied, "There's no drummer here yet. I can't die without a drummer!" I told him that I loved him, and that "Heaven's best drummer was on the way". Moments later he said, "I hear him! I hear him! I'm OK now."

Martin Anderson

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