Montclair State University Musicians Perform in Rowboats in Central Park

Musicians Joined West Point Band for New York Premiere of "Maritime Rites"

“Contemporary music and boats! What a lovely combination,” enthuses incoming freshman and flutist Monika Szumski, who was among the 38 members from the Montclair State University Symphonic Band and Wind Symphony participating on June 21, in Make Music New York (MMNY)—an annual free music celebration.  

Musicians from the West Point Band, the Army’s oldest band, joined the Montclair State musicians for the New York premiere of composer Alvin Curran’s 40-minute Maritime Rites. “It is at times calm, intense, confusing, and terrifying and is as much a piece of theater as it is a piece of music,” comments Thomas McCauley, Montclair State’s director of bands.

The 80 musicians of the combined ensembles performed Curran’s signature work while seated in rowboats that were in constant motion on the lake in Central Park. Each rowboat held three performers and a rower. “Three flutists in a boat plus one rower equals trouble,” Szumski says. “It wasn’t unstable—as long as we barely moved. One of us was in the front, keeping time on a stopwatch, while two of us sat in the back, with the rower in between.”

Clarinetist Amy Wilcox, who is a graduate performance major concentrating in conducting, notes that the boats were rowed from the Boat House across the lake to where hundreds of appreciative spectators were gathered. “While some of the boats rowed around a bit more, most of them just floated around during the performance,” she says.

“There weren’t any collisions like Titanic versus iceberg, but occasionally the boats all clumped together and bumped into each other,” says Szumski. “The important thing is that no instruments fell into the water.”

The musicians, who performed in near record-breaking heat, were grateful that the lake was shaded. “For me, at least, once we started playing, adrenaline kicked in and I didn’t think about the heat,” Wilcox remarks.

While the ensemble members sat in their groups of three during two rehearsals, they didn’t experience the full effect of the piece until the performance itself. “It was unique how the sound completely changed in the piece as we floated past different groups of musicians. Now I can see why where you sit during a performance is so important,” explains Szumski.

“This was a superb performance all around,” sums up composer Alvin Curran, who came from his home in Rome to attend the event. “Without any real rehearsal on the water, nor much info to guide the rowers in their acts of random choreography, I was more than satisfied with the musical and theatrical outcome of this work.”

Maritime Rites is a critically acclaimed, ongoing project of Curran’s, which has been performed in Rome, Chicago, London, and Frankfurt. While it takes different forms for each site-specific performance, it is always played over water. “The Central Park Lake is one of the most beautiful urban spots in the world. It was more than an ideal world-class location to create a simple, theatrical new music event,” says Curran.

“I never thought I’d get to perform in a rowboat in Central Park! It was a wonderful experience to play for such a large and appreciative audience,” says Wilcox. “My favorite moment was when the crowd shouted for an encore,” says Szumski, for whom the performance was “an unforgettable and unusual introduction to the University."