Taking center stage

Jane Sylvester, a classical saxophonist, and fellow musicians in the Michigan State University Wind Symphony recently made their debut at Carnegie Hall. For Sylvester, it was the culmination of a journey that began many years before.

The Wharton Center stage was dark, except for the shadows of student musicians fidgeting in their seats, waiting anxiously for Michigan State University’s spring 2010 Wind Symphony concert to begin. And then suddenly, trumpets broke the silence, and “Circus Maximus”—Symphony No. 3 for Large Wind Ensemble—was in full swing.

The 35-minute band symphony was written by American contemporary composer John Corigliano, who sat in the audience that evening, taking it all in. The Emmy- and Grammy-award winner was impressed with what he heard. The MSU Wind Symphony, a group of 60 student musicians, seemed to have captured the contemporary feel of the first piece he’d written for concert band, specifically for performance at Carnegie Hall.

Kevin Sedatole, who was directing the ensemble, had similar thoughts that evening and even allowed himself to dream a bit. What better way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Circus Maximus” than to play it in Carnegie Hall, and who better to play it than his students?

“Some of the greatest things that have happened musically in America have happened at Carnegie Hall,” says Sedatole, director of bands in the College of Music. “For a college musician to be able to play on the stage where such historical music happenings have taken place and iconic figures in the music industry have performed is really one of those lifetime experiences.”

Eventually it was agreed that the MSU Wind Symphony would perform “Circus Maximus” in Carnegie Hall on the 10th anniversary of Corigliano’s symphony, and so, when the 2013-14 academic year began, the Wind Symphony was hard at work preparing for its Carnegie Hall debut.

But for senior Jane Sylvester, a classical saxophonist, and her fellow Wind Symphony musicians, the preparation began years ago.

Empowered
by music

The youngest of three children from Berlin, Connecticut, Sylvester was musically inclined, something that ran in her family.

She was 8 years old when she first picked up a saxophone, attracted to its bronze, curvy exterior. Smooth and shiny, it seemed to beckon her little fingers to push its buttons. “I sounded like a dead goose,” Sylvester says. “I would honk and honk and I would get frustrated and probably yell.”

But after about six months, things started to click. Soon, Sylvester was mesmerized by the sax’s dark and mellow tone. Much like her singing voice, her classical sax had a sense of realness and intimacy.

It was empowering. And Sylvester was hooked.

Her first public performance was at a school talent show, and from there, Sylvester joined a regional honors band and all-state band in fifth grade. Between fifth and sixth grade, her talent blossomed because, quite frankly, she wanted to be the best.

“For any kid at that age, I think it’s important to find a sense of purpose,” Sylvester says. “And I had found mine. I think it helped my self-esteem and gave me something to look forward to, something that was my own.”

Sylvester, who learned from her older siblings how to balance optimism and persistence, thinks it’s important for aspiring musicians to have a strong work ethic. The rule in the Sylvester house was if you played an instrument, you practiced. So Sylvester took two to three lessons a week. She played as the sun came up before school. And she slept in the car on the way to and from her lessons.

Finding
a Voice

In sixth grade, Sylvester played a small Bach piece at a concert, and afterward, her kindergarten teacher approached her, teary eyed and proud. It was then that Sylvester first realized her incredible gift for connecting with people through the universal language of music, something that helped her in high school, where, she says, she had a hard time fitting in.

During Sylvester’s junior year in high school, a teacher told her about a college in the Midwest, 900 miles away, that would be the perfect fit for an aspiring and motivated musician.

Sylvester spent nearly every weekend in December and January visiting colleges, and one of her last stops was that Midwestern school: Michigan State. When she arrived, it was cold and raining. But it was warm and welcoming inside the College of Music. There, she had her first lesson with Joe Lulloff, professor of saxophone and chairperson of woodwinds, and felt an immediate emotional connection.

She knew it was the right fit, but attending MSU would be expensive, and she’d rarely see her family. On the other hand, Sylvester would learn from legends like Lulloff and be inspired by friends who were committed to their craft.

Months later, filling in for a production of “Annie” at her hometown middle school, Sylvester says she heard a voice that told her, “Go. Just go.”

Michigan State was at first a tough transition for the 18 year old from a small rural town. Living with other students her age wasn’t easy for her, and she missed her family and home-cooked meals. Was it worth it?

Absolutely.

“Music has helped me find my place at a big university,” Sylvester says. “The College of Music is a small part of big MSU. And it helps you to find your own voice. That doesn’t come from one professor individually. When the professors push your buttons and help you grow, that doesn’t just help in your academic year, but also it helps you question yourself and discover your strength and weaknesses. It’s very humbling.”

The hardest moment of her musical career was auditioning for the MSU Wind Symphony this fall, she says. Only 60 musicians would make the cut, and they were the best of the best.

Sylvester recalls that she couldn’t settle her nerves after the audition. Finally, she got the news that she’d be joining the prestigious Wind Symphony. And there was more news. Something exciting was in the works. She and her fellow musicians would be performing at Carnegie Hall, the crème de la crème for musicians.

