Commencement 2016

Award-winning SU brass ensemble to perform at commencement

Chase Gaewski | Photo Editor

James Spencer has been the conductor of SUBE since 1987.

The image of a Syracuse University commencement weekend is something everyone can picture. Orange and blue coat the Carrier Dome filled with thousands of graduates. Family and friends gather to see the end result of four years of hard work. Floating high above the packed room are the sounds of the SU Brass Ensemble (SUBE).

The award-winning band is the soundtrack to commencement. Under the direction of Dr. James T. Spencer, the SUBE has been playing the ceremony since the 1990s. The ensemble is composed of SU students, faculty and staff, State University of New York Upstate Medical University faculty and staff and other upstate New York musicians.

A permanent ensemble-in-residence through the College of Arts and Sciences and Hendricks Chapel, the band will play during both the convocation of the College of Arts and Sciences on Saturday and the university’s 162nd commencement on Sunday.

The SUBE has no senior students playing this year. But when there have been seniors in the band in years prior, they traditionally have decided to spend the ceremony with the ensemble. Spencer said their time with the ensemble is usually too meaningful to pass up one last performance. He added that the band’s proximity to the stage provides “the best seat in the house.”

The obvious assumption would be that the SUBE plays “Pomp and Circumstance” while everyone marches in. While that is true for the chancellor’s entrance, its performance is much more than that. The band is responsible for providing music for the procession, recession and even some moments during the ceremony. With thousands of students and faculty involved, Spencer said his ensemble has to be prepared to play for a long time.

“It takes quite a bit of choreography to set up,” he said. “It’s a lot of music, close to two hours, really.”

Spencer said the band fills those two hours with a lot of dignified-sounding fanfare pieces. This year, the list includes William Walton’s “Crown Imperial,” the march from Gustav Holst’s “A Moorside Suite,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles,” Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and the fanfare prelude from “La Peri” by Paul Dukas.

These pieces are challenging to play, so the ensemble has been practicing for the past month in preparation. Its members gather every Monday in Hendricks Chapel, and Spencer said it’s this dedication that helps the SUBE play at such a high level.

“It’s rare that we’ll have one player missing for a rehearsal,” Spencer said. “And you’d have to be in the hospital to miss a performance.”

Aside from graduation, the SUBE plays about 16 performances each year. Most notably, its “Holidays at Hendricks” concert is broadcast on local television. The band has been particularly busy of late, playing at the SUNY Upstate President’s Inauguration as well as some public concerts in Fayetteville and Utica. Additionally, its annual Brass Bash, a concert with local high school musicians in Hendricks Chapel, was held this spring.

Spencer said his role as director of the SUBE, a position he’s held since 1987, is the perfect release from his scientific duties.

“Not only do we have great people, but they’re also fine players,” Spencer said. “What could be better than making music together?”

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