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For many of these players, it is rocket science : The Caltech- Occidental Concert Band abounds in enthusiastic amateurs from age 18 to 88.

November 11, 2009|Blair Tindall

Chemistry textbooks, calculators and instrument cases littered the stage at Caltech's Ramo Auditorium early one warm autumn evening. Squawks and blats from the assembled musicians filled the air, and as Bill Bing raised his baton to start the music, a stray trumpeter rushed onstage.

"Sorry I'm late," said Les Deutsch.

"If you name an asteroid after me, you can be late," said Bing.

It might seem an odd dialogue between musicians, but the Caltech-Occidental Concert Band is filled with uncommon musicians.

Like many performers, Deutsch has a day job. Far from flipping burgers, he works as chief engineer for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Interplanetary Networks Directorate, the organization providing communications, tracking and network services across the solar system.


No pink slips

Nights and weekends, however, Deutsch devotes himself to music, and one group he plays with is the Caltech-Occidental band. The band rehearses weekly, performs three times a year and is open to students, faculty, staff and alumni affiliated with Caltech, Occidental College and NASA's JPL.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, November 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Caltech-Occidental Concert Band: An article in Wednesday's Calendar about the Caltech-Occidental Concert Band misstated the last name of Michael Werner, director of the Spitzer Space Telescope, as Wernick.

Although the group holds auditions, no one gets rejected, said Bing, who directs Caltech's bands. "People contribute in more ways than just playing the right notes," Bing said. "Enthusiasm makes up for a lot."

Like many groups for amateur musicians, the band satisfies those professionals in other fields who want to keep playing their instruments, echoing the tradition of amateur music clubs worldwide. These include the doctors' orchestras found in nearly every major American city, and past and present volunteer orchestras filled with employees of General Motors, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.

Primarily, these groups unite players sharing an interest in the arts. However, the Caltech-Occidental Concert Band also provides networking opportunities for technical people as well, said Michael Wernick, a clarinetist who is JPL's chief scientist for astronomy and physics and director of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

"I've found my summer research associates in the band," said Wernick, noting that its members range in age from 18 to 88. "It's almost the only time I come in contact with young people."


Mingling members

For band members like Wernick -- still playing a 55-year-old instrument he received for his eighth-grade graduation -- making music provides respite from responsibilities of work and study. Some just enjoy picnics and other social events organized by a band council, where scientists and Occidental humanities alumni mingle with students.

"I like the way Bill and the other members treat us as adults," said Christine Loza, a Caltech doctoral student in chemical engineering who played clarinet in multiple bands during her undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. "He gives us confidence in our own abilities -- and gets to know us better than most band directors."

Although the group resembles college and community wind ensembles elsewhere, its unique lore includes "only at Caltech" stories.

For example, at one concert featuring the "Mars" movement from Gustav Holst's "The Planets," JPL had provided three-dimensional astronomical images.

Since the musicians often outnumbered the listeners, the band purchased only 50 pairs of 3-D glasses. When the audience ballooned to 250, chaos ensued until a student tapped Bing on the shoulder.

"Don't worry," said the student, "I'll be right back. I have 400 pairs under my bed in the dorm."


Halo effect

The group's fall concert includes a work composed by Les Deutsch, "Theme and Perturbations"; an arrangement of Richard Strauss' "Allerseelen" conducted by Paul Asimov, who is not only a flutist and tubist but associate professor of geology at Caltech; and "Angels in the Architecture," a work by the noted concert band composer Frank Ticheli.

Speaking from his studio in Pasadena, Ticheli described the unusual timbre of wind ensembles. Its sound is immediate and direct due to instruments like saxophones, which are rare in orchestral works, providing unusual texture and colors. In addition, said Ticheli, contemporary band pieces are played more often than orchestral works, due to a proliferation of community bands.

Ticheli previewed the venue, looking for inspiration from the structure. Inside the hall, he spied clear, doughnut-shaped lights floating over the stage. These "halos," entwining light and darkness, inspired the composer's commissioned work, "Angels in the Architecture," which premiered in 2008 with 300 masked high school musicians from Australia and the United States.

"Angels in the Architecture" features rare instruments and techniques. Flutes shriek with a blasting "jet whistle" effect, while trombonists growl using plunger-shaped mutes. Some of the eerier effects echo the shape of halos: A set of tuned wine glasses is played using circular motion, and hollow, corrugated rubber tubing are whirled overhead lasso-style, producing various overtones depending on the speed of motion.

The challenges of unusual instrumentation resonate with the band's members, according to observers. Clarinetist Patty Brugman, an Occidental College alumna who works as a secondary school substitute teacher, said, "Even if they don't have time to practice, they sure can count."



The Caltech-Occidental Concert Band

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Ramo Auditorium, Caltech campus, Pasadena

Price: Free

Contact: (626) 395-3295

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