Composer Adolphus Hailstork relishes a Veterans Day with the Fresno Philharmonic

Adolphus Hailstork is a prominent and celebrated composer. He’s also a good dealmaker. When the Fresno Philharmonic called him a while back asking if the orchestra could program Hailstork’s popular piece “An American Port of Call,” a patriotic song that has been performed by orchestras across the country, for a Veterans Day concert, the composer said sure.

Pictured above: Adolphus Hailstork wrote ‘To Those Who Serve.’ Photo: Fresno Philharmonic

But how about, he asked, if instead you consider a new piece I wrote with a similar theme?

That’s how the orchestra landed the professional and West Coast premiere of Hailstork’s “To Those Who Serve.” The seven-minute piece will be performed 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, as part of the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Schubert’s Great Symphony” concert. The concert also includes the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto (featuring Chicago Symphony guest trumpeter John Hagstrom) and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9.

Hailstork made the trip to Fresno a few days ago to talk to patrons, sit in on rehearsals and attend Sunday’s concert. This will, I am sure, make the piece all that more important to the audience. I was able to chat with him for a few minutes in the midst of his busy schedule.

But first, a news update: Yes, the Saroyan Theatre is fine after a pipe in the ceiling burst Thursday, raining water upon the audience for “Blue Man Group” 18 minutes into that evening’s performance. The event was canceled. I checked in on Friday with Stephen Wilson, executive director of the Fresno Philharmonic, to ask about Sunday’s concert. “The word that the Philharmonic has both from the Saroyan management and the city,” he told me, “is that the situation is under control and the rehearsals and the performance will go forward as scheduled.”


Umbrellas are optional.

Now, back to our composer: Hailstork is considered one of this country’s leading African-American composers and has composed major works in nearly all musical genres, from musical comedy to solo piano and choral works. wrote “To Those Who Serve” as a commission for Symphonicity, a community orchestra in Norfolk, Virginia. (He is a professor of music at Old Dominion University there.) The city is home to a huge naval base. The composer used as his inspiration the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save!”

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“For a long time, I wanted to use that hymn as a symphonic work. I built a facade that uses bits and pieces of the hymn,” he says of his compositional structure.

In a 2017 guest column for the Virginian-Pilot, Symphonicity conductor Daniel W. Boothe explained how “To Those Who Serve” salutes the nation’s armed forces:

This piece has a military sound of drumbeat cadences and a fanfare of trumpets. This signature military music sound began in the days of Turkish military bands. Even France’s King Louis XIV used music in a similar way to intimidate the enemy.

The U.S. Army in its earliest days used such instruments to signal battlefield movements, as there were no radios or satellites. But in Hailstork’s piece, I also hear the Air Force fighter jets in the swirling velocity of the strings, and I can hear the fortitude of the Marines through a relentlessness of rhythmic meter.

You may even hear the Coast Guard through a manner of steady sweeping chords that pass by at the peripheral, keeping close watch of the orchestra’s harmonic borders.

Most of all, you will hear the U.S. Navy. First it is faint, with small bits of a tune you are certain is familiar, but which is never offered so familiar that you can recall its origin.

Then, after a tense harmonic battle of pitches, Boothe writes, you hear the Navy hymn in all its glory.

Hailstork is a veteran himself, having served in the Army in Germany from 1966-68. “I know the experience,” he says. “It was a natural thing for me to salute the men and women who live in the armed forces.”

With this piece, he feels as if he has accomplished one of his goals.

“I’ve always had the dream of having a piece that would work for any American holiday. I got a little tired every time I celebrated the Fourth of July of hearing Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture.’ “

As for the Fresno Philharmonic, he is happy to turn “To Those Who Serve” over to music director and conductor Rei Hotoda’s more-than-capable hands.

“I hope it’s an uplifting piece for the audience,” he says. “It’s exhilarating and moving. It’s a piece that’s a tribute.”


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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