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Remembering Dr. Harry Begian (1921-2010)

The Midwest Clinic community was saddened by the passing of Dr. Harry Begian on July 26, 2010. Begian was an influential and beloved band director, and served on The Midwest Clinic Board of Directors from 1980-2005.  He received The Midwest Clinic’s Medal of Honor in 1989, in recognition of his unique service to music education.

Here, we remember Begian through an essay he wrote upon his retirement from The Midwest Clinic Board of Directors.  It originally appeared in the February 2006 issue o
f The Midwest Motifs.

I began my musical training in fifth grade when my band director gave me a much-used Conn cornet and told me to clean it inside and out.  I was inspired to make music my career by a Detroit Symphony’s children’s concert I attended while in junior high school.  While in high school I organized the Dearborn Boy’s Club Band, the experience that led to my decision to become a conductor.

After high school I headed to Wayne State University on a band scholarship.  I completed my bachelors’ degree and continued immediately on my masters’ studies, hoping to complete this degree before I was drafted.  Halfway through the masters program, I received a call from the supervisor of the Detroit Public Schools, offering me the band directing job at McKenzie High School.  Less than one complete school year passed before I was drafted into the United States Army.  I spent three years in the Army and then returned to Wayne State to finish my masters.

Upon my completion of this, the supervisor from Detroit Public Schools called again and offered me the position at Cass Technical High School.  The seventeen years I spent at Cass were the most rewarding part of my career.  While at Cass, I conducted the International Symphony Orchestra for two years.  This orchestra was made up of players from Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.  It would perform two weekend concerts, one night in Port Huron and the next in Sarnia.  Also while at Cass, I conducted the Michigan Opera Company.  This amateur company gave me the chance to train the orchestra and cast on operas such as La Traviata, La bohème, and Carmen.  This experience taught me how to handle large forces of instrumentalists and singers and also to conduct the accompaniment to vocalists.  During the years at Cass Tech I began receiving guest conducting offers and traveling all over the country to conduct.

I attended my first Midwest Clinic at the Sherman Hotel in 1950.  A few years later a music dealer friend of mine encouraged me to apply for the Cass Tech High School Band to perform at the 1954 Clinic.  The Cass Band was accepted by the Midwest Board upon hearing the recording that accompanied our application.

Our concert in the Sherman Hotel was one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life. It was held at 9:00 a.m. and when we started playing the ballroom was only half-filled.  By the time we ended our concert the hall was packed solid.  Our concluding number was Respighi’s “Pines of the Appian Way” from The Pines of Rome.  The audience applause started before I had given the final cut-off, so I motioned the band to stand up in acknowledgement.  By the time I turned around to face the audience, I saw that everyone was on their feet and wildly applauding the band’s performance. Our announcer, Ray Dvorak, kept calling me off stage then pushing me out to take curtain calls while applause persisted along with many calls of “encore.”  Before sending me out for my last curtain call he asked if the band could play an encore; I assured him that we could and went out on stage.  We played “Berceuse and Finale” from the Firebird Suite by Stravinsky and as far as I know, the Cass Band has been the only band asked to play an encore at The Midwest Clinic.

Sometime after our Midwest appearance, my friend and most influential mentor, Larry Teal, talked to me about my musical future and advised me that I should “move on” towards a band director position at a university.  He encouraged me to take sabbatical leave to earn a doctorate, which is “the union-card/passport to a university faculty position.”  Taking his advice and with a year’s sabbatical from the Detroit Pubic School system, I enrolled in the doctoral program in the School of Music at the University of Michigan.  In 1964, after having earned the doctorate, I was hired as Director of Bands at my Alma mater, Wayne State University.

In my third year at Wayne State, I was offered band positions at four leading universities.  I accepted verbally the University of Texas at Austin offer on the contingency that some structural changes be made.  Before the University of Texas offer was made to my satisfaction, I received a call from James Niblock, department chair of music at Michigan State University, telling me that Leonard Falcone had just announced his retirement and that he wanted to talk to me about being his successor.  I was asked to meet with him in his office.  When I reached Niblock’s office he drove me to the Office of the Provost.  After a half an hour of discussion they convinced me that since I had not signed papers with the University of Texas, I could accept their offer of Director of Bands at Michigan State University.

I was thrilled to be follow Falcone because when I was eleven years old I heard him in concert. His musicianship inspired me so much that I consider him a musical hero.  When I told Falcone of this, he replied with one of his favorite phrases: “That’s amazing.”  I described the encore Falcone played at this concert (O Solo Mio), and told him that the old Italian ladies in the audience that day had tears in their eyes from his beautiful playing.

I loved my years at Michigan State.  The faculty there was the most congenial group of people I have ever worked with, aside from The Midwest Clinic Board of Directors.  I felt that I was now where I would be for the rest of my career.  But that was not to be; after three years at Michigan State, I received an offer from the University of Illinois to assume the position of Director of Bands upon the retirement of Mark Hindsley.  I was in a quandary as to what to do because I truly loved Michigan State, my band students and my colleagues.  But finally it was the knowledge of the great concert band tradition at the University of Illinois that tugged at me to accept the Director of Bands position at that university.

Retiring in 1984, after 14 years as Director of Bands, I wanted to produce one CD from some of the finest taped/live performances of the Symphonic Band.  When I called Mark Morette, president of Mark Records, I asked him to produce and market a CD of our band and he answered “I will produce as many CD's as you wish in a series entitled ‘The Begian Years.’”  To date, we have completed 20 volumes in the series and I am stopping with that!  I chose the pieces that are included on the CD's and the order in which they are listed; the editing is done by Mark Morette and the program notes are the work of John Locke, Director of Bands at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

After retirement from the University of Illinois, the high-point of my conducting activities was when I was called to conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall in 1985.  The orchestra was on a walk-out because the management wanted to cut salaries.  Therefore, the orchestra could not perform under its regular conductor.  The members of the orchestra voted and selected me to be their guest conductor.  I had two wonderful days of rehearsal on music selected by the orchestra members, and then the concert was played to a full house.  During the first day I complimented the horn section, and they glowed like high school students.  I received six curtain calls for that performance.

I would like to express my profound gratitude to The Midwest Clinic and my friend Larry Teal for inviting the Cass Tech Band to perform at The Midwest Clinic.  These performances were the beginning of the “serious” part of my career.  I would also like to thank Larry Teal for mentoring me throughout my career.