BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
When Hubert Bird was 7 years old, his mother took him to Memorial Hall to see a New York production of “Oklahoma” — his first experience hearing a live orchestra.
Bird grew up to become a noted composer, penning concerts commissioned for national observances such as the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
On Saturday, May 12, a work of his unlike any other will be performed at Memorial Hall as part of a series of public observances for the May 22 tornado. There will be 50 musicians from across the country and more than 200 voices onstage that night, including 48 All-City Singers and more than 150 members of area high school choirs.
Career in music
Bird was born in Joplin and graduated from Joplin Junior College in 1959.
“While there I absolutely lucked out and studied under noted composer Merrill Ellis, where I was able to learn the craft,” said Bird, who now lives in Baxter Springs, Kan.
He earned degrees in music and music education from Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, and began a graduate degree at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., where he met noted composers Leonard Bernstein and Robert Shaw.
When it became necessary to “earn a living,” Bird returned to Missouri to teach, first in the Mount Vernon school district and later he led the choral program at North Kansas City High School. After earning his master’s degree at PSU, he returned to New England where he would teach another 30 years at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
Along the way he married and had a daughter. Jenny, now 41, followed in her father’s musical footsteps, becoming an internationally known soprano.
During his career, Bird has been commissioned for several national compositions and has had his works performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. In 1976, he was selected by the National Bicentennial Commission to write the official anthem for the United States’ 200th anniversary celebration.
In 1987, the U.S. Military Academy Band at West Point, N.Y., commissioned Bird for “Constitution Overture,” for the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Col. Bryan Shelburne conducted the U.S. Military Academy Band for the premiere concert of that work and would become a longtime friend.
“My name became musically connected with two of our greatest documents,” said Bird, now 73.
Bird remembers being “stunned” after seeing May 22 storm coverage of the city he considers his second home. “I’m here all the time. My family lived here when I was a teenager. My doctor’s office, dentist’s office, optometrist — all gone. Familiar landmarks I’d frequented — all gone.”
He was especially struck by a photograph of Will Norton, a Joplin High School graduate who died in the storm.
“When I first saw that boy’s picture on TV, it froze in my mind,” Bird said. “As a former teacher, the first thing that struck me were his eyes. You could see intelligence, verve, excitement, a love of life. He was 30 minutes out of high school. It just got ahold of me and didn’t let go.”
Bird said Norton was a catalyst for writing a musical work.
“When writers, poets, artists, musicians see things, hear things, experience things, we react to them. That reaction makes us do what we do,” he said.
Bird waited two weeks to come to Joplin after the storm, deciding it was best to stay out of the way of those trying to help in rescue efforts.
“When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it. It leaves you speechless, the horror of it,” he said.
He returned to Baxter Springs and called his friend Shelburne.
Shelburne had a 30-year career in music, culminating in 10 years of leadership of the United States Army Band, Washington, D.C., which supports White House, U.S. Capitol and Pentagon events. He also led the U.S. Military Academy Band at West Point and the U.S. Army, Europe Headquarters Band in Heidelberg, Germany.
“I just told him, ‘You can’t begin to believe what I’ve just seen’,” Bird recalled of their conversation. “And he told me, ‘It sounds like there’s a new work coming out of this.’”
Bird contacted Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce President Rob O’Brian, saying, “I knew I needed some support.”
“I outlined my idea and told him, ‘I can’t give Joplin money and I can’t clear debris, but I can give you a work.’”
While O’Brian emphasized it is not a chamber project, the Chamber Foundation agreed to provide support by raising money to help Bird.
“We made it a charitable contribution in line with the arts in the community,” said O’Brian, who praised Bird for focusing not on the storm, but beyond it.
Bird got busy calling everyone he knew in the music world to arrange for musicians, singers and narrators. Braden Berziel, a Joplin entrepreneur, signed on as the concert’s business manager.
Bird’s daughter and her husband, Björn Arvidsson, an established opera and concert singer, signed on to be primary soloists. Gwen and Duane Hunt, formerly of Missouri Southern State University and classmates of Bird’s at Joplin Junior College, agreed to be narrators.
May 12 event
On May 12 at Memorial Hall, the concert will be performed by a 50-piece symphony orchestra — all of whom are volunteering and paying their own way to Joplin — plus the Joplin All-City Singers and high school choirs from Joplin, Webb City, Galena, Riverton and Neodesha,Kan.
Shelburne will come to Joplin to conduct.
“Once they found out about it, they all said they wanted to come,” Bird said. “They said, ‘It will be our contribution. We can give our time and our talent.’ The city has received money, clothing, food, volunteers. But this is the artists’ response.”
Bird considers the concert a gift to Joplin.
The composer has been putting in 17-hour days, until 2 a.m. and often later, to write music for all instruments and all vocals, as well as writing narration. His efforts will culminate in a rehearsal Friday afternoon and an all-day rehearsal on Saturday, leading up to the concert at 7:30 p.m.
O’Brian said the chance for Joplin to have a nationally known composer willing to spend time and talent to create such a piece is a “great thing.”
“It is in recognition and a memorial, but also a rejoicing of the rebuilding effort to date,” O’Brian said. “I think the attitude, pretty consistently, has been one of, ‘We’re moving forward, we’re going to rebuild, we’ll be back better.’ It’s been an uplifting experience, certainly one that had tragedy and devastation, but ... we’re going to be better.”
Bird said he wants to reflect that in his work.
To be called “A Vision of Hope,” the concert will consist of two parts. The first part, at about 30 minutes, will feature each choir singing two pieces selected by their choir directors. The second part, in three movements by Bird, will be called “The Other Side of Storm.”
“It isn’t ‘the storm’, it is just ‘storm,’” he said of the title. “What I’m writing about is the tornadoes that the tornado caused, the inner tornadoes among those who survived, who lost loved ones or everything they owned.”
Bird included a poem by Thomas Ferrell in the lyrics. Ferrell wrote, “Beyond the sundown lies tomorrow’s vision, today is going to be long ago.”
He also drew on a poem to address the loss of children on May 22. It says, “How many frolics we have seen who now shall frisk no more.”
“Yes, it will be emotional. The poetry is extremely strong,” Bird said. “There were times when I just had to stop writing. But I don’t intend to make people sad. The hope for the piece is that there is a future, a healing, a knowledge that there is a brighter tomorrow.”
The concert’s final poem, written by Joplin native Langston Hughes, will be “In Time of Silver Rain,” to be read by the Hunts. Part of the poem was used in Joplin’s community mural at 15th and Main streets.
The poem says, in part: “In time of silver rain/The earth/Puts forth new life again/Green grasses grow/And flowers lift their heads/And over all the plain/The wonder spreads/Of life, of life, of life!”