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ABC goes live: Directors band returns to valley for concerts June 26 and July 4

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Jazz trombonist Harry Watters will light up the Ashland High School Football stadium with his pyrotechnics as headliner for the ABC "Ashland Pops" concert on the Fourth of July. Courtesy photo
Clarinetist Julian Bliss will headline the June 26 concert at the Craterian Theater. Bliss records and performs internationally, and tours with his septet playing music inspired by Benny Goodman and composer George Gershwin. Courtesy photo
Ashland's own Gladys Wright takes a bow after an ABC concert in 2011 at the Craterian Theater. The 97-year-old founding president of Women Band Directors International will conduct "Stars and Stripes Forever" as the finale of Sunday's Craterian concert. Courtesy photo

After a two-year absence, the American Band College returned to Ashland this week for three weeks of clinics and two public concerts set for Sunday, June 26, at the Craterian Theater in Medford and Monday, July 4, at the Ashland High School Stadium, both at 7:30 p.m.

“We are so excited to finally return to our home in Ashland for our 34th year,” said founder and executive director Max McKee of Ashland.

The 2020 ABC was held virtually due to COVID-19, with only four staff members managing extensive online clinics and lectures for more than 200 attendees.

Last year, restrictions put in place by the Ashland School District precluded ABC from using the local facilities, so the program was held at a large hotel in Seattle.

Barring another pandemic, ABC is in Ashland to stay.

“As long as we have Ashland High School, the football stadium and the Craterian Theater, we’ll never leave,” McKee said.

The American Band College is a master’s degree program for band directors. Enrollees attend clinics, lectures, and workshops for three weeks each summer, with experts from around the world at the podium. They also rehearse as two big concert bands in preparation for the concerts June 26 and July 4. They also do independent study during the three-year program.

Headlining the June 26 “Evening with the Stars” concert at the Craterian is clarinetist Julian Bliss.

“He is my hero,” McKee said. “He is the finest clarinet player on the planet.”

Clarinet is McKee’s instrument as well. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clarinet performance and performed extensively.

“When I first heard Julian play four years ago, I broke my clarinet into seven pieces!”

Bliss will be featured on two pieces with each of the two ABC bands. In recital and chamber music, he has played at most of the world’s leading festivals and series.

In 2016, he established the Julian Bliss Septet, creating programs inspired by the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, and composer George Gershwin. The group has performed to packed houses in the U.S. and Europe.

The Craterian show will include several pieces by guest composer Julie Giroux, who has published a large catalog of classical works with an emphasis on compositions for wind band.

Giroux, whose first published work for concert band was composed when she was 13, now has more than 100 film, television, and video game credits. She has collaborated with Martin Scorsese, Madonna, Celene Dion, Clint Eastwood, Michael Jackson, Harry Connick Jr. and many others. Nominated for Emmy, Oscar and Golden Globe awards, she has won three Emmys.

She will conduct several of her compositions at the June 26 show. Ray Cramer and Robert Ponto will also guest conduct.

A highlight of the evening will be the closing number, John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” conducted by Ashland’s own Gladys Wright, founding president of Women Band Directors International. The 97-year-old holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from the University of Oregon.

The finale will be a rousing number with members of one band performing the music on stage and members of the second ABC band singing the words that go with the trio of the march.

“Gladys and her late husband Al were members of the faculty for the first American Band College,” McKee said. “Recently she made a major donation to help us purchase the old church on the corner of Liberty and Siskiyou Blvd., which will serve as our research facility.”

The building will be remodeled and be known as the Al & Gladys Wright Center of the American Band College.

July 4th Concert

It takes a big sound to fill the Ashland High School Football Stadium and ABC is up to it, with its two bands combining to present the 4 th of July “Ashland Pops Show.”

Jazz trombonist Harry Watters returns to the ABC stage to perform two numbers with the band.

“Harry has become a fixture, performing with us every three or four years since his first appearance in 2007,” McKee said.

Watters will perform the Ray Noble jazz standard “Cherokee (Indian Love Song)” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” a tour de force for any instrumentalist, but especially on the slide trombone because of the piece’s thrilling speed and difficulty.

Watters earned his chops performing with the Dukes of Dixieland, the Boston Brass and such luminaries as Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Lou Rawls, Maureen McGovern and others.

Guest conductors at the July 4th show include Paul Kassulke, Randall Standridge, Col. Lowell Graham, Dr. Cynthia Johnston Turner, and ABC alums from Greece, Yiannis Koukas and Nikolaos Chrysochoou.

The concert will close with a reprise of the June 26 finale, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” during which there will be the traditional passing of the baton from conductor to conductor — including McKee and his son, Scott McKee, CEO of ABC.

How to buy concert tickets

June 26: “Evening with the Stars,” 7:30 p.m., Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Reserved seating: adults $19, students and seniors $15. In person at the theater. Online at bandworld.org/tickets or craterian.org.

July 4: “Ashland Pops,” 7:30 p.m., Ashland High School Stadium, 201 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland. Reserved seating: adults $19, students and seniors $15. Family special: $50 for two adults and up to four children. In person at the stadium ticket booth starting at 6 p.m. evening of the show. Online at bandworld.org/tickets.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.