109. The University of Montana

During my fourth year in the Air Force and at Catholic University, along with finishing the dissertation and everything else, there remained the problem of finding a job for the following year to begin my civilian life. Fortunately for me this was resolved rather effortlessly when in January, 1963, I received a phone call from Dr. Charles Bolen, Dean of the School of Arts at the University of Montana, offering me a job over the phone, with no campus interview with a salary of $5,400 per year and $6,000 per year if I finished my doctoral degree, which I did. The origin of this opening was a desire on the part of the faculty to establish a faculty woodwind quintet and they needed a horn player. My being assistant first horn in the Air Force band and orchestra in Washington being the only recommendation they needed.

Before continuing the story of my move to Missoula, Montana, let me make a further comment on this faculty quintet. Apart from myself, the members of the quintet were the flutist who was the dean; the clarinetist, a very quiet and withdrawn professor; the oboist was a part-time professor, being also the conductor of a fine high school orchestra in town, and the bassoonist, who was a graduate student. At our first rehearsal we began by reading through a movement of some woodwind quintet. When we came to the end we just sat there momentarily at a loss of what to do next. The dean said nothing, as he did not want to appear to be the leader just because he was dean. The clarinetist, by the nature of his personality said nothing. The oboist, although a brilliant musician, being only part-time and never having been treated as a regular faculty member, felt he should say nothing and the bassoonist, being only a student, said nothing. And I, being a brand new faculty member having been on campus only a relatively few days, did not feel I should speak out. So we just sat there until eventually someone suggested we should read through this movement again. A few weeks later the bassoonist somehow managed to blow a hole in his oesophagus, ending his career as a bassoonist and ending the existence of the faculty quintet!

To return to my joining the faculty at the University of Montana, a school of a little over 6,000 students, I should point out that the music department had a very good reputation throughout the Northwest and I felt lucky to have been offered a position there as my very first university job. In July I decided to write to the Chairman of the department, Dr Gerald Doty, a violinist and who curiously during WWII had briefly been director of bands at the University of Indiana, to ask what my exact teaching load would consist of, in case I needed to obtain some materials in advance, etc. In his answer he welcomed me and said my responsibilities for the Fall, 1963 semester would be the faculty quintet (which he viewed as a large part of the load), being the private teacher of all (!) horn, trombone, tuba and percussion students, a music education class, a theory class and … the Marching Band!

No word had ever previously been made regarding doing the marching band and, leaving aside the extensive rest of the teaching load, this news shocked me. I had no desire whatsoever to be responsible for a university marching band and my immediate instinct was to communicate my withdrawal from the position! However, it was now, in late July, too late to find another position for the 1963–1964 academic year and so I first called up an acquaintance, Jerry Domer, an oboist in the Army band who was a graduate of the University of Montana to find out more about this situation. He advised me to take the job because the marching band was terrible, no one having paid any attention to it and that whatever I did would be a great improvement over the past and would be greatly appreciated. So on the basis of this recommendation I decided to forge ahead.

After my enlistment period in the Air Force ended, in mid-August, I had only about four weeks to drive to Montana and to design and single-handedly write all the music for the first marching band show, not to mention recruiting its members!

Montana State University Marching Band recruitment poster

As it turned out, the marching band had previously done almost no movement on the field and so, with a great installation of discipline, I was able to make a great impression by doing that alone. During that period marching band shows nationally consisted of making stick figures on the field, accomplished by extensive explanation of what the audience was seeing over the loud speaker from the press box. My first show honored the Forestry Department and included a stick figure Paul Bunyan walking down the field and chopping down a tree. All of course visually ridiculous given a 64 member little band and very low bleachers, but it was judged a great success.

During the second season, with the help of two graduate students with marching band background, we began doing drill instead of stick figures, which was not only much easier in term of rehearsal time but made more sense visually. However, I did add a new tradition during the second year, involving figures on the field, which brought me great local fame. At half-time we would form on the field the actual score of both the home team and visiting team, whatever it was at half-time! Assuming marching bands had numerous rehearsals before the game, which was quite true of course, the audience wondered, how did Whitwell know in advance what the score was going to be at half-time! Believe it or not, I was even visited in my office by two very shady characters from Las Vegas offering me a vast sum of money to reveal my secret in knowing things in advance. The real answer was that the students had to memorize 10 possible movements and would only know at the very moment the first half ended which formation they would go into to reflect the score on the field at half-time!

Montana State University Marching Band

While I had never had any real interest in marching bands, due to the changes I made I was astonished at the consequent changes this new sense of discipline had on the entire music department, and indeed on the university itself to some degree. The president of the university, being a man who dreamed of a Big Ten environment, became an instant and very strong supporter, writing me letters of congratulation after every show, and began contributing money for things I wanted, like new band uniforms and additional instruments. In addition I was able, by example alone when I appeared in white tie and tails, to establish for the first time the tradition of this music faculty wearing tuxes when they performed.

