When Hubert Bird’s hometown, Joplin, was struck by the May 2011 tornado, the composer wept not only in tears but in music.
The result is “The Other Side of Storm,” which was premiered as part of the city’s commemoration of the first anniversary of the tragedy. It will be presented Thursday during “Tragedy and the American Spirit,” a joint program pulling in the talents of the Pittsburg State University Wind Ensemble, Southeast Kansas Symphony Orchestra, University Chorale and the seventh and eighth grade chorus from the Pittsburg Community Middle School.
The first portion of the free public program, featuring the PSU Wind Ensemble, will be presented at 7 p.m. in Pittsburg Memorial Auditorium. “The Other Side of Storm” will follow at 8 p.m. in the First United Methodist Church.
The composer said he was overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the Joplin tornado.
“This was one of the most devastating tornados to ever hit a U.S. city,” Bird said. “One-third of Joplin was wiped out. If that tornado had struck, seven miles west and 22 miles north, nothing would be left of Pittsburg. Even the university would be taken.”
Bird said that he waited until around June 1 to visit Joplin because he didn’t want to get in the way of relief efforts.
“At the corner of 26th and Maiden Lane I just wept,” he said. “It’s still hard for me to drive down some of the streets. I live in Baxter Springs now, but Joplin is home, I was born there. I looked at my hospital. One of my doctors had been working there that day. I looked southwest and my doctor’s office, dentist’s office, all no longer standing.”
Bird mourns all those who died in the storm, but one face stands out, that of Will Norton, who was on his way home after graduating from Joplin High School when the tornado took him.
“He was a good-looking kid with the fire of intelligence in his eyes,” Bird said. “I was for many years a college teacher and you could see in his eyes all the verve for live and a promising future. His face was constantly on TV as they looked for him. They found him three days later, killed. This image just burned itself into my mind’s eye.”
Needing someone to talk to, he called an old friend, Colo. Lesley Bryan Shelburne Jr., whose 30-year career in music included leading the U.S. Military Academy Band at West Point and 10 years of leadership of the United States Army Band in Washington, D.C.
“As I was talking, Bryan stopped me and said, ‘Looks like there’s a new Bird work in there’,” the composer said.
Bird made an appointment to meet with Rob O’Brian, Joplin Chamber of Commerce president.
Page 2 of 3 - “I said, ‘I’m an artist and I can’t give you a lot of money, but I can give you a work’,” Bird said. “Rob’s words were, ‘This is an excellent idea and exactly what Joplin needs’.”
The composer’s works range from solo songs to works for symphony orchestras, including the official anthem of the U.S. Bicentennial celebration in 1976 and his “Constitution Overture” which honored the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.
He turned his talents to a piece he eventually titled “The Other Side of Storm.”
“It’s not ‘The Other Side of the Storm’,” Bird explained. “The storm caused so many other kinds of storm as well.”
He met with Joplin area teachers, including C.J. Huff, Joplin superintendent of schools.
“I was starting to formulate the idea of a choir,” he said. “Dr. Huff asked me, ‘Are you going to write for children?’ I said, ‘Of course I’m going to write for children.’ Just because they’re children doesn’t mean they weren’t touched by this. Then I felt that this piece would probably need narration, so I contacted Duane and Gwen Hunt, and Duane said that he would write the narration.”
Bird also searched out poetry that fit his work.
“I found poem after poem that, taken out of context, fit perfectly,” he said.
The Pittsburg production will feature PCMS seventh and eighth grade students under the direction of Virginia Darling, a soprano solo by Sarah Elizabeth Williams, an Oklahoma native who has sung with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Tulsa Opera, and a tenor solo by William Vance, Pittsburg, a friend of Bird from high school days.
“The Other Side of Storm” is a three-movement work running about 45 minutes.
Col. Shelburne conducted the Joplin premiere of the work, and will also conduct the Pittsburg performance. He will also be guest conductor of the PSU Wind Ensemble in a Sousa march. The ensemble’s portion of the program, under the direction of Craig Fuchs, will also include “Skysplitter” by Vincent Oppido, “Testament” by David Maslanka and “Pastime” by Jack Stamp.
Bird said he chose to have PSU do the second performance of “The Other Side of Storm” because other universities and professional groups are starting to look at it.
“It was important to me to bring this work to my alma mater,” he said. “I want PSU to have the first university performance of this on record, then anybody else in the world can have it.”
Bird earned a bachelor’s degree in music, a bachelor’s in music education and a master of science, all from PSU, before receiving a doctorate in music from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He taught at elementary, middle school and high school levels in Missouri for 30 years, then taught at the Keene State College of the University System of New Hampshire until his retirement.
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