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A Musical Happening, for Harmonica
There is nothing extraordinary about Anthony Biancosino’s
advocating live music, rather than recordings. He is, after all, the
man who developed the instrumental music program for Princeton High
School, the director of its prize-winning wind ensembles, and the
conductor of the newly-formed American Heritage Wind Symphony (AHWS).
However, as he anticipates AHWS’s first concert, he comes up with
a novel analogy. "I would like to put this over like they do in
the sports world. They know how to do it. You can’t imagine a day
when people watch synthesized baseball, football, or basketball games.
There’s no substitute for that one moment when it happens."
Biancosino has arranged to make that "one moment when it happens"
particularly compelling by including in the formal debut of his American
Heritage Wind Symphony John Popper, frontman of "Blues Traveler,"
and harmonica player extraordinaire. Biancosino was Popper’s mentor
when the harmonica player was a student at Princeton High School.
At the concert on Thursday, May 27, in Trenton’s Crescent Auditorium,
Popper will solo in new works by composers Rick Lombardo and Randy
Bauer, both of whom are instrumental music specialists in the Princeton
schools. The program also includes a new non-harmonica piece by Bauer,
and compositions by John Philip Sousa, Karl L. King, and Henry Fillmore.
The AHWS made its informal debut at the 1998 dedication of the new
Princeton Stadium. It is the performing arm of the American Heritage
Music Foundation (AHMF), which is intended to sear the importance
of American band music into the minds of all living people. Biancosino
is the moving force behind AHMF.
In a faxed statement from the hard-to-reach and irreverent John Popper,
who is not afraid to invoke the prospect of chaos, Popper writes,
"The thought of playing a classical piece with Anthony Biancosino
brings to mind the classic dream of taking your midterms completely
naked, or being lit on fire. A week away, and not only do I still
retain no ability whatsoever to read music, but I don’t know how the
damn thing goes. Tony has every confidence that I will learn this
work in time, and at this late date I can only pray for a miracle."
Biancosino, who no doubt has heard such protestations
before, is wildly enthusiastic about the new music that Lombardo and
Bauer have written for the concert. He arranges for me to meet with
him and the composers at Princeton High School and urges them to preview
the pieces for me on the piano. Biancosino is the ultimate friend
of the press. He thinks that I can convey to readers in words what
the music sounds like. Of course, I can’t. Suffice it to say that
what I hear holds my attention, and that enthusiasm is appropriate.
In turn Lombardo and Bauer, at the piano, call off the instrumentation,
passage by passage as they play. Lombardo’s piece is called "Blues
Soliloquy for Soloist and Band." The large central section is
not written out because it allows for Popper to improvise on the harmonica.
"Rick’s glue," says Biancosino referring to Lombardo, "consists
of systematic stylistic changes while using the same theme. The way
it flows form one section to another, it’s upon you before you know
Lombardo, in his mid 50s, is a composer, arranger, and music publisher
who teaches band music in the Princeton school system. His more than
80 published compositions are primarily for flute, saxophone, and
Composer Bauer, now in his 20s, and, like Popper, one of Biancosino’s
former students at PHS, has contributed two pieces to the program.
At the piano, he sketches out his three-movement harmonica concerto.
Set between bustling outer movements is a nostalgic second movement.
"In this movement I’m feeling totally stretched in a very positive
way between Debussy, Ravel, Delius, and Vaughan Williams," says
Biancosino. "If we could put those four in one mind, we would
have Randy Bauer. This movement has their harmonic motion, their tension
and release. It’s sort of unstable. It’s screaming with color. It
floats. But on top of this is an incredible Vaughan Williams-like
melody, almost a folk tune that just moves from simplicity to elegance.
It becomes elegant just by the nature of what’s under it. That what
I think is the genius here." As Bauer squirms somewhat at the
overt compliment, Biancosino adds, "I really do, Randy."
