The Grand Finale

An Unlikely Chain of Events Leads to an Important Concert in Augusta

Bob Esterberg at the Maine Veterans Home in Augusta where he was playing with the SwingTime Band. Photo by Phil Tedrik.

Fifteen or more years ago, I was driving with the radio tuned to WBACH. It was night and I was not paying much attention to what was playing. I remember hearing something that had a Baroque feel to it as I drove in the direction of wherever I was going. A bit further along I noticed a Jazzy sound, but I didn’t recall the announcer having come on to announce a different piece. A bit later, when I once again heard a more Baroque sound, I started paying attention. As I listened, I realized that I was hearing something I had never heard before, a piece that floated gracefully between Baroque and Jazz. When the piece ended, I pulled off the road and wrote down the title and composer.

The piece was “Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Piano Trio” by French pianist and composer Claude Bolling.

The next step was buying the CD of the recording from eBay. I listened to the piece many times, and more and more I thought I would like to play it with our orchestra, the Augusta Symphony. Finding the orchestral music, however, was not nearly as easy as buying a CD online. The music seemed to have been commercially available at some time in the past but was nowhere to be found.

Some time later, I was functioning as the Augusta Symphony’s librarian and had connected with a web group of orchestra librarians. I asked that group if anybody knew where I could obtain the orchestra parts for this piece by Claude Bolling, and I got a response from a bass player in Duluth, Minnesota. He said that his orchestra had played the piece a few years earlier and that he had the parts. He offered to send me a CD with the music in digital format but ended up sending me a box with all the parts and the score in it. That was in February of 2008.

Since then, that box of music had been sitting on a shelf at my house waiting for the time when the Augusta Symphony Orchestra would have the right personnel to perform it.

I had been on the Board of the Augusta Symphony Orchestra for a few years before I heard this piece, and over the following years I would occasionally mention “The Bolling” to fellow Board members or to our Conductor, Paul Ross. I was confident that we could handle the orchestral part but was fully aware that we didn’t have the level of technical proficiency to put together the Jazz Trio.

The box of music sat on my shelf year after year, and from time to time I kept playing the recording, featuring Claude Bolling on piano, always enjoying it.

Then in 2019 I asked Paul Ross to listen to it (again). I had sent Monica Clark the recording and asked her to listen to it as well. Later, when I asked Paul what he thought of the piece, his reply was, “I like it, a lot.”

I started to detect some interest from members of the Music Selection Committee, and that was the point at which new challenges had to be met. Since I had lobbied so long to play this piece, I had the task of finding the people with the chops and the availability to play it. No small task!

The first pianist to pop into my head was Tom Snow. Tom is an amazing Jazz Pianist who always has a great time when he plays. That quality is always my personal “Number One Standard” for performing musicians.  I had met Tom only once, a year before, but I had communicated with him previously about adapting for orchestra some arrangements he had done several years earlier.

Tom is a great performer, teacher, and touring musician, as well as a great guy. Yes, he was available, but our volunteer community orchestra and shoestring budget couldn’t afford him. Tom was aware of our financial limitations and suggested some other musicians and former students who might be available. Before I could follow up on any of his suggestions, I got another email from Tom.

From left are bob Esterberg, Annabelle Brooks, and Monica Clark. Photo by Augusta Symphony Orchestra Board Member Anja Parlin.

Tom had a current student whom he was sure would be perfect for the piano part of the Jazz Trio. He was a bit concerned that we might think a 15-year-old girl might not have the personal or musical maturity to pull off the technically challenging piece. We decided to defer to Tom’s judgment and see if Annabelle Brooks was available.

I sent an email describing our needs to Annabelle and each of her parents. After considering the demands on Annabelle’s already full schedule, the family turned down our invitation. Annabelle had her plate pretty full already as a high school student, musician, and member of the cross-country team.

A few days later I got an email from Annabelle’s mother, Michele, saying that they thought that the opportunity to play the Bolling piece with a full orchestra was too great to turn down. We had our pianist.

We already had our bassist. Monica Clark had been playing first violin with us for several years and was such a talented and versatile musician that she also played bass when needed. She loved to play jazz bass and immediately agreed when Paul Ross asked her if she wanted to play the bass part.

Bob Esterberg, at age ninety-one, had first started playing drums as a teenager and had continued playing throughout a career as an engineer. I had met Bob a few years earlier, and he and I had become musical and personal friends playing together with Elaine Bender’s SwingTime Band. After I provided Bob with the sheet music and a recording of the piece, he said he wanted to take on the part.

We had the components in place in the late spring for a November concert. I provided parts for orchestra members who wanted to get a head start, and the trio members agreed to start practicing and rehearsing together over the summer. They wanted to be sure that they fit together well as a group before rehearsals with the orchestra started in September.

It became almost immediately apparent that these three musicians thoroughly enjoyed playing together, and they quickly agreed on times and places for further rehearsals. Sometimes they would meet at my house in Readfield and at other times Bob and Monica would go to Portland to rehearse at the Brooks’ home. It sounded good the first time they got together and sounded better and better as the summer progressed. I was present at most of those sessions and served as Bob’s chauffeur on some of the Portland trips. It was always a joy to see the big grin on Annabelle’s face as she played. She shared that important trait of enjoyment with her mentor, Tom Snow.

Tom had, in fact, arranged his performance and teaching schedule to maximize his time helping Annabelle prepare for this concert. We appreciated Tom’s help in recommending and coaching his excellent protege. At the concert he was in the audience wearing his characteristic big smile.

The concert was played to a full house at the South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta, Maine. The church sanctuary is acoustically excellent and visually beautiful. It was the perfect venue for this concert.

During the summer Bob Esterberg had learned that he had cancer, and he had experienced some treatments for it.  I think he was especially eager to play this piece with the trio because in his mind (and as it turned out, in fact) he was approaching this project as the happy conclusion of a long musical career.

After the concert Bob wanted to play more jazz performances with the trio and both Annabelle and Monica were on board with his idea. But Bob was back in the hospital within days. He never recovered to the point that he had the strength to play again. Bob passed away on February 28, 2020.

Bob’s daughter Kristin contacted me about plans for a “Celebration” of Bob’s life. The evolving plans were to have it take place in the same place as the concert. It wasn’t long before it was apparent that large gatherings in close proximity were best avoided, due to COVID-19, and that event was postponed indefinitely.

As I have thought about it in the weeks and months since, it occurs to me that the concert  with the Augusta Symphony Orchestra—with many of Bob’s friends and family members in the audience—was a true celebration of Bob’s life as a person and as a musician.  It was a grand finale. 

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