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Sounds of summer music

For many of us, the sounds of summer include cicadas, waves on the beach, lawn mowers and the tinkling call of an ice cream truck—not to mention brass bands playing Sousa marches and other standards in park gazebos. For the latter, Harvard is no exception.

Now in its 41st season, the Harvard Summer Pops Band is conducted by Mark Olson, Harvard’s Interim Director of Bands—which includes ensembles that perform at athletic events and ceremonial occasions, in addition to the Harvard University Wind Ensemble and the Harvard Jazz Bands (the latter founded by Tom Everett, who retired earlier this year, and now guest conducted by saxophonist/composer Don Braden ’85). We asked Mark about the upcoming Pops Band concerts and the distinctly American tradition of outdoor summertime musical performances.

Interim Director of Harvard Bands Mark Olson (photo by Jeffry Pike, Harvard Division of Continuing Education, © 2005 President and Fellows of Harvard University)

Do you have any fond or especially memorable experiences of attending outdoor summer concerts when you were a kid?

I grew up in a small town in North Dakota and don’t remember attending many summer concerts but played in lots of them. A retired director in town would put together a band in the summer to play a couple of concerts and always made sure I played. It was always a good deal of fun and a challenge to learn the music and play at a high level with only a few rehearsals.

Tell us about the theme of this year’s Harvard concert, “A Little Song, A Little Dance.” What’s the repertory?

I think of music being either a song or a dance so this concert will have a little of both. This includes dances such as Leroy Anderson‘s “Belle of the Ball” (waltz), Bedrich Smetena‘s “Polka” from “The Bartered Bride” (polka), Leonard Bernstein‘s “Danzon” (danzon), and other works by Frank Ticheli, “Sun Dance,” and Norman Dello Joio, “Satiric Dances.” The song side of the program includes Percy Grainger‘s “Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon,” Leroy Anderson’s “Trumpeter’s Lullaby” and selections from the musical Les Misérables.

How large is the band this year, and what’s the age range of the players?

We have around 140 members in the band this year. The ages range from students who are in junior high to seniors over 70 years of age.

In addition to conducting the concerts, will you be playing your trumpet?

My role this year is conducting, which is plenty to do. However, Joe Foley, a fabulous trumpet soloist in the Boston area, will be our guest soloist performing Rafael Mendez‘s trumpet solo “La Virgen de la Macarena” and, of course, Anderson’s “Trumpeter’s Lullaby.”

What’s the most challenging aspect of leading a band with players of such varying experience and skill levels? What’s the most rewarding aspect?

The greatest challenge for me is finding good quality repertoire that challenges the best players but allows the less experienced players to participate and contribute to the whole ensemble. It is also a challenge to trust the players to work out any note and rhythmic details and keep the rehearsals focused on the larger musical concepts and ideas. The most rewarding aspect is hearing members tell me they feel they have learned and grown musically over the series of rehearsals and that they had a wonderful time playing the music.

The Harvard Summer Pops Band performs on Thursday, July 25 at 4 pm in Harvard Yard and will repeat the concert on Sunday, July 28 at 3 pm at the Hatch Shell on Boston’s Esplanade. Admission is free for both performances.

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