White smoke wafts from the concert hall. After a year-long search and a finalists’ concert series, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band has chosen Pete Nowlen, director of concert bands at UC Davis, as its new artistic director. Nowlen takes the podium as the 11th conductor of the Freedom Band since it first marched up Market Street behind Harvey Milk’s convertible 35 years ago.
Nowlen is a professional French horn player, whose music experience extends beyond the world of band geekery. Opera, orchestra, chorus, and, yes, band and wind symphony are all in the mix. Along with being UC Davis’ director of concert bands, he is also opera musical director at CSU Sacramento and artistic director of Sacramento›s VITA [Vocal & Instrumental Teaching Artists] Academy, Camerata California (a chamber chorus) and the Rancho Cordova Civic Light Orchestra. He performed with the Sacramento Symphony from 1987 to 1996 and is active as an orchestral and chamber musician.
Although Nowlen brings more than 20 years’ professional conducting and performance experience to the band, he says his number one job is to hear from the Freedom Band’s musicians.
“I think the most important thing for me for the first year is to LISTEN,” Nowlen emailed last week, “to learn about the organization and then to work with the leadership to develop a vision. Inside the rehearsal room and concert hall, we’ll work to develop some consistent patterns of style, sound and articulation, which will give the band a ‘sound.’ This provides a foundation to allow us to aim for an even higher artistic standard.”
At his first rehearsal last Tuesday, listening was pretty much Nowlen’s first task right out of the shoot. With a short rehearsal set before its season opener on Friday, September 20, the Band is presenting a concert of ensembles (A Festival of Ensembles), and Nowlen listened to last week’s auditions. Brass quintet, clarinet choir, saxophone ensemble, tuba quartet, flute dectet and trumpet nontet have prepared music ranging from classical fanfare to pastoral fantasia to pop tunes and even music that’s piratical. Following the ensemble performances, the full band will reassemble under Nowlen’s baton to perform that perennial favorite, Holst’s Second Suite in F, as well as Clifton Williams’ Symphonic Dance No. 3, Fiesta!
As Nowlen settles into his job as leader of the first openly LGBT music organization in the world, he’s considering ideas for reaching out to new audiences as the Freedom Band enters its 36th concert season.
“One great way to build audience is through partnerships that can link us to new communities,” Nowlen wrote. “Those can be performing partnerships – perhaps with high school or college bands – or social/political partnerships.”
Nowlen’s audition concert last May, Through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall, did just that, involving LGBT rights activists Zoe Dunning, Stuart Gaffney, John Lewis and Christopher Bakes in a concert paying tribute to civil rights pioneers. It was a powerful concert and an honor to celebrate our modern heroes, but Nowlen is considering ways the Band can send its message beyond the Bay Area.
“One thing I’d like to explore in pursuit of our social mission are streaming concerts – to widen our potential audience,” Nowlen wrote. “That way a concert like last May’s – and any of our others – can reach a wider audience and in places less LGBT friendly than San Francisco.”
Nowlen noted that one of the most important parts of the band’s mission is to nurture its own musical community. “Some of the time we really just want to have FUN performing together and reaching for our highest level.”
Trumpet player Heidi Beeler has been a member of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band since 1991.