By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
KENMORE — When the Kenmore East High School spring concert kicks off tonight, amidst all the students, friends and family there will be 26 silent presences in the auditorium.
Twenty-six white flowers will bloom in the band pit. Twenty-six names will decorate a white Tree of Remembrance.
And two very special pieces of music will pay tribute to the 26 victims of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The concert, which takes place at 7 p.m. today, will feature performances by the school’s jazz combo, string orchestra, symphonic orchestra, jazz band, honors jazz band, concert band and symphonic wind ensemble. Of those groups, the honors jazz band will present a premiere performance of “Too Soon to Say Goodbye,” by Ken East graduate Bill Todd, and the wind ensemble will present the premiere of “My Flight for Heaven” by composer Frederick Umar, said band director Phil Aguglia. Both pieces are dedicated to the memory of those killed in Newtown.
”I didn’t go into this concert thinking I was going to do a Sandy Hook tribute concert. It kind of evolved,” Aguglia said. “It’s not a pleasant topic. but if you do it right — it gets them thinking.
”I can tell you after Fredrick Umar was here, they were thinking. When they see him choked up, telling them what he was thinking, what it meant to him — it all of a sudden meant a lot more to them.”
Last week, Umar spent a day at the school, working and speaking with wind ensemble members about his arrangement of “My Flight for Heaven.”
Danielle Rosina, a junior who plays the flute in the ensemble, said the experience made her think of telling her younger brother about the shootings and what it meant.
”The piece is very reflective of the emotion that the people felt ... and still feel today,” she said. “He’s just amazing. He was just emotional in his conducting, when he was speaking about why he wrote this, very emotional about this piece.”
Michael Christie, a senior who plays the trumpet in both the ensemble and the honors jazz band, said that you can feel the emotion of both composers in their pieces.
”Literally every measure has a different meaning,” he said of Umar’s work. “It’s amazing. You can hear the children playing, the mourning in the later measures. It’s a very powerful work.”
Todd, a Town of Tonawanda native and 2005 Ken East graduate who now lives in Brooklyn, attended college at the State University of New York at Purchase. He was a student of saxophone player Jimmy Greene, whose daughter, Ana Marquez-Greene, 6, was one of the students killed at Sandy Hook.
That was not long after Aguglia asked him to write a new ballad for the jazz band, Todd said.
”Just about the time I started to finish out the tune and melody and the way it was going to go .... Sandy Hook happened,” he said. “I was feeling all this stuff inside and it had to come out. It was overwhelming. The piece I had started was scrapped; this new wave of emotion kind of took over.”
”Too Soon to Say Goodbye” came from that emotion, and from a message about his daughter Greene left on Facebook after the shooting.
”That’s kind of the energy I wanted the piece to have,” Todd said. “It’s tragic, but at the same time we have to appreciate the people around us. Ana Grace, from what I’ve heard about her, she was an amazing little girl.”
Not long after the shooting, Todd also lost his aunt Barbara unexpectedly, an experience that also affected the work.
”I couldn’t help putting all that in the piece, too,” he said. “With two people in mind who left too soon ... that’s where the piece was coming from.”
Todd’s piece, which made its debut this past weekend at the Ken East jazz bands’ performance at the Las Vegas Invitational Jazz Festival, had an effect not only on musicians there, but on Aguglia himself.
“I couldn’t even announce it,” he said. “I started to ... and I started choking up. I had to leave the stage. I went backstage and bawled my eyes out.
“That’s how you know you have a good piece.”
Information on how people can contribute to continuing relief funds for those affected by the Sandy Hook shootings will be provided at the concert.
IF YOU GO * WHAT: Kenmore East Spring Concert, including musical tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting * WHEN: 7 p.m. today * WHERE: Kenmore East High School, 350 Fries Road, Town of Tonawanda