Tribute to the maestro

Alumni to perform music in honor of Paul Bryan
Apr. 17, 2013 @ 11:25 PM

From 1951 to 1988, Paul Bryan was a professor of music at Duke University and conductor of the school’s Wind Symphony. During his time at Duke, he commissioned new compositions for the symphony, wrote original pieces and transcribed music for the group.

But for Bryan, the experiences with his students are what he remembers the most from a lifetime of teaching and playing music.

“The students are what make the whole thing exciting,” Bryan said in an interview. “In retrospect, I’ve been involved in a lot of things, but the bottom line is the students.” 

More than 60 of Bryan’s former students will be dusting off their horns and rehearsing this afternoon for a tribute concert to Maestro Bryan. They will perform on stage with current members of the symphony, directed by Verena Mosenbichler-Bryant.  

Two of those students, James Brooks, who graduated in 1967, and Janet Yarbrough, who graduated in 1978, remembered Bryan’s qualities as a teacher and musician. “He is a very smart man, but he is so humble,” Yarbrough said. “I don’t think he gets the recognition he should. … He’s quiet, soft-spoken. I don’t ever recall him raising his voice.”

Yarbrough, who has taught music and played professionally, originally wanted to study piano, but had played some tuba and wanted to be in the Wind Symphony. She joined, and the tuba became her principal instrument. Bryan was her conductor, tuba teacher and music history teacher.

Brooks, who plays clarinet, set up a music-department endowment in Bryan’s honor. (At today’s concert, an announcement will be made that the endowment is open for more contributions.) When he set up the endowment, Brooks asked himself, “what meant the most to me at Duke? I said, Paul Bryan was ‘my Duke.’ It’s almost impossible to describe what a special human being that man is, and not just from a musical standpoint,” he said.

As a director, Bryan encouraged the wind symphony students to think as a group, Brooks said. “When you play in an orchestra or wind symphony, you learn a lot about team work. An orchestra is nothing if it’s just a collection of musicians. … He had that ability to teach us how to listen across [the sections], and how to blend in,” he said.

Bryan, now 93, will conduct several pieces today, among them portions of Symphony No. 3 by composer Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966). That composition was the first one  Bryan commissioned for the Duke ensemble. He first met Giannini while stationed in New Jersey in the Army during World War II, Bryan said. He studied composition and counterpoint with Giannini. “When the war was over, I got this job at Duke, and at the end of the semester I found out I had $500 left in my budget,” Bryan said.

He asked Giannini if he had ever written for a wind ensemble, and asked if he would compose a piece for $500. Bryan recalled that Giannini told him, “I’m going to Italy tomorrow. By the time I come back, I’ll have something.”  He returned with Symphony No. 3.

Later, he commissioned “Variants on a Mediaeval Tune,” by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), which will be performed today. Bryan will also conduct his 1980 composition “Cornfed,” a piece inspired by Civil War songs “that I really enjoyed,” and that he came across while learning about North Carolina’s Civil War history.

The repertoire for wind symphonies at one time was limited largely to transcriptions of orchestral works, but with more composers writing for the medium “there’s so much good repertoire that’s coming out daily,” said Mosenbichler-Bryant. Asked if his commissions were part of that change, Bryan said, “I think so. I take a certain amount of pride in it.”

After World War II, “We had these jobs, and we had these students who were bright and interested in more than the usual marches” and traditional repertoire, he said. At the time of his first commission, “all of the people in the field knew what we needed was high quality compositions” for wind groups. He compliments Mosenbichler-Bryant’s husband Steven Bryant as a great contemporary composer for wind ensembles.

Mosenbichler-Bryant said she did not know Bryan until she came to Duke, and since then “he has become a very dear friend of mine.” When she became director, Bryan, who plays both trombone and euphonium, was playing in the ensemble, and she asked him to continue. “He’s become a great supporter since I’ve been here,” she said. “It’s amazing at his age of 93 years to keep playing.”

Bryan has no plans to stop. “I love to play,” he said. “If a day goes by I don’t play, I don’t feel fulfilled. … If I keep playing my wind instrument, then it’s good for me.”