Missoula, Montana was at that time a small town of about 35,000 people, far removed from larger towns where better shopping was available and very isolated in terms of news media. Other than a local TV station devoted to local news, the only access to national news was by cable, and by cable meant an actual wire cable running from Spokane, Washington, to Missoula. This cable was privately owned and the owner decided for himself what he thought we should see in Missoula. There was, for example, an occasion when a famous boxing match including Muhammad Ali was to be televised and since the students generally had no access to television I had invited a number of the boys to my home to watch. Just at the time when the program was scheduled to begin there appeared on the screen the American flag with a voice-over by the owner of the cable announcing that he had concluded that Muhammad Ali was un-American and therefore he was not going to show this fight!

Another consequence of the lack of television was that I had very large audiences for my university band concerts, often more then 900! There wasn’t much else for the audience to do in Missoula.

The music faculty was generally quite adequate and included a couple of very capable people. Among them was a retired music educator, Luther Richman, who had previously been the national president of MENC and the state Supervisor of Music for the state of Virginia. After his retirement in Virginia he was hired by the Cincinnati Conservatory to benefit from his reflected glory and then he retired again and was hired by the University of Montana for the same reason.

By the time I came to know Richman at Montana, a delightful man, he was quite elderly and his short term memory was quite, shall we say, problematic! A graduate student told me of meeting with Richman in his office one day when Richman said to him, “I am now going to tell you the one great secret, the one thing that will make your career!” At that point, Richman glanced out his office window and saw something which made him forget the conversation and the student never heard the one great secret!

In my case, one of the great disappointments in arriving in Missoula was discovering a very poor municipal golf course and so one day when Richman invited me to be his guest at the Missoula Country Club I was very excited to accompany him there. On the first tee we each hit our ball and when we arrived back together at the green he turned to me and asked, “So, young man, what would you have said in such a circumstance?” He had been having an imaginary conversation with me while we were each walking our separate ways toward the green. And so I was faced with making an answer having no idea what the story was about! This process continued for all 18 holes of golf and my joy in having the opportunity to play on a good course was overshadowed by my desire to make a decent impression in this, my first week in a new job, by trying to think of 18 different answers which could apply to unknown circumstances!

One more story about life in Missoula. Before we were married, Giselle, who had been reared a Catholic, and I, who had been reared a Protestant, had long discussions on religion and on how we would accommodate our fundamental differences if married. Since, as it turned out, we were married before my second year at Montana, I was overjoyed during my first year there to discover in Missoula a wonderful small Episcopal church, the traditional middle-ground in such conflicts, with a wonderful young minister who was a great speaker and I wrote to Giselle promising this as a happy resolution. But after our marriage in Washington, D.C., and upon our arrival in Missoula we discovered that this wonderful young preacher had resigned to study Law and had been replaced with a ridiculous new man from Hollywood who mostly told jokes during his sermon. A day or two after this first disappointing church service, the university choral conductor, Don Carey, invited Giselle and I to go skiing, with him teaching us how. The next Sunday we went skiing and found standing on a mountain top in the very scenic mountainous part of Western Montana to be more spiritual than Church and so from that time on we went skiing every Sunday!

It was while in Missoula that I first began to write and publish articles in national journals. In The Instrumentalist Magazine alone, between 1964 and 1967, while I was in Missoula, I had published no fewer than twenty-one articles on wind instrument history, in addition to a number of articles in several other journals. In addition, the Instrumentalist paid their authors, something most welcome for by the time I left Montana my salary was still only $7,000 per year.

While at Montana I remained an active performer on French horn and in 1966, during the Summer of my third year, I had the opportunity to make a six-week recital tour of South America, in cooperation with the United States State Department. My wife, Giselle, accompanied me on a major program which included the Hindemith Sonata, the First Horn Concerto by Strauss and the Mozart D Major Concerto, which I performed on an authentic natural horn. All of these require a first-rate pianist and she did a super job. In addition, in La Paz I performed the Fourth Concerto by Mozart with the National Orchestra of Bolivia.

We performed recitals in the major cities of all the South America countries, in major concert halls and before large audiences. Much of the credit for the latter went to the State Department, who also arranged publicity, programs and some hotels. Most important, they met us at each airport and transported us to our hotel, which in the case of Sao Paulo, for example, was an hundred miles from the airport! The State Department also made possible my visiting anyone I wanted to meet in each city. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, they arranged for us to have tea with the French speaking widow of the great composer, Villa Lobos. The government had given her an entire floor of a large building to house his manuscript scores, which she estimated at being 4,000. She had collected for me a number of programs and recording of his music for civic bands.

