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Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Sousa scholar Loras Schissel enjoys marching to beat of Allentown Band

During the summer months, area public parks are literally taken over day and night by local community bands presenting their finest in musical offerings for lawn chair and blanket crowds. Stretching from Easton to Bethlehem to Allentown and beyond, genres of music selected by the various band directors fall pleasantly on the ears of listeners of all ages. It's a given that among those selections are a few patriotic tunes by "The March King," himself, John Philip Sousa.

For native Iowan Loras John Schissel, the legendary Sousa ("The Stars and Stripes Forever") is tops among American composers. Schissel is a leading scholar on the life and work of Sousa, in addition to working as a senior musicologist at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. That's where he's responsible for more than 22 million musical treasures in its archives.

Schissel also is a good friend of the Allentown Band (right) and its conductor, Ronald Demkee, with whom he frequently appears as guest conductor. In May, Schissel conducted at the band's Side by Side Concert at Allentown Symphony Hall, which highlighted area high school music students.

Schissel closely collaborated with the Allentown Band, which he calls "one of our greatest American musical treasures," as associate producer for its most recent CD, "Our Band Heritage - Volume 26, Pennsylvania Pioneers." The Allentown Band dates back to 1828, and is recognized as the oldest civilian concert band in America.

"Loras supplied the music for many of the titles on the recording," Demkee said, "as well as photos included in the rather elaborate booklet that comes with it. The recording pays tribute to many of the bandsmen and composers who were born and/or lived in Pennsylvania from the middle of the 19th to early part of the 20th centuries."

Valley concert-goers can hear the Allentown Band perform selections from "Pennsylvania Pioneers" in a free program on Saturday, July 21 at 7 p.m., at the Allentown Arts Park (behind Symphony Hall), and on Friday, July 27 at 7:30 p.m., at Allentown's West Park (between Turner and Linden streets).

Schissel (right) is music director and conductor of both the Virginia Grand Military Band and the Cleveland Orchestra's Blossom Festival Band. He's traveled throughout the world conducting orchestras, bands and choral ensembles in a broad range of musical styles and varied programs. As a composer and orchestrator, he's created an extensive catalog of more than 500 works for orchestra, symphonic wind band, and jazz ensemble. He wrote the musical score for the 2002 PBS special, "Bill Moyers: America's First River, The Hudson." He also appeared in the award-winning PBS documentary, "If You Knew Sousa," for the American Experience series, as well as Ben Wattenberg's "Think Tank."

Schissel said his heart for music lies with Allentown. "It's always an honor to work with Ron and the musician artists in the band," he said. "As a young musician growing up in Iowa, the music of the Allentown Band inspired me to pursue music as a vocation. If I have had any success as a composer/conductor/author, I owe a great debt to the band for inspiring me to reach for that dream."

Schissel said he became familiar with the work of the Allentown Band while in high school, when music donated from the private collection of band enthusiast Robert Hoe of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., made its way west. Included in the collection was music by a civilian concert band based in Allentown, Pa., known as The Allentown Band, and whose conductor at the time was Albertus "Bert" L. Meyers. (Meyers was a cornet soloist with Sousa in the mid-1920s, prior to serving as conductor of the Allentown Band for 50 years).

Schissel enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa and had the choice of pursuing music or military service. He chose the U.S. Navy and medical school and was a hospital corpsman. His first duty service was in Washington, where he worked with the four service bands. He said that's when he knew music and not medical school was for him. He went on to study under such prominent conductors as Carlton Stewart, Frederick Fennell and John Paynter. He's worked for 21 years at the Library of Congress, the last nine years as a senior musicologist.

"The Library is not just the world's largest public library," Schissel explained. "It's the largest repository of human creativity in the history of mankind. Our job is to collect human creativity in all its forms." There are approximately 5,000 employees at the Library of Congress, he said. Weekly materials received number into the millions, with the amount of hits on the Web, alone, in the hundreds of thousands. "What's here inspires the next generation of young composers, performers and conductors," he said of its music division.

Schissel was instrumental in proposing a reconstruction of Sousa's unfinished "Library of Congress March" to Stephen Bulla, a leading American composer and arranger of concert band music. This was Sousa's last work, which remained incomplete at the time of his death in Reading in 1932. With prior permission by the Sousa family, and using the Library's Sousa Collection of more than 300 manuscripts, Bulla "worked from two fragmentary sketches dated late 1931, a piano draft, and one page of a completed band score containing eight measures," according to an article in the "Performing Arts Encyclopedia." On May 6, 2003, "The Library of Congress March"debuted at the Library of Congress and with Sousa's great-grandson, John Philip Sousa IV, in attendance.

Schissel and John Philip Sousa IV recently co-authored the book, "John Philip Sousa's America: A Patriot's Life," a photo-biography of the March King. It brings to life an intimate portrait of the composer who had a love for his country and a vision for spreading his music around the world.

John Philip Sousa, born on Washington's Capitol Hill in 1854, was the son of a trombone player in the United States Marine Band. Sousa eventually took the reins as its band leader in 1880, holding a long professional association with the Library of Congress and its extensive music collections.

"Sousa's face was the most recognized, more than the president's, back then," Schissel said. "He played well over 16,000 concerts in his lifetime. He packed up his 80-piece Marine Band and toured the United States. Schools would let out for his concerts – that's how iconic he became."

According to his great-grandson, it was on March 6, 1932, when Sousa made his final appearance leading a rehearsal of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" by the Ringgold Band in Reading.

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Arts Roundup

If you're feeling 'blue,' relax! It's all in fun at the 2012 Blueberry Festival on Saturday and Sunday, July 21-22, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., at the Burnside Plantation, Historic Bethlehem's Farm-in-the-City, 1461 Schoenersville Rd. In addition to the sweet smells of blueberry pies and strudel -- plus blueberry ice cream! -- there will be Colonial games and crafts for children and local crafters and demonstrations for adults.

If music is your thing, there will be plenty of it on both days, with appearances by Miss Maggie Sings, Jay Smar, O'Grady Quinlan Academy of Irish Dance (Celtic Dance), Jerry Haines, The Purcells, and the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts, to name some.

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