While many of their peers from around the world communicated in various languages, members of the University of Maine’s percussion ensemble relied on the vernacular of music.
“All the others were able to speak three languages, while we spoke one,” remarked Christopher Fletcher, one of seven Maine musicians awed by 2 1/2 weeks spent in July at the European Summer Music Academy in France.
“Musically, culturally, and socially, the tour was an enriching event,” said Dr. Stuart Marrs, an assistant professor of music and director of the percussion ensemble at UM.
“It’s not just touring and seeing France,” said Marrs, who organized the trip, “but working and living in the environment adds to the cultural understanding that you just can’t get from being a tourist.”
Each summer, the academy brings professional players from all over the world to perform as the principal musicians heading up orchestral sections filled with talented student musicians. This assembly of teachers and students, which changes every year, forms the Orchestre Philharmonique Rhodanien. As part of the orchestra this year, the percussion ensemble led by Marrs crammed six to eight hours of rehearsals into each day and performed nine concerts in southeastern France over a 2 1/2-week period.
The percussion ensemble performed some concerts alone and others with the entire 80-piece orchestra. On three occasions, the ensemble and orchestra were also joined by a 200-voice choir.
“The ensemble performed to large and enthusiastic audiences throughout the tour,” said Marrs. “One of the towns had a population of about 3,000 and the audience [over two nights] was about 3,000. This is a very cultured area of the world.”
Having worked for a symphony orchestra in Costa Rica before accepting a position at UM 12 years ago, Marrs has always relished such international experiences. In the process, he’s learned to speak French and Spanish fluently and has dabbled in Russian, Polish and German. It was his friendship with the Swiss conductor in Costa Rica that eventually led to his working with the music academy in France over the last 10 summers.
Shortly after joining the academy as its music director, the friend contacted Marrs about heading up the percussion section. Since 1987, Marrs has traveled to France either alone or with interested student musicians from the university. This year’s group was the largest Marrs has taken with him. Among the group were four UM students and two other musicians from the area who regularly play with the university percussion ensemble. The two were Aaron Emery, who recently graduated from Bangor High School and now attends Northeastern University in Boston, and Dexter High School band director Theodore Nokes.
The group from Maine was joined in France by two other student musicians, one each from Switzerland and Holland, to create the percussion section for this year’s music academy.
“The students have to audition for this privilege,” said Marrs. “There is a professional level quality to the music.
“This is a very coveted activity,” stressed Marrs. “Students experience performing in an orchestra and receive coaching from professionals.”
It was also reasonably priced after the UM ensemble raised funds through concerts before leaving and obtained assistance from the university and individual donors. In the end, each student had to come up with $950 to cover tuition, air fare, lodging and meals.
Christopher Andrews, who was one of two students to accompany Marrs last year, said it was great to experience the academy again.
“The music experience and orchestra were better this year,” Andrews said. “The music was intense … The concentration level was at peak at all times and it was good experience to perform under pressure.”
One of the other UM students, Christopher Fletcher, said the group would spend free time with the other musicians enjoying the wonderful French cuisine and the riverside cafes.
The French were tremendously friendly and the musicians from the other countries had “excellent English compared to our very poor French,” said Andrews.
Ensemble member Kirk Taylor said he’s written to those he met during the stay and has received replies from everyone.
“The greatest thing is the letters I’ve received from everyone,” Taylor said. “I’ve made lifetime friendships.”
Emery, the former Bangor High student, found the foreigners “really open and friendly with strangers. I learned to appreciate other cultures.”
He also learned about professionalism at the academy, he said.
“Everyone was focused in rehearsals on a level of concentration I haven’t seen in America,” Emery said. “I learned you have to respect the conductor. He’s always right even if you disagree.
Dexter band director Theodore Nokes was revitalized by the trip.
“As a band director you usually don’t have the opportunity to perform,” Nokes said. “It was a tremendous joy to play with the sole purpose of getting the next note right.”
For more information on the academy or how to audition, contact Marrs through his web page at ume.maine.edu/ percdept