Bauer’s "Lucid Dreams," a piece for wind orchestra without
harmonica, is also included in the program, and he plays it on the
piano. It starts with indistinct melodic fragments, along the lines
of the second movement of the concerto, that grow and expand. "When
the tension can’t build any more," Bauer says, "there’s a
very quick release. What’s left is for the piece to end. So there’s
a final statement and the piece ends very quietly."
Trained at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, Bauer teaches music theory
and co-directs the choir at PHS. "I’m an American composer in
the Western classical tradition," he says, "I’m also a jazz
pianist, and that often creeps into my music, even if it’s not what
I set out to do."
As a veteran and well-loved teacher who will be forever remembered
by former students as "Mr. B," Biancosino derives great satisfaction
from the success of all his students, including Popper and Bauer.
"They’re now men," he says, "and contributing as professionals.
It gives me personal jubilance."
Popper has made a particular splash. "There wouldn’t be a kid
on the planet at this point who doesn’t know John Popper," says
Biancosino of the large, brash harmonicist, who graduated from Princeton
High in 1986. A posting on the harmonica-oriented Web page of Richard
Hunter says of Popper, "Emotionally, his playing is about ecstasy;
his cascades of notes are a volcanic eruption of sheer joy. He has
created a new style and approach to playing the harmonica which cannot
be ignored by harmonica players, any more than classical pianists
can ignore Beethoven."
Popper, along with guitarist Chan Kinchla, percussionist Brendan Hill,
and bassist Bob Sheehan, all PHS graduates, Class of ’87, are the
Blues Traveler. Popper is the group’s chief writer, its lead vocalist,
and its harmonica virtuoso. Popper, in addition, co-founded and co-owns
H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere), a summer touring
group established in 1992, where Blues Traveler has repeatedly appeared.
Popper’s sense of loyalty to both Traveler and H.O.R.D.E. is memorable.
In 1993 he severely fractured his leg in a motorcycle accident and
the band faced the specter of canceling their summer tour. However,
Popper mobilized his wheelchair, traveled with the band, and performed
from the chair. By 1996 the H.O.R.D.E. tour became one of the largest
grossing tours ever.
Blues Traveler’s discography features six albums every one of which
has gone gold or better. The group’s first eponymous CD was dedicated
"To our parents — who didn’t flinch." In 1996 the group
released the 2-CD set, "Live from the Fall;" "Straight
On Till Morning," the group’s latest, released in 1997, is a platinum
seller. At the moment Blues Traveler’s management is keeping the musicians’
noses to the grindstone as they cut a new recording, but the folks
there know that Popper is, incidentally, involved in what they call
"Mr. B’s project."
For those not yet hooked on Blues Traveler, a favored
starting place is their 1994 CD "Four," now a six-time platinum
seller. Its cover art shows a cat with a knowing look, colored red
and cool blue on a day-glo avocado green background. Perhaps the cat
is intended to represent John Popper. At any rate, it wears sunglasses
and dangles a cigaret from its lip, although it lacks Popper’s signature
cowboy hat, and gives no evidence of being six-foot-four and weighing
over 300 pounds. The songs feature Popper’s dusky voice singing mostly
his own imaginative lyrics. The signature sonic element of the recording
is Popper’s roller-coaster-nimble harmonica, a de-rasped vehicle that
asserts itself as a singing solo instrument.
Popper came into Biancosino’s life when, as a high school student,
he wandered into Biancosino’s precincts in PHS’s band area with his
harmonica, and blew Biancosino into orbit with his playing. "I
immediately adjusted my jazz ensemble so we could include harmonica,"
says Biancosino, who runs four separate jazz ensembles at PHS, in
addition to a full band program. "We encouraged John to play harmonica
the way you would play flute or piccolo. He has extraordinary talents,
for literature, as well as for music."
The flexible, devoted teacher has led Princeton’s wind ensembles to
one triumph after another. They have won competitions throughout North
America for almost two decades. "John was with me for several
wins," says Biancosino. The studio band made history in 1985,
at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, when they were the first
high school band invited to play at an inaugural ball. They were invited
again for the inaugural of President George Bush. The band was invited
also to play in 1994 for U.S. Army troops departing for the 50th anniversary
of the D-Day invasion. They have also been invited to perform at workshops
on university campuses. In 1991 the New Jersey State Assembly passed
a resolution honoring Biancosino and the PHS band for "their unparalleled
history of musical excellence."
