Frederick Fennell, 1914–2004
Fennell was instrumental (ahem) in establishing the Eastman School of Music's Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble, which recorded several of the most highly regarded band recordings ever made for the Mercury Living Presence record label. These performances include a flabbergasting rendition of Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy—a disc that was the acid test of many of my early high-end systems—and a two-volume edition of Civil War-era music that included cannon recorded at the Gettysburg battlefield. "That took me four years to record . . . " he once said, "as long as the war itself." Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns later wrote Fennell, saying that the conductor's recordings had inspired him to "sort through thousands of period photographs to make . . . The Civil War."
His Mercury recordings alone would have made Fennell an audio icon, but in 1978 he collaborated with Telarc, then a small specialty recording label from Cleveland, to record the label's first commercial digital release. That disc, featuring the Cleveland Wind Ensemble performing works by Gustav Holst, Handel, and Bach, was known for the startling bass-drum thwacks in Holst's Suite No.1 in E-flat for Military Band. Some wags even called it the "bass drum heard round the world." (Telarc recently remastered the original 50kHz Soundstream tapes of this disc for an SACD edition that makes a remarkably potent case for the quality of their original masters—there's information there that audiophiles could not have even guessed at from the LP and CD releases.)
Fennell was passionate about drums. His daughter, Cathy Fennell Martensen, said, "My father died peacefully in his sleep. . . . I had promised him that I would do everything in my power to get him back to Siesta Key [in Sarasota, Florida] so he could watch the sun set over the ocean. He arrived home in time to see the oranges and pinks in the western skies. . . . A bit before midnight, he told me he was 'frustrated and disappointed.' When I asked him why, he replied, 'There's no drummer here yet. I can't die without a drummer.' I told him I loved him and that heaven's best drummer was on his way. Moments later he said, 'I hear him, I hear him. I'm okay now.' That was my final conversation with my dad."
For many audiophiles, not to mention professional and amateur musicians—especially those of us who participated in symphonic wind ensembles—Frederick Fennell was the father of us all.1 His advocacy of classic repertory and his vigorous support of new works transformed band music in America. This was brought home to me on December 12, when I attended a concert by the InterSchool Orchestra of New York's Symphonic Band, an ensemble that includes my goddaughter, Laurika Harris-Kaye, daughter of bassist Jerome Harris of Rendezvous fame (CD, Stereophile STPH012-2).
Director Brian P. Worsdale had programmed an ambitious composition, Frank Ticheli's American Elegy, written in memory of the students who died at Columbine High School in 1999. Worsdale dedicated the work to those students—and to Frederick Fennell, who had made championing such compositions his life's mission.
As I listened to the ISO's Symphonic Band, I was proud of the youngsters who were carrying on Maestro Fennell's great work. What a noble legacy to leave us all.
Footnote 1: Fennell once commented on his years of conducting in Japan, observing that his grasp of the language was not particularly strong. "I smile and bow a lot and I conduct rehearsals with my body language and technique. I tell young conductors it is not a bad thing to get a job in a country where they do not speak the language. Conducting is not talking."