The road to Carnegie Hall

After a semester of practicing and building synergy, the group was ready to make its Carnegie Hall debut on February 22. It would play three pieces: “Traveler” by David Maslanka, “Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan” by John Corigliano and Corigliano’s “Circus Maximus.”

On a dark winter morning, two buses packed with sleepy-eyed Spartan musicians began the journey from East Lansing to New York City. As they slept, played cards, listened to music and chatted about one of America’s greatest landmarks, nerves were starting to set in for Sylvester. She remembered joking with people back home that one day she’d get them tickets to her first performance at Carnegie Hall. And now, it was becoming reality.

Sylvester and her best friends, as she calls her fellow musicians, arrived in New York City late on February 20. Growing up in Connecticut, Sylvester had visited the city before, but for some of her friends this was a first.

As the buses navigated the city’s chaotic streets, Sylvester and her friends stared out the windows, admiring the flashing lights of Times Square, the honking taxis and the night owls. And there, in the middle of the bustle, stood Carnegie Hall.

The brainchild of wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie, Carnegie Hall first opened its doors to musicians in 1891. Since then, its intricate Italian Renaissance design has drawn musicians and audiences from around the world.

“When you focus on something big like this, it creates a certain energy,” Sedatole said the day of the concert. “And that’s worth it all. It bonds a group together. It raises the standard of an ensemble. We’ll be different after we perform in Carnegie Hall.”

The big day

Sylvester has always been a morning person, so she was out the door early to have breakfast with her family, who made the 90-minute drive to New York City for the concert. It had been a couple months since she’d seen her parents, sister and brother.

“It’s interesting that the culmination of my performance career at MSU has brought me back closer to home,” Sylvester says. “It’s exciting today, and I think once we get in there, it’ll hit. I hope we have some moments to take it all in. The combination of making music at an emotional level and having my family and my MSU family so involved and so supportive of me, it’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

And, as the group arrived at the famed performance venue for rehearsal, there was much to take in. The performance hall at Carnegie was huge, unlike any other the group had seen.

In a word, it was sublime, Sylvester says. And it felt almost surreal to be standing on the very stage where musical magic had occurred for more than a century.

As she looked out into the crowd during rehearsal, Sylvester realized how lucky she was. How grateful she was that her dedicated professors in the College of Music inspired her to follow her dreams.

Later that evening, Corigliano once again sat in the audience listening to the MSU Wind Symphony play his masterpiece—only this time at Carnegie Hall. The unforgettable performance brought Lulloff to tears, as he proudly reflected on the success of his students, especially that once-homesick young woman, Jane Sylvester. And when the audience rose to give a standing ovation, conductor Sedatole put his hand over his heart, thanked his students and took a proud but gentle bow.

“I don’t even have words, really,” Sedatole said after the performance. “It was incredible. I’m so happy for the students. That’s what it was all about, their experience. This is something they’ll never forget, not just because it was in Carnegie Hall, but also because of the way they performed. We were hearing things tonight that I’ve never heard before because they were so inspired. As a teacher, it doesn’t get any better.”

Getting to Carnegie Hall: an ensemble effort

In the afterglow of the Wind Symphony’s performance at Carnegie Hall, the student musicians and their conductor, Kevin Sedatole, celebrated with one of their biggest fans and supporters, Howard Gourwitz.

Gourwitz, a donor to the College of Music and a member of the college’s National Leadership Council, helped sponsor the Carnegie trip with a gift that offset travel and performance costs. And he saw that this experience had changed the students.

“I know firsthand that the power of music can make a tremendous difference in a young person’s life, so I’m thrilled to support the College of Music and its students,” Gourwitz says. “This is an outstanding night for MSU and a particularly outstanding night for the College of Music. As these students go on to become teachers and performers, they’ll always have this experience, and it will be one they’ll never forget.”

A successful attorney, Gourwitz is a major donor to MSU and is recognized in the Abbot Society. His donations have benefitted the Wind Symphony, the Spartan Marching Band, the Jazz Studies Program and the Community Music School-Detroit. Other key sponsors of the trip who were recognized at the presenting-sponsors level were William David Brohn, Byron and Dolores Cook, Jeffrey and Ann Feld, Gordon Guyer and Mary Gettel Guyer, Merritt and Candy Lutz, James and Nancy Osborn and Roy and Lou Anna Simon. And more than 60 additional donors provided support at the concert-sponsor level.

“Without the support of our alumni and patrons of the college, this trip simply would not have been possible,” says Jim Forger, dean of the College of Music. “Any time you play for a full house in Carnegie Hall, get a standing ovation with one of America’s leading composers and many people from the New York music scene are present, it raises the bar.”

The trip, months in the making, was a team effort, Gourwitz says.

“Kevin is like a great coach,” he says. “He knows when to push and when to back off. And Jim Forger is a terrific, vibrant, vivacious leader.”

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