By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO May 19, 2006 After 30 years as one of Sullivan Countys most accomplished and beloved choral directors, Martin Banner said goodbye May 11 with his last dynamic direction of the Monticello High School Senior Choir.
Two standing ovations greeted him in appreciation for the tremendous work he has done over the years, delighting the public with performances of classic European works as well as well-known Broadway melodies.
There was nobody left sitting after the senior choir ended with Banners swan song, And Wherever You Go, by Douglas Wagner.
But it was the choirs performance of highlights from A Chorus Line, the Broadway musical, which gave the crowd Banners signature touch. Banner had directed the work several times before, and there were moments of electricity during the piece. Classic songs such as At the Ballet, I Hope I Get It, I Can Do That, One, and What I Did for Love were sang with a sincerity that delighted audience members.
In between A Chorus Finale, and the finale, teary-eyed students gave Banner parting gifts. And when the performance was over, students, parents, and former students lined up to hug Banner and thank him for the work he has done.
One of those former students is current Tri-Valley Music Department Director Lori Orestano-James. James was also the director of the Monticello Middle School Chorus, directed many of the middle school and high school plays and has performed in a number of plays herself.
He took me through the most difficult time in my life and led me to my passion. He is a fabulous musician who for years gave this community a sense of choral music and passion. . . . The community is losing an absolutely outstanding musician and individual. . . . I sing today because of him.
Banner said it was his former student, Stephanie Blythe, the decorated opera singer, which gave him his claim to fame. Blythe has sung in the greatest opera houses in the world, including a run at the Metropolitan which just ended two weeks ago.
Blythe actually had to be recruited by Banner to sing in his chorus. He spotted her singing with friends one day and, well, the rest is history. She was a part of the 1986-87 senior choir, which Banner recalled as his greatest. Other students from that choir included Christopher Bradshaw, who went on to have a musical career as a classical piano performer and instructor at a private school.
But Banners impact on more than a thousand students through the years will be felt for even more years to come. His professional direction, choice of songs and love for the music accorded him a place in the upper ranks of the areas choral directors.
This years choir featured three students who were named to the All State Choir, a select group of 250 of the best choral singers in the state. Over the years, dozens of Banners students have been named to the All State Choir. One year, he had five students in All State. Some went as far as All Eastern Choir.
The concert was the first spring concert at the auditorium since it was named after the equally beloved high school band instructor Arnold Packer Hughs. It was Hughs who hired Banner back in 1976 after he had a short stint guiding a 150-member sixth grade chorus near Albany and lived to tell about it.
His musical career began as a young boy, when he took accordion lessons. However, his life took a defining turn when he sang Johann Sebastian Bachs B Minor Mass as a sophomore in high school. He borrowed the full 2-hour recording of it and listened to the work over a whole weekend.
I knew what I had to do for the rest of my life, said Banner.
He was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan but grew up on Long Island. He graduated from the State University of New York at Potsdam with a bachelors degree in music education and received his masters degree in choral conducting from Temple University.
Within a month of being hired at Monticello, he organized the Sullivan County Community Chorus, which he directed for 12 years. For 20 years, he was the vocal music director for all of the high school musicals.
The high school choirs which Banner led went on to about a dozen New York State School Music Association competitions. In every competition, the groups earned an A+ rating, including several with distinction.
He spent countless hours preparing students for solo competitions by recording songs on to tape and then practicing them. His live performances always brought the house down and were often innovative, like when he directed This Little Babe, a classic by Benjamin Britten, with students lined up and down the high school auditorium, rather than on risers. Banner directed the song several times, and it was a crowd favorite as well as a favorite amongst his students.
Over the years, Banner has put on many amazing performances, including more than 15 collaborations with noted Monticello High School Orchestra Director Nancy Wegrzyn. From combined performances of the orchestra and chorus to solo efforts by Wegrzyn on the viola to accompany the chorus and two songs written by Wegrzyn for the two groups to perform, they have been an impressive duo. And Banner said he had enormous respect for her.
He also cited former District Music Department Chairman Stephen Rovitz as one of the people he enjoyed working with the most. Rovitz gave him free reign to let me run with my program, said Banner.
Banners career as a choral director included at least one trip a year to the old courtyard at the high school for a performance. The school rarely scheduled a performance for the choir to give to the entire school. Instead, when the weather was warm, Banner decided to roll his piano and chorus outside to the vast courtyard and sing a tune, which many of the schools students could hear. And the acoustics were great, he noted.
He was impressed with his final group this year, whom he said gave a lot of effort and performed very well.
Im not sure if its because the kids knew this was the end for me, but they worked hard for me, he said.
Banner spends every summer in Europe at monasteries, libraries and conservatories searching for old and interesting compositions which have been forgotten. He has made a career out of translating the works into modern-day arrangements. He doesnt change the works but simply makes them readable for todays singers. He has edited approximately 100 performing editions for publication from the 18th and early 19th centuries. They have been performed all over the world, including Carnegie Hall, the Symphony Hall in Boston and the National Performing Arts Center in Seoul, South Korea.
It helps that he is literate in French, German, Italian and Latin. He studied most of them in college but has become fluent through his numerous trips overseas. And his chorus has sung songs in all of those languages, including Hebrew.
He admits he is fascinated by the history and architecture of Europe, as well as the Europeans respect for their own history not to mention the great food, especially in Italy.
While he is a devoted fan of classical music and cites Gustav Mahler as his favorite composer, he also enjoys a good Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) musical. Kyrie, by the legendary Italian composer Nicola Porpora, is one of his favorite published works. And he has performed the song with his choir on more than one occasion.
Corry Shimer, another former student of Banners who is now the conductor of the Monticello High School Womens Chorus, a middle school music instructor as well as the director of the musical at the middle school, called Banner a mentor [who] inspired me to go into choral music education. She is one of many students who loved singing for Banner.
So what has kept him so involved in the music year after year with his students?
Sharing the passion and joy that I get from my students and seeing when that transfer takes place, he responded. You can see it in their faces. They know when they meet my expectations.
The key is having extremely high expectations and never settling for anything less. Ive always treated my high school choirs with the same expectations as if I was directing a college or adult choir.
Now that he is retiring, he is looking forward to taking time to sit back and enjoy life.
Nevertheless, he will continue his travels to Europe and also plans to spend more time in New York City.