Tacoma maestro signals coda to nearly 40-year career
Composer and musical director Robert Musser describes the Tacoma Concert Band as his “baby.”
After creating the band in 1981, from little more than an idea and then some phone calls, it’s an understandable view for the former University of Puget Sound music professor.
But after 38 seasons, with his final Tacoma performance with the band fast approaching, one thing is clear:
Musser’s baby is a baby no more.
“It’s a mature group, and it’s a very healthy group,” Musser told me over coffee from a booth at Elmer’s Restaurant on South Hosmer this week.
“I’m proud of that,” said the retiring conductor, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday. “We have a reputation now. I think anyone who plays an instrument knows about us.”
The location Musser chose for our interview, a no-frills diner in Tacoma’s no-frills South End, might seem fitting to some — emblematic of the class divide between orchestras, which are often seen as upper-crust entertainment, and band music, which many associate with high school marching outfits or halftime shows.
To Musser, however, one of the most lasting things he’s been able to do during his nearly four decades leading the Tacoma Concert Band is challenge that perception.
His band, he believes, is different, and listeners have taken note.
“With orchestras there’s a built in — I don’t know what to call it — it’s almost like snob appeal," he said. "There are people who go to the symphony, because it’s the symphony. They don’t go to band concerts for that reason.
“So many people, their concept of what a band sounds like is the band they played in, the band their son or daughter plays in or some school band. But we get them in the door, and they realize, ‘Oh my gosh, is this what a band sounds like?’ Then they come back.”
Come back people have, for 37 years. And what a show Musser and his band have provided over that time.
While there are now a handful of community bands in the region, none matches Tacoma Concert Band’s resonance, resume or repertoire.
Regularly filling the stage with roughly 60 top-notch volunteer musicians — unpaid, but professional in every other sense of the word — this is a troupe that, in addition to season after season of Tacoma-based performances, has three times toured Europe, and was the third ever recipient of the John Philip Sousa Foundation’s Sudler Silver Scroll award.
"I think it’s been a very important part of the cultural life of the community," said Mark Reutlinger, the band's executive director. "It's a benefit to the community ... both in terms of the entertainment it provides for its audiences, and the opportunity it provides for members of the band to play and to exercise their talents."
"Bob is like a member of the family," Reutlinger added, so watching him step down is "very bittersweet time for the band, and especially for those who have been with the band for a very long time."
On the eve of retirement, I asked Musser about the highlights of his career leading the Tacoma Concert Band. Specific moments, such as the standing ovation the band received at the Dvorak Hall in Prague come to mind. So too do the many accolades the band has received.
Mostly, however, Musser focuses on the community institution he created, and what he leaves behind in the capable hands of the band’s board and new conductor, Gerard Morris.
“I feel so proud that I have created this, this ensemble, for the musicians that have a chance to play in it, and for the audience that we’ve built,” Musser said.
“I’ve given the community something. It’s a legacy. It’s a wonderful ensemble that plays the very finest in the symphonic band literature. … This is considered the premiere community concert band in the area.”
Back in 1981, it would have been difficult to predict such an outcome. A woodwind player himself, at the time Musser had played professionally in the area and worked at the University of Puget Sound as professor of music for a decade.
“I just had this desire to start a community band that wasn’t a typical community band, it was a semi-professional band,” he recalled.
“So I started to call all the musicians that I would like to have in the band, one by one, and everybody I called said yes, I want to do this.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
So why give it all up? I asked.
“I feel like it’s time,” the conductor told me simply, before noting that the band will tour Scotland and Ireland one last time under his direction this summer.
“I just turned 80. I think that I’m still good at what I’m doing.” Musser said. “And I don’t want to keep going until I’m not anymore.”
Luckily for Tacoma, even after Musser exits the stage for the final time next week, the baby he created will live on.
“I’m leaving the community with something really special,” he said.
“There’s no reason to think it won’t continue.”
I’ll tap my foot to that.