Magic in May
Each spring the sun peaks out, flowers bloom & hordes of high school musicians raise the roof of the Pacific Athletic Center.
By Wanda Laukkanen
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Magic. Sixty years of magic — that’s been the aim of the annual Music in May festival held at Pacific University since 1948.
This year’s 60th gathering, to be held May 22 through May 24, features some 450 teenage musicians from high schools throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho. One of the longest running high school music festivals in the United States, the event features a 300-member choir, 170 band musicians and 80 orchestra members.
Virginia Allen of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Julliard School in New York will conduct this year’s orchestra. The choir conductor is Craig Jessop of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Anthony Maiello, director of instrumental studies at George Mason University in Virginia, will be directing the band.
“We wanted to make this year really, really special,” said Michael Burch-Pesses, Professor of music and director of bands at Pacific, a 13-year veteran of the festival.
Students apply in February to the program, which is held the weekend after spring commencement. Once accepted, they are sent the music to practice at home. When they arrive on campus, they have only three days from the time they check in to rehearsals, noted Burch-Pesses.
The first festival was broadcast on the radio to the Pacific Northwest and California. Close to 200 musicians from 32 high schools in the Northwest participated, according to an article in the May 13, 1948 Washington County News-Times.
Participating in that first show was trumpet player Willard “Wid” Bleything ’51, O.D. ’52, then a student at the University. Bleything went on to serve as the dean of the College of Optometry at Pacific for many years. The show took place in Warner Hall, he recalled, with the orchestra located on the main floor and risers on the sides for the band. Microphones for the broadcast were everywhere, he said, and the score was in manuscript form, very difficult to read. “We were sight reading like mad,” said Bleything, “it was scary.”
Richard Greenfield, a professor in the Pacific’s music department, conceived the idea for the high school extravaganza. Greenfield shared the podium for the first concert with Pacific band director Leslie Carson as well as Hollywood conductor and Capitol Records artist Frank DeVol, the musical director for NBC station KHJ in Los Angeles.
Since then, the festival has featured noted conductors from around the United States, many affiliated with famous orchestras, bands and choirs.
“We try to get the very best conductors we can,” said Burch-Pesses, who noted that the ability to work with teenagers is a big component in the selection process. “The rehearsals are very, very intense. We try to find conductors who know how to run a rehearsal without running it into the ground.”
Scott Tuomi, head of the department of music and director of choral activities at Pacific, remembers that intensity. As a student at Rex Putnam High School in Milwaukie, Ore., in the late 1970s, he participated as a choir member in the event for two years. “I remember getting very little sleep, but it was a wonderful experience. I was working with other motivated students . . . and I made friends with people I’m still friends with,” he said.
“I had a really good time,” remembered another participant from the 1970s, Carole Kelley of Rainer, Ore. “It was lot of fun . . . You meet a lot of people from your own age group. I loved it.”
Students participating in Music in May arrive on campus on a Thursday afternoon. Some 20 Pacific University students greet them and serve as their mentors, spending all the days with the students and staffing the residence halls at night.
All day Friday is spent in separate rehearsals across campus, with the three ensembles coming together for only one dress rehearsal.
Saturday in the PAC is the grand finale, with hundreds of parents and other fans attending. Although the groups always present a wonderful concert, there have been moments when outside forces have added some extra excitement to the performances, said Burch-Pesses.
One year, in the middle of the band performance, fire alarms began blaring. “The band, to its credit, kept on playing,” he said. Burch-Pesses strode out of the performance hall to look for any signs of disaster, but found nothing unusual.
He got the sirens to turn off and Burch-Pesses asked the director to replay the piece that had just been interrupted. “They received even louder applause the second time,” he said with a laugh.
While Pacific’s music department is ultimately responsible for the event, the “mother” of Music in May is Santha Zaik, supervisor of the library’s music collection. A 17-year-veteran of the program, Zaik starts planning in September, keeping track of all that happens from the first day of planning to last day of cleaning up. While Burch-Pesses and others sing Zaik’s organizational skills, she is much more modest. “None of this happens with one person,” she said, “It’s a team.”
Zaik also arranges for the incoming high school students to sign up for private lessons with University adjunct and outside professionals, something that many of the youth who come from rural areas appreciate since they aren’t able to get that kind of instruction in their own hometowns.
“The first rehearsal is always a train wreck,” Burch-Pesses said. Many of the students come from small schools and often are the very best musicians in their school. However, once they get to Pacific they find themselves in much larger ensembles than they are used to. “They are actually seated next to people who are as good as they are . . . who’ve never seen each other and never played together.” Somehow, though, “magic happens in three days.”
Wanda Laukkanen is a Pacific library staff member and writer for Marketing & Communications.