When Russ Newbury conducts his new piece, “Going to the Sun,” for the Flathead Valley Eighth Grade Honor Band Festival this week, he’ll be bringing his own childhood memories to the stage.
Newbury, a Whitefish native and 1977 graduate of Whitefish High School, will lead the honors band through the world premiere of his piece on Thursday, March 22 at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center at 6:30 p.m.
Currently Newbury serves as the Director of Bands at Hanford High School in Richland, Washington. Previously he’s served as the “Foster Project Northwest Division Chair” for the National Band Associations, and has directed bands for 25 years, including in Bozeman High School and in Libby. He is a graduate of Montana State University.
The honors band is composed of top student musicians from Kalispell, Libby, Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Bigfork middle schools, along with Stillwater Christian Academy.
In talking to Whitefish High School Band Director Mark McCrady, as well as other band directors in the Valley, Newbury said a few ideas were tossed around for the commissioned piece.
The one they landed on, honoring Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, is a topic Newbury knows well.
“Really, for any of us who grew up there, there’s this etched memory of how amazing the Going-to-the-Sun Road is, and just its geography and landscape, so it’s sort of a sacred place in my imagination. So for me, it was easy to tap into that,” Newbury said.
As he worked on writing the piece, Newbury said he dove deep into research on the road’s history and came up with some interesting tidbits to work into his music.
The 50-mile road was dedicated in 1933 after two years of construction and is a National Historic Place, National Historic Landmark and Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
For one, he discovered that many of the stone masons who worked on the road were Russian. To honor that, he quoted some motifs from “Salvation is Created,” a choral work composed in 1912 by Russian composer Pavel Tschesnokoff.
Other parts of the road, like the Big Drift, an area where a large drift of snow forms on the road immediately east of Logan Pass, the traffic of the visitors and the grandeur of the landscape found their way into the musical piece.
“The power we have is to be able to tell our story, in a sense. I think the part of my story in it is just the awe and beauty of creation, and the ingenuity of the human spirit. The architectural feat of creating the road in that place would defy most people’s abilities to do that. I stand amazed at that and bring that emotional content into the craft of being a writer,” he said.
Newbury said his family history is synonymous with Glacier as well.
He remembers Sunday picnics at Lake McDonald, and stories of his grandfather Vern Hedman, one of the first park rangers in the 1920s. His mother, Carol, grew up along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River across from Nyack Flats.
“Our family heritage was really intertwined with all of that, and the legends and the stories,” he said. “The park was really kind of our playground in a sense.”
As a composer, Newbury said he didn’t find any difficulty in exploring themes and topics so connected to his childhood.
He’s aware of his role as a storyteller, and his story as it relates to Sun Road is one he’s happy to share with audiences and band students.
“I think it will be fun to share that story and a little bit of my story, and maybe in our interactions we’ll be comparing notes as to their own personal experiences in the park and in music,” Newbury said. “I think what I always want them to do is feel like what they’re doing in a musical classroom is valuable, and it helps add value to their own human experience. What I’ve done is put notes on a page, and in my imagination it’s pretty cool, but the reality is that they’re going to be the ones that breathe life into the piece as a community of performers, and that’s a special thing.”