Unlike the northern countries, in South America each major city has several newspapers and so we received several reviews in each city. These were all published after the concert, but the State Department collected many of them and sent them to us later. It turned out that in every case this was the first time a French horn was heard in a public recital and so the reviews were quite extraordinary. A sampling:

La Paz, Bolivia

Professor Whitwell demonstrated brilliant virtues of interpretation and the technical handling of his instrument was very exact. The public gave their affirmative testimony with a prolonged ovation.

“Ultima Hora,” August 11, 1966

Omitting the unnecessary analysis of this great virtuoso’s program, one dana affirm that this meaningful concert, by it transcendent sobriety, revealed the end that his difficult path of art pursues … The magnificence of the interpreters was projected in a sense of emotional economy, yet with a vigorous demonstration of the absolute factor in the music of our times.

“El Diario,” August 12, 1966

Buenos Aires, Argentina

On the 18th century instrument the professor demonstrated his sense of humor and humbleness. On the modern instrument he obtained beautiful sonorities, a full, mellow musical timbre, put at the service of a true musical temperament.

“Prensa,” August 17, 1966.

Caracas, Venezuela

An extraordinary, delightful concert … It is his professional work as an artist, as an interpreter, that we have appreciated greatly on this musical evening. Whitwell demonstrated to the numerous audience his quality as an instrumentalist, his sure technique, and a profoundly cultivated musical sensibility. The quality of his sound is always of great purity and his artistic temperament gives evidence of eminence. It is from this that his interpretations result. The excellent version of the Hindemith Sonata and the Mozart Concerto earned his most warm applause of the numerous listeners who went with great curiosity to hear this extraordinary horn player.

“El Mundo,” September 14, 1966

Mexico City, Mexico

The North American hornist, Whitwell, had much success in this the first such presentation in our country. Whitwell gives a personal accent and a perfect interpretation of the scores. After the concert a reception was offered, during which the visiting artists received innumerable congratulations by those who know how to appreciate good music and its worthy interpreters.

“Novadades,” September 12, 1966

The distinguished hornist, David Whitwell, offered a brilliant concert … a magnificent recital …

“Universal” September 12, 1966

During the visits to these cities there were a number of very interesting occurrences. In Buenos Aires, for example, when we arrived we discovered the posters announced that in addition to the recital I would give a public lecture on the French horn. Since my wife is a native speaker in Spanish, with her help this was no problem. The interesting thing was that this city also maintained an entire band made up of blind musicians! When the recital concluded the horn section of this blind band all came up to “see” the natural horn. I allowed them to play a few notes on it, which I am sure was something they never forgot!

The most extraordinary event happened in La Paz, Bolivia, where the wife of the American Ambassador telephoned me to express her concern that the piano would be acceptable. It turned out, she said, that the only piano tuner in La Paz was on some sort of protest against the United States and had refused to tune the instrument. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “we will make do.” This recital was proceeded by a formal banquet, at which I was the guest of honor, attended by the ambassadors of a number of other countries. There was much toasting, of course, but I was careful not to allow this to affect my performance. When it came time for us to perform we found, to my horror, that the piano was more flat than I could accommodate on my instrument! But after that banquet there was no way I could just turn around and announce to this distinguished audience that we could not play. The alternative, which we accomplished, was for me to transpose on sight the entire program. That I was relaxed enough to do this I attributed to my having sipped a little of the wine during those toasts. But the strange and remarkable thing to me was the fact that I did not seem to have a conscious mental awareness of the transposition; it seemed to me that I was a listener, listening to some other part of my brain perform the recital!

The final recital was in Mexico City and at the private reception afterward (where most people were speaking in French!) the cultural minister of the government came up and asked us to extend our recital tour with another 90 performances in towns and villages throughout Mexico at the government’s expense! Not mentioning our fear of the nature of the pianos we might find in smaller rural towns, we rather explained that we were exhausted from the previous six-weeks and felt we need to go home and rest!

During my fourth year at the University of Montana came the highpoint of my residence there. My band was invited to perform at the 25th anniversary of the CBDNA in a great conference to be held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our performance was in competition with the great Big Ten bands, including Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Minnesota. Because no one expected anything from the small school in Montana, the band’s great performance, coming at the end of a lengthy tour throughout the Mid-West, really surprised everyone. Indeed, I had conductors come up to me and mention this performance for the next forty years.

A sampling of letters received,

I can honestly say that your performance was the finest I have ever heard.

Mr. Harry Pfingsten, Cleveland, Ohio

To hear a concert band play with the finesse and sensitivity of a highly trained symphony orchestra is an event which comes once in a lifetime. Mr. Burger, our band director at Academy High School, said it best. He said that the Montana Concert Band was by far the most eloquent band that had ever graced their stage—or ever would!

