Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography by Jim Stephens
The lights go down and the murmurs of the crowd slowly begin to fade. The smells of salty popcorn and sweet funnel cake fill the air.
Suddenly, a spotlight turns on with an audible click, revealing a man in a red jacket and top hat standing before you. The man raises his left hand into the air and cracks a whip with his right. The roar of a lion echoes through your eardrums as a large African cat pounces before the man and pauses as if waiting for its next cue.
To the man’s left, a clown juggles bowling pins while balancing on a big ball. To his right, a woman bends herself into what can only be described as a pretzel while maintaining a handstand on a galloping horse. The explosive burst of a cannon draws your eyes upward to see a man flying through the air, passing in between a flaming ring before being caught by a woman swinging from a trapeze.
The Arizona Wind Symphony aspires to evoke that imagery with its Circus Magic concert at Tempe Center for the Arts. The 90-piece concert band — comprised of music professionals, non-professionals and students — will perform songs such as selections from the 2017 movie “The Greatest Showman” during the Thursday, April 9 program.
The Arizona Wind Symphony’s conductor William J. Richardson says that the ensemble selects concert themes that it believes will keep the band members challenged and the audience entertained.
“What more appropriate music than circus music to fill both of those goals,” he says.
David Melkin, president of the Arizona Wind Symphony’s board of directors, adds that the ensemble polls band members at the end of each season to determine the kinds of things that they would like to play the following year.
“The circus theme is one that a number of members have brought up before,” Melkin says.
The trumpet player — a founding member of the ensemble — says that because the Arizona Wind Symphony is a community band, its content can be much more varied than what audiences might hear from other symphony orchestras.
“We are able to do a mix of pop-style music along with some modern band music, marches and selections from movies and musicals,” Melkin explains.
He adds that the appeal of circus music is similar to that of movie scores in that the audience hears a song and immediately makes a connection to an experience, a memory or a feeling. It is one of several genres that we often take for granted despite their significant place within our society and our culture.
“Everyone thinks of the circus as being something that is very entertaining,” Melkin says. “There is a childlike wonder or amazement about the circus itself. It is an experience that is very family-oriented.”
Most people have very fond memories of the circus — of attending the circus as a child and being awestruck by the incredible acts, and of attending the circus as a parent and being even more awestruck by their children’s precious reactions.
“Those are moments that music can help recreate for the audience,” Melkin says. “Music is a medium that sparks a memory, which brings a great dynamic to the program. When done right, it really can produce a powerful performance and one that the audience is going to enjoy and remember.”
Melkin adds that through its Circus Magic concert, the Arizona Wind Symphony hopes to provide the audience with the feeling of being at the circus.
“We are not going to have any lions or tigers standing in front of the audience but we can create the music that will give them that imagery,” he says. “We can take them to the circus that night even though there will not a single person spitting fire or taming elephants.”
Melkin notes that the Arizona Wind Symphony is considering inviting some sideshow circus entertainers — such as jugglers and silt walkers — to perform at some point during the evening as a means to accentuate the experience for the audience, but the star of the show will be the music itself.
That music will include “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite,” a 1913 march written by Karl King for the circus of the same name, and “Entry of the Gladiators,” an 1897 march written by Czech composer Julius Fucik.
“There will be circus music that will be kind of fast and loud and take the audience on a wild ride,” Melkin says. “Then we will throw in ‘Send In the Clowns,’ which is a little bit more subdued and very appealing. We will use that music to create the imagery of being at the circus.”
Richardson, a music educator with more than 30 years of service in Arizona schools, notes that the Arizona Wind Symphony came together at the turn of the century and will soon be celebrating its 20th season.
“I am honored to be conducting one of the finest community groups in the state and possibly even in the southwest area,” Richardson says.
Melkin agrees that the Arizona Wind Symphony is one of the highest caliber ensembles in the Valley but adds that it is just one of many groups who, together, make our community a hub of arts and culture.
“It speaks to the liveliness and the vitality of the art scene in Phoenix that there are so many options,” he says. “I think that we are a key part of the Valley’s community involvement in the arts. That is an important thing to keep going. We want to represent the Valley well with a diverse group that includes members of all different ages and all levels of experience who are thrown together.”
Melkin adds that the Arizona Wind Symphony has grown from the roughly two dozen members with which it started in 2000 to more than 90 members today — as well as a waitlist of instrumentalists hoping to one day join the ensemble on stage.
“We have members from all parts of the Valley who come together to make these performances happen,” he says. “Music is a never-ending journey. We are always learning as musicians and we are always seeking opportunities to continue playing. This is a lifelong skill of ours.
“What we really wanted to emphasize was good musicianship in terms of building a fun and interesting group to be a part of. I think that what we have been able to do over these last 20 years is just that.
“This band has really been a neat experience for me as a player. It has been exciting to watch it grow. We are looking forward to continuing our journey and seeing what other experiences we can offer the audience.”
Arizona Wind Symphony’s Circus Magic
Thursday, April 9 | 7 p.m. | Tempe Center for the Arts | 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe | $12+ | 480-350-2822 | tempecenterforthearts.com