3 Hot GCU Bands Equal One Swinging Year-End Music Concert
Review by Doug Carroll
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The Music Department’s annual Awards and Commencement Concert usually ties a nice bow on a year of fine choral performances, presenting a package of live highlights to an appreciative audience.
On Wednesday night, however, it was much more than that. The first half of the 2½-hour concert functioned as a coming-out party for the Grand Canyon University instrumental music program, as three bands under the spirited direction of Paul Koch raised the department’s cool factor by several degrees.
After a short, relatively mellow set by a seven-piece jazz combo, the brand-new, 17-piece Thunder Big Band skillfully ripped through five numbers with in-your-face horns and crisp percussion that made the large crowd at First Southern Baptist Church sit up straight and pay rapt attention, aware that it was witnessing something special.
A swinging version of Howard Rowe’s “Jump Start” featured solid solos by Kelsey McKee (piano), Josh Salgado (trumpet) and Drew Murphy (guitar). The funky “Fatback and Greens” and the romantic “I Should Have Known” showed off the fine trombone playing of Jonathan Burgos and Travis Larson. And the Rich Woolworth piece “Don’t Get Excited,” with its up-tempo groove and tasty sax solos by Tony Julian and Oswaldo Ponce de Leon, surely satisfied any Lindy Hoppers in the crowd.
Right down to its all-black attire and its smart, purple-and-white music stands, the Thunder Big Band looked sharp and sounded tight, leaving the audience wanting more.
Then the 55-piece Symphonic Band — basically the Thundering Heard pep band in dressier clothes — took over for four songs that concluded with Robert W. Smith’s “Africa,” a majestic, rhythmic piece made poignant by startling statistics and heart-rending images displayed on video screens on either side of the stage. The effect was powerful, the appeal to support vital missions work unapologetic, and the band received a well-deserved standing ovation at the song’s conclusion.
That left a 10-minute intermission to ponder the biggest questions of the evening: How did Koch pull this off? And how long will it take for the University to build a performing-arts center to adequately house all of the talent now streaming into the theatre, music, dance and film programs in the College of Fine Arts and Production?
The facilities issue can be addressed another day, but what Koch has accomplished with the instrumental music program in only a year at GCU is utterly astonishing. His pep band, started from scratch, kept the Arena rocking throughout the last basketball season. Incredibly, he has had fewer than two dozen music majors to work with, and we can only imagine how good things will be in 2013-14, when he’ll have at least twice as many.
It’s obvious that the students enjoy playing for him. His expectations are high, but he makes it fun. And it doesn’t hurt that he has the hipster look of longtime David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer. With this kind of vibe already, we can’t wait to hear what’s next from GCU’s bands.
The New Life Singers and Canyon Chorale, which split the second half of the concert, had the unenviable task of following the bands. Under the direction of Gabe Salazar and Dr. Juan Hernandez, respectively, they acquitted themselves admirably. Highlights included soprano solos by junior sensation Chelsey Minkler and senior Laura McQuaig and a beautifully rendered medley from the musical “Les Misérables,” which brought the concert to a stirring conclusion.
As for the awards — almost an afterthought amid the night’s terrific performances — they went to Salazar (Music Faculty Member of the Year), Sam Brunner (Musician of the Year, Non-Music Major, his second such award in three years) and Stephanie Kay (Musician of the Year, Music Major).
Hernandez, who is COFAP’s assistant dean, also received an award from the college for his contributions this year, presented lovingly by Dr. Sheila Corley. His ability to coax outstanding performances from GCU’s choirs while introducing ever-more-challenging material to them has been remarkable.
Although Christian singer-songwriter Chris Tomlin played to a capacity crowd next door at the Arena on Wednesday night, this might well have been the better concert. And it definitely was the better value; it was free.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or email@example.com.