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Frederick Fennell, 90; Conductor, Woodwind Pioneer

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page B06

Frederick Fennell, 90, who died of a heart ailment Dec. 7 at his home in Siesta Key, Fla., was a much-recorded conductor who invented the contemporary wind ensemble, spurring an entire original repertoire for such groups and making them a national phenomenon.

He made more than 100 recordings -- notably in the 1950s for the Mercury label that showcased the Eastman Wind Ensemble, which he had founded in 1952 in Rochester, N.Y. It is now one of the premier interpreters of its genre.


Frederick Fennell


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Beethoven, Mozart and other composers had written for wind players, but the works typically were chamber pieces, providing a part for one flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, sometimes with a French horn accompaniment. Larger orchestras were known for pitting a handful of winds against dozens of violins because wind players easily could overwhelm the strings.

While on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, Mr. Fennell championed the idea of a wind ensemble with flexible instrumentation and personnel. He hoped wind musicians could play chamber pieces and large-scale works.

The New Grove Dictionary of American Music wrote that "Fennell's pioneering series of [more than 20] recordings for Mercury brought about a reconsideration of the wind medium and established performance and literature models for the more than 20,000 wind ensembles that were subsequently established in American schools."

His notable recordings included Percy Grainger's "Lincolnshire Posy" and a two-volume set of recordings of Civil War-era music. The Civil War recordings received Grammy Awards for their special effects, including authentic artillery sounds Mr. Fennell recorded at the Gettysburg battlefield and synchronized with the music.

"It took me four years . . . to make this series, just as long as the war itself," he told an interviewer. "I was so proud when Ken Burns phoned me to say that these recordings inspired him to sort through more than 5,000 photographs to create his TV documentary series on the Civil War."

Besides championing "lost" works, he advocated performing the pieces of modern composers, including Igor Stravinsky and Carl Ruggles. His work, he wrote, "argues strongly against the old complaint leveled against wind instruments that there is no music written for them which is of sufficient interest to make anyone care to hear it performed."

Mr. Fennell was born July 2, 1914, in Cleveland. At 7, he was drumming in the fife-and-drum corps at a camp started by his uncles. After hearing a radio broadcast from the prestigious youth music camp in Interlochen, Mich., he said he felt an immediate compulsion to attend, "even if I had to shoot my grandmother."

He met John Philip Sousa a year before the legendary march composer's death in 1932. The young percussionist was the bass drummer at Interlochen when Sousa was guest conductor and had written a march for the school called "The Northern Pines."

For years afterward, Mr. Fennell called himself "Mr. Sousa's bass drummer."

He was a percussion graduate of Eastman, where he also received a master's degree in music theory in 1939. As a student, he organized a marching band for the University of Rochester football team and held indoor concerts with the band after the football season. Out of that group, he eventually formed the Eastman Wind Ensemble, which at its peak had about 45 members.

After leaving Eastman in 1962, Mr. Fennell did conducting work in Minneapolis, Miami, Dallas, Boston, Cleveland and at Interlochen. He wrote books about American music history, including "Time and the Winds" (1954) and "The Drummer's Heritage" (1956).

From 1984 to 1989, he conducted the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, transforming it into a world-class touring and recording group. A concert facility in Kofu, Japan, was named after him.

Mr. Fennell once said he knew only 120 words of Japanese and taped to his podium the most frequently used expressions -- "play softer," for example -- translated phonetically into English.

"I smile and bow a lot," he told a reporter. "And I conduct rehearsals in body language and with my technique. I tell young conductors that they would be fortunate to find a job in a country where they don't speak the language -- conducting is not talking."

Mr. Fennell was confident about his legacy, seeming at times boastful in print. He stood about 5 feet tall but was easily recognizable because of his wild white hair.

Asked once about his favorite honors, he said, "the unique Gold Medal from Interlochen, the Eastman School's honorary doctorate and being inducted as a Chief of the Kiowa Nation in 1984."

His marriages to Dorothy Fennell and Lynn Fennell ended in divorce. Survivors include his third wife, Elizabeth Ludwig-Fennell of Siesta Key; and a daughter from the first marriage.


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