After 25 years as conductor (and co-founder) of the Fresno Community Concert Band, Robert Nielsen is stepping down from the podium. He’s going out in style. “Bob’s Big Bash” — in the form of two concerts on Sunday, May 27 — promises to be a vibrant and poignant experience. There’s even a world premiere by Fresno City College’s Mike Dana (who, coincidentally, just retired). And just to give things a family spin, Irene Klug Nielsen, an accomplished flutist, will be featured soloist under her husband’s baton.
Bob Nielsen took time to ruminate on the past 25 years and expound on the virtues of music made for the sheer love of it.
Q: Set the scene for us. It’s your very first rehearsal as conductor of the Fresno Community Concert Band. What year was it? Did they have electricity back then? (Just kidding.) Give us a sense of the time and place.
A: The first concert was February 1994. We announced that we were “forming an adult concert band” through letters, posters and flyers, hoping to get 10 or 12 musicians to show up. Thirty-five did. The poster said, “The Fresno Community Concert Band is looking for you!” The mailers also said, “Come join conductors Larry Huck and Robert Nielsen for a relaxing and positive musical environment and social experience for the non-professional and weekend musician.” Larry and I were co-conductors, so we both chose music we would like to play. Thirteen people from that first rehearsal are still in the band.
I was still playing in the Philharmonic and teaching full-time at City College, so I was happily busy and had more electricity than than I do now. The band still plays “electric” concerts.
Q: Did you and Larry model it on bands in other cities?
A: We did not model the band after any specific band — just tried to follow the great concert band tradition in America. We also tried to raise the standard each time we played a concert. We both listened to a lot to great university bands and the Marine Band and the US Air Force Band.
Members of FCCB pay a fee each semester to play in the group and help finance our activities.
We have performed at a California Music Education Association convention, the Civil War Reenactment, concerts in Merced, Kingsburg and Sanger, and the Central California Wind Festival. We have featured nationally known guest soloists, most with Fresno connections. We also offer a $1,000 scholarship to a graduating high school senior who is going into music as a career.
Q: Not that there’s anything wrong with professional musicians from other parts of the state playing with the Fresno Philharmonic, but with the FCCB it’s different, right? How does that local, tight-knit sense of community impact the performance?
A: The musicians come from all walks of life. There are of course, some current professional musicians in the group, but mostly these are people who work at something else. We have a truck driver, an oncologist, biologist, machinist, structural engineer, optometrist, artist, several nurses, several bankers, many teachers (both music and otherwise), among others. Most members have been with the band many years. There is a closeness, almost a family feeling in the group. The audience sees this attitude in the band and feels close as they watch their friends and family members perform. Since we play two concerts each time, we have a catered dinner between concerts. That also has built a real camaraderie in the group.
Q: Thinking back over all the concerts you conducted, is there one that stands out more than any other in terms of musicality, ambition or being just plain magical?
A: It’s difficult to pick out just one concert. There were moments in many of the concerts.
We played a beautiful and emotional work by Paul Murtha called “Arlington (Where Giants Lie Sleeping)” in 2017. It honored those buried there. We had video made of Arlington photos, which played while we performed the work. The band played exceptionally well. I was so proud of them. We also played a work with film called “Flanders Fields” by Dan Price. It was also on several Memorial Day concerts and was a really emotional work. Both will be available on video. (We can’t sell them because of the copyrights.)
Working with guest artists who are university professors was exciting, and when Mike Murphy of Murphy Bank retired, I wrote a march for him and his wife. They seemed quite pleased.
Q: If I took a poll of the band, what do you think players would pick as the section that you, ahem, get most exasperated with over the years?
A: There’s an obvious answer to that but I don’t want it public. I’m sure they know who they are.
Q: What are three words (and only three!) you’d use to describe yourself?
A: Educator, musician, husband. Not specifically in that order.
Q: What are three words (and only three!) that you think other people would use to describe yourself?
A: Teacher, reliable, introvert.
Q: Tell us about your “Birthday Bash” concert. How did you select your final program? Do you think you’ll get a new Tesla or a trip to Tahiti out of it at the end?
A: The music on “Bob’s Big Bash” features some of my favorites, some that have been important to the band and some involving good friends and my wife.
“Overture for Winds” was on the first concert this band played, so we wanted to play it again.
“Universal Judgment” is just a huge war-horse piece (fun to play) – not easy, but we like playing it. The band also commissioned Mike Dana to write a brand new piece to play on this concert. Joe Lizama wrote a piece last year for the annual band appreciation brunch. We liked it so much, I asked him to perform it again on this concert. It’s an unusual work.
And, of course, our featured soloist is my favorite flutist, Irene Klug Nielsen.
While there are rumblings of a gift, I don’t think it will involve a Tesla nor a trip to Tahiti.
Q: I’m a big fan of participatory arts. Professional theater and music is wonderful, but there’s something special about when amateurs (and retired professionals) do something because they love it. What are your thoughts?
A: I think you pretty well described it. The members (and conductors) are there because they love making music. They love the challenge, they value the break from their everyday life, they enjoy the musical challenge. There’s no union, no salary negotiations, just friends getting together to do something that gives them a lot of pleasure and satisfaction.
Q: What is one thing you want to say to all your players over the years?
A: Any celebration should be mostly about the accomplishments of the band (not me), how far we have come since that first concert. I want to thank each and every player for the opportunity and pleasure of leading them for the past 25 years.
‘Bob’s Big Bash,’ Fresno Community Concert Band, 3 and 7 p.m., Shaghoian Concert Hall, 2770 E. International Ave. (on the Clovis North High School campus), Fresno. Tickets are $12.
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