In his mid 50s, Biancosino earned a bachelor’s degree in music education
from Philadelphia’s Temple University. His master’s degree in performance
and conducting comes from the College of New Jersey. He has studied
in Indiana University’s doctoral program and holds a doctoral degree
from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He was the Wind
Ensemble director at Princeton University in the 1980s, and again
in the 1990s. In addition to his association with Princeton High School,
he teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Biancosino’s wife, Merrill Price, a dancer and pianist, is head of
the Princeton Conservatory. They live in Princeton and have a blended
family with nine children, ranging from a high school sophomore to
A teacher who inspires, Biancosino has affected the
lives of high school students for almost a generation. As one sits
in his office, the sound of spirited jazz music reaches the ear. Princeton
High School’s number one jazz ensemble, led by their student director
is sightreading, playing music they have never seen before. "All
of these students work very hard," Biancosino notes. The ensemble
we hear is the most advanced of the jazz groups at PHS, which has
one beginning jazz band, two intermediate jazz ensembles, and one
advanced jazz ensemble. The school also maintains three orchestras.
At PHS approximately 450 students participate in instrumental music.
An inveterate teacher, Biancosino’s enthusiasm for the American Heritage
Music Foundation and the American Heritage Wind Symphony is entwined
with his desire to use the organizations as a means of instructing
the public about the unique history of wind music in the United States.
"Every time you’re involved with the American Heritage Music Foundation
you’ll go away with more knowledge about our history and culture,"
"Approximately four years ago we filed for nonprofit status,"
Biancosino says of AHMF. "Our mission is based on the acceptance
of wind music in the United States. A lot of this is personal. I’ve
been in about 40 states and most provinces in Canada, observing wind
programs, and conducting. What I have observed in my lifetime is that
if not for the great band directors at Indiana, Michigan, Eastman,
and the United States service bands, nobody would be playing this
wind music today. The only indigenous music we have in the U.S. is
the symphonic wind ensemble and the swing band. The American Heritage
Music Foundation has set upon an incredible mission: to educate U.S.
citizens to our culture and the history of the U.S. through music
because this is truly American. It begins with the fifes and drums
at the time of George Washington. With our programs we’ll be helping
musicians and composers, and educating young people."
Biancosino’s goals are far-reaching. He has the dream of generating
a wind ensemble in every American city, all of which would look to
Princeton as a magnet. The AHMF is in the process of annexing the
six-year-old Princeton Conservatory, with its more than 100 students,
to serve as a training center. With an eye to starting a museum, Biancosino
has begun collecting historic wind instruments for over a decade.
And he has begun commissioning pieces for future performances of the
Through the commissions, Biancosino hopes to see the repertoire of
wind ensembles expand to feature additional instruments "There
are instruments that have not been given the attention they deserve,"
he says. "Harmonica and saxophone have not received accolades.
Even electric guitar and wind ensemble have been neglected. We’ve
commissioned a tuba piece, and Tubby will have to move over."
Speaking of the American Heritage Wind Foundation, Biancosino says,
"there’s a lot of personal investment in my life in this. I’m
intense about it. I want to see the mission through." His eyes
sparkle as he thinks of ambitious, fully-formed projects intended
to advance everyone’s exposure to American wind music. Zealous as
he is, however, Biancosino can’t see the project through alone.
When Popper was a student at Princeton High, Biancosino helped him
formulate and realize his dream. In the Trenton debut of the American
Heritage Wind Symphony, you could say that Popper is just returning
— Elaine Strauss
Crescent Temple Auditorium, 50 North Clinton Avenue, Trenton, 609-924-2021.
The professional wind orchestra makes its debut under conductor Anthony
Biancosino. A combination ticket for the performance and reception
with John Popper is $100; single tickets $15, $25, & $30. Thursday,
May 27, 7:30 p.m.
