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CLASSICAL MUSIC

Beyond the brass bands

Among the U.S. military's scores of musical ensembles are top string players who can spend their entire careers based in the nation's capital.

October 23, 2005|Constance Meyer | Special to The Times

IN October 1944, Stuart Canin was an 18-year-old violinist bound for Juilliard. Then he was drafted. His basic training was even cut short by four weeks, so that he and other new recruits could get to Europe as quickly as possible.

"I carried my rifle and a fiddle," recalls Canin, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Opera. "I still remember the guy watching me walk across the gangplank who asked, 'What are you going to do with that?' I said, 'You never know.' "

True enough. By July 1945, two months after V-E Day, Canin found himself a member of the 6817th Soldiers Show Company, touring hospitals on the Continent with the likes of Mickey Rooney, Joshua Logan, pianist Eugene List "and a whole bunch of fiddle players."

Soon after, Canin and List "were informed that President Truman was coming to Europe for a conference, so we were pulled from the company and flown to Berlin and driven to a suburb in order to provide some of the entertainment for a dinner Truman was giving."

Canin and List watched as "one big black limousine after another rolled up. We recognized Truman, Marshal Stalin wearing his khaki uniform with the shoulder board, and Churchill smoking a cigar, Adm. Leahy, Gen. Marshall, Secretary of State Byrnes, Molotov -- the whole cast of characters on the front page of the New York Times if you read it for a week."

Canin still has the V-Mail he sent his parents the next day from the site: Potsdam.

Afterward, the Army "sent Gene and myself to Army camps to see if we could cull bassoon players, oboe players, instrumentalists still in Europe who had played professionally. In September, our whole unit was transferred to Frankfurt, Germany. By that time, they had enough players to make up the first symphony organized for the Army, which they called the GI Symphony. It was later superseded by the 7th Army Symphony. We gave concerts for GIs, British, Russian and French troops, traveling in ambulances, about eight to an ambulance -- which were damn cold in the winter."

As the occupation of Iraq wears on, prompting criticism of its human and financial costs, there's one item in the Pentagon budget that is rarely remarked upon: musicians in uniform. Although people hear brass bands marching up and down parade grounds, comparatively few members of the public have an opportunity to hear military string players -- top-notch, conservatory-trained musicians who can spend their entire military careers based in the nation's capital.

And like Canin, who cofounded the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra and is a former concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, many from these ranks also go on to fruitful civilian careers.

The U.S. military has more than 150 service bands all over the world -- 8,000 to 10,000 musicians total, if all slots were filled. There are even bands in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each service -- Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard, which is part of Homeland Security -- has its own bands and music budgets. In 2006, for example, the Navy alone will spend more than $2 million on its Washington band and 12 fleet bands, the Defense Department says.

Many military musicians have a secondary duty and are trained should they need to fight. But there are also five first-rank "premier" service bands based in the Washington, D.C., area: the Navy Band, the Army Field Band and three bands that include strings -- the Army's "Pershing's Own," the Marines' "The President's Own" and the Air Force Band. (After a 1960 plane crash over Rio de Janeiro took the lives of 18 Navy string players, the Navy Band never rebuilt its string section.) The string sections each perform alone -- typically show music and light classics -- but players also mingle with other musicians to form symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles and smaller groups.

All three string sections play at the White House and State Department, but members of "The President's Own" don't go through boot camp, says Gunnery Sgt. Kristin Mergen, its public affairs chief, "because we have one mission only: to perform for the president of the United States."

According to Lt. Cmdr. Lisa Brackenbury at the Pentagon Navy news desk, " 'The President's Own' was founded on July 11, 1798, and is considered the oldest musical organization in America."

An alternative to student deferment

IN 1965, as the Vietnam War was intensifying, Alan de Veritch, a viola protege of William Primrose at Indiana University, was already concertizing. As a result, he says, "I was not able to maintain the minimum number of required courses to be classified as a full-time student. It was just a matter of time before I was going to lose my student deferment."

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