Mr. Carl Peterson, Erie, New York

The performance by the Montana Band is one of the finest concerts I have been privileged to hear anywhere. Few people, I regret to say, can realize and appreciate the magnitude of the job that must be done by the director to achieve the degree of musical dedication and perfection as well as self-discipline necessary to develop a band such as you brought to Elkhart. Our sincere congratulations and appreciation to you, your staff and the band for an outstanding, inspiring performance.

Ronald Miethe, Elkhart, Indiana

You shocked everyone by turning in the most stunning performance of the whole conference. Thank you again for an inspired performance that we shall not forget.

Mrs. Jack Snider, Lincoln, Nebraska

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the wonderful concert you performed in Ann Arbor. The Montana Band is the band of the future. Your band with its young members and conductor display a thrilling sense of excitement for your music, and your performance transfers this excitement to your audience.

Prof. Thomas Morse, Eastern Michigan University

It was a truly virtuoso performance on the part of both conductor and players and the choice of music was ideal. Everyone concerned is deserving of the highest praise.

Harold Bachman, The University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida

Your concert was fine! The band did you proud with this difficult program, and your conducting looked great. It was, truly, a most enjoyable evening.

Prof. Elizabeth Green, Professor of Conducting, The University of Michigan

You certainly did your part in upholding the honor of wind playing with your splendid performance in Ann Arbor. The band and you did a superb performance and we of the Northwest were proud of you and happy that you did represent us in the magnificent fashion you did.

Prof. Walter Welke, University of Washington

Recently it was my privilege to compare Mr. David Whitwell with seven other leading College and University Conductors. So impressive was his performance, I asked him if he would consider leaving his present position for an orchestral conducting job. His sensitivity, fine musical taste and infinite control over his group of musicians marked him as the outstanding conductor at the most recent convention of College Band Directors.

Jack Snider, The University of Nebraska

At the recent CBDNA National Conference, his performance was outstanding. His band played a difficult program of wind music with great finesse. He was the only conductor to conduct all works without a score.

James Jorgenson, University of Redlands

Mr. Whitwell is obviously extremely talented. He conducted an entire program, including contemporary music, without a score. The performance was tightly controlled and one of the most musical I have heard. He knew exactly what he was after and the results were remarkable, especially considering the relative immaturity of his players.

Paul Bryan, Duke University

From a visual point of view, Dr. Whitwell is an exciting conductor to watch. His movements are always in complete character with the music he is doing and they constitute an artistic performance in themselves. Dr. Whitwell has a remarkable musical memory which is the envy of many of his colleagues. I have never seen him conduct from a score.

Prof. Roger Heath, Purdue University

This concert took place in January, 1967, and what must have been a great surprise to many people, I soon resigned from the faculty at the University of Montana. There were several reasons for this. First, the creation of this long tour of the Mid-West, which brought so much great publicity to the University, was a considerable strain on me physically. In fact just before we left I was still more than $7,000 lacking in financial support and did not know finally that we would consequently be able to make this trip until the very week-end before we left.

Another important factor had to do with my own musical growth in the then cultural atmosphere of Missoula. When we had returned from the remarkable recital tour of South America we gave a recital on campus and it was barely noticed by the faculty and, indeed, I felt the very accomplishment of these foreign recitals meant nothing to the music faculty, a faculty where almost no member ever played a public recital.

A similar reflection on the cultural environment happened a couple of months later when the Houston Symphony came to town and gave a performance on campus, an event we were all looking forward to for we rarely heard great performances in Missoula. It was the first performance of a tour they were making of the West Coast and the orchestra, having suffered a very difficult flight to Missoula, were all nearly sick. The subsequent concert was terrible and the conductor, the now elderly famous British conductor, John Barbirolli, was drunk and had to be helped to the podium by an assistant. I was horrified, but even more so when going into the lobby during intermission I found that all of my other music colleagues were praising this performance. I immediately realized that I did not want to live in Missoula for a length of time that might cause me to forget the outside musical world and its standards!

Finally, and of great importance to me personally, the administration of the band program at Montana was still a one-man job and I had reached the point where I simply could not face doing another marching band season. This was reinforced by a growing number of people who thought I should explore professional conducting. Among these was Milton Katims, Conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, after he heard me guest conduct his orchestra. I spoke with him about trying professional conducting and he responded by writing,

I have written letters to both Ormandy and Ehrling to express to them my reaction to your work, and I do hope they will help you along your chosen path.

With all best wishes to you.

Milton Katims, Conductor, Seattle Symphony Orchestra

Subsequently, the dean at Montana gave me two weeks off for me to make visits with conductors on the East Coast, a trip I will write about in the following post.