Despite his obvious visibility, John Popper is well
guarded by management and agents who make it nearly impossible to
reach him. However, Susan Bank of Silent Partner Management in New
York, faxed Popper a list of questions we would have liked to ask.
Here are his replies.
conducted by Anthony Biancosino?
Popper: The thought of playing a classical piece with Anthony
Biancosino brings to mind the classic dream of taking your midterms
completely naked, or being lit on fire. A week away, and not only
do I still retain no ability whatsoever to read music, but I don’t
know how the damn thing goes. Tony has every confidence that I will
learn this work in time, and at this late date I can only pray for
Popper: Probably my clothes. I was asked to wear a tuxedo for
the engagement. A low-cut number with rhinestone studded pleats, but
the studmaker is a practitioner of a lost art and as my pleats will
not be ready in time for the performance, I will be forced to wear
a greasy smock and nothing else.
Popper: Blood vessels, oxygen, an estimation of how much I get
paid per note. (Interestingly, if I play more notes on a percentage
basis, I get paid much less. If I play less notes, obviously I get
paid more. But seeing as this is a charity, I have no clear answer
of how many notes I will play. I suspect I will play all of them.)
togetherness now they no longer all live in one place?
Popper: No matter where Blues Traveler or its members care to
reside, on a metabolic level we have been and will continue to be
structurally sound. Only one time in my memory did one of us ever
begin to disintegrate, but it turned out I just had gas.
Popper: My biography has been well documented. Born in Cleveland,
Ohio, yadda yadda. Stanford, Connecticut, boppity boom. Princeton,
New Jersey. But it’s worth noting that my life truly began when I
met Anthony Biancosino. The man has so many levels he’s like a complicated
modern house. His winding staircases reveal only a part of the true
structure. His sensitivity in cultivating the attributes of music
education are without parallel and only on a strong foundation such
as this could he have constructed such elaborate and ornate spires.
The man gives and gives and keeps on giving, and without such sensitivity
I might never have learned to blow and suck as I do.
the 30 pounds you lost recently? Do you care?
Popper: I did keep off the 30 pounds I was trying to keep off,
however another 30 pounds was walking by and I accidentally ate it.
Caring is a word I use to describe many, many, many different different
aspects to which my life is. On one level I care, on one level I don’t.
One goes in, the other goes out. Old things die, new things are born.
Interest rates go up, taxes go down. Taxes go up, as Democrats are
elected. Soon we’ll all be dead, or maybe not. Life is a soggy dung
sandwich — eat it or starve. And always remember, stay in school.
Popper: The whereabouts of Blues Traveler are sketchy at best.
As the band does top secret work for the government they must retain
their anonymity. Though unsubstantiated, some say that they have sighted
drummer Brendan Hill walking out of the Andes mountains somewhere
near Lima, Peru. There was also a mutually corroborated story that
I accidentally hovered over the Hoagie Haven for three hours as beams
of light shot out of my eyes. To this I can only attest that it wasn’t
me — I haven’t hovered in six years, but I did eat at Hoagie Haven.
Their 1/2 roast beef with cheese is fantastic.
Popper: The relationship of Blues Traveler and H.O.R.D.E. is
something along the lines of Joan Crawford and her most disappointing
troubled young daughter. H.O.R.D.E., which had once held so much promise
and would yield us so much money — not to mention incredible packages
fraught with virtually every artist we admire — has by this time
completely lost our interest. But the tour had run as long as any
tour ever had. We’re at a new age now. High-definition TVs fill the
air, an electric car has been built to exceed 53 m.p.h., movies like
"Star Wars" and "The Matrix" have taught us all to
laugh again, and the Viagra pill has swept the nation with rigid success.
In this time, the "radio show," usually a one-time festival
package thrown at a given time in which the artists receive airtime,
has far surpassed and most efficiently replaced the festival tour.
Therefore it seems obvious H.O.R.D.E. has had its day. Better to be
proud of the former glory of your lost child than to sustain it and
watch it turn into a malevolent and withered creature.
— Elaine Strauss
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