June 30 2010 12:00 AM

Gary Sullivan sets sail with Lansing Concert Band


How did a British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, sneak past “America the Beautiful” and “Stars and Stripes Forever” to infiltrate Lansing’s Fourth of July celebration? Doesn’t anybody around here remember the War of 1812?

Maybe we should ask Gary T. Sullivan to produce his birth certificate before he makes his debut as the band’s music director on the Fourth.

Nah — hold the tea party. Sullivan is an avid Great Lakes sailor, so he gets a pass for slipping “Sea Songs,” a bracing breeze from a Brit, between salvos of Sousa.

Sullivan loves to feel his hair blow in the wind, whether it comes from a high-pressure cell over Lake Michigan or 150 lungs blowing through 75 assorted tubes.

His voice glows sunset pink when he tells of his first sailing lesson.

“The captain shut off the engine, pulled out all the sails, and that craft reared up in the wind,” he said. “You didn’t hear anything except the wind and the waves. It was like a religious experience.”

It can be the same way with music, he said. (Albeit louder.)

“As a conductor, I’ve experienced several fairly intense, successful performances, where I have to actually wait before I can speak to the audience,” he said. “It’s like you have to get the verbal element of your being engaged again.”

The Lansing Concert Band got an unexpected bonanza when Sullivan, band director at Charlotte High School since 1983, decided to take advantage of Michigan’s earlyretirement incentive for veteran school workers and step down July 1. Sullivan had planned to stay five more years, but Charlotte’s loss is Lansing’s gain.

An elated Pete Marvin, tuba player with the Lansing Concert Band for 25 years and a spokesman for the organization, compared Sullivan’s appointment to the glassslipper day in 2005 when the Lansing Symphony found its acclaimed maestro, Timothy Muffitt.

“It’s the same idea,” Marvin said. “A band needs someone who can set a direction and shape the music from concert to concert, year after year.”

Marvin said the search committee looked at several “outstanding” candidates, but Sullivan “shot to the top.”

Sullivan has a stellar reputation in the state and beyond. At Charlotte High, he raised generations of young musicians and won a slew of awards, including Michigan Band Teacher of the Year.

“The band is interested in elevating its position, and we think Gary is the person to take us there,” Marvin said.

Sullivan said he wants to take the band to new venues, launch recording projects and “make the group a showcase ensemble.”

The band hasn’t had a long-term music director since 2001, when Richard Suddendorf stepped down. A chain of guest and assistant maestros, including assistant conductor John Endahl, Michigan State University’s Wesley Broadnax, and MSU marching-band director John Madden, have filled in, but were too busy to do it all.

Sullivan is a strong leader, as his career in Charlotte demonstrates, but his hand rests gently on the tiller. He’d rather give props to his predecessors than lay out a “vision.”

Lately, Sullivan has been talking a lot with a friend and mentor, Kenneth Bloomquist, who retired from directing the MSU bands to lead the Lansing Concert Band in the 1990s.

“(Bloomquist) said that when he took it on many years ago, the band became like family to him, and I’m already finding that,” Sullivan said. “They’re just congenial, heartfelt people.”

Sullivan and Bloomquist mounted joint Charlotte- Lansing concerts in the 1990s as part of Bloomquist’s outreach efforts. Under Bloomquist, the band went from “an average community band to an outstanding regional band,” according to Marvin.

Far from a hodge-podge crew of duffers, the Lansing Concert Band is a skilled, diverse mix of students, lifers and music educators, and Sullivan is eager to take the helm of so yare a craft.

“Their reading skills are very strong,” Sullivan said. “Where a lot of groups finish, they start.”

Born in Springfield, Ill., Sullivan moved to Tawas City, at 11, when his father got a job with the Detroit-Mackinac Railway.

As it happened, the Tawas City band program was topnotch. Fired up by his dad’s wind band LPs and Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts,” Sullivan took up the euphonium, a tenor version of the tuba.

“Of course, moving to Michigan, one becomes quickly aware of the Leonard Falcone lore,” Sullivan declared.

If one doesn’t tote a euphoni- um, one might need to be told that Leonard Falcone, director of bands at MSU in the 1960s, was arguably the best euphonium player in the world.

While still in high school, Sullivan played the tricky “Carnival of Venice” on euphonium with the great Falcone as judge. Wup-wup-wuppa-duppa, sweat, sweat.

“I was 16 years old and terrified, but he was kind to me,” Sullivan said.

After the competition, Falcone called Sullivan with an offer to tour Europe in a student band. Sullivan couldn’t afford to go, but after grad uating high school in 1971, he went straight to Falcone’s studio at MSU.

Sullivan said working with and Bloomquist, then director of bands at MSU, was “life-changing.”

Let’s face it — band people are a breed apart. Concert bands come from a military tradition dating back to the Civil War, where they tooted and thumped in the face of death. At the turn of the 20th century, the happystomp music and P.R. genius of John Philip Sousa helped plant a concert band in every town square in America.

Now, wind band culture flies largely under the radar, fed by a fanatical drum corps subculture Sullivan compared to NASCAR.

“There’s this whole other culture that’s not widely reported, but it’s huge,” Sullivan said.

Concert bands still have a monopoly on that townsquare, Fourth-of-July feeling. They’re trotted out proudly on the Fourth the way reindeer roll at Christmas. But the band repertoire long ago bloomed far beyond “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

“It continues to be a very viable and exciting art form,” Sullivan said. “Some of our major composers have discovered the wind band. They don’t look on it as being lowbrow.”

Sullivan is already charting a long-term course for the band, mixing barrelhouse favorites with challenging music that will test the Lansing crew’s skills.

“There’s a lot being written for wind groups, but programming has to be artful,” Sullivan said. “There has to be music for the mind, heart and feet.”

Lansing Concert Band

Adado Riverfront Park 300 N. Grand Avenue 8 p.m. Sunday, July 4 Fireworks at 10 p.m.