JMU Wind Symphony honors cancer-stricken alumna with ‘miracle’ tribute
The music arrived on April 15, students in the James Madison University Wind Symphony began rehearsing it April 19 and on Monday, April 26, they performed a moving tribute to a cancer-stricken alumna who watched via YouTube from a hospital bed in her Northern Virginia home.
Kelsey Burch, a 2007 graduate of the School of Music and an elementary school music teacher in Northern Virginia, was thrilled to see the premiere, said Brian Balmages, an award-winning and internationally-known composer who was commissioned by Burch to write the music.
“This was nothing short of a miracle,” Balmages said of pulling off the rapidly-planned performance that was streamed from the Forbes Center Concert Hall.
Burch reached out to Balmages, who graduated from JMU in 1998, last summer after hearing another tribute he had composed for a family mourning the loss of their infant child. The plan was for the piece, titled “Stages,” to debut in December at The Midwest Clinic International Band and Orchestra Conference in Chicago and to be performed by the Fairfax Wind Symphony.
When Burch received a prognosis that she only had about a month to live, she texted Balmages that she was glad she got to hear an electronic mock-up of the piece even though she would not get to hear the premiere. That is when the JMU Wind Symphony stepped in to give her the premiere she deserved — via live-stream, as Kelsey was unable to travel.
Stephen Bolstad, conductor of the JMU Wind Symphony, credited the students for giving a “superhuman” effort to prepare for and perform the piece, which captures not only the stages of cancer, but also Burch’s emotional journey: grief, anger, fear, acceptance and peace. “They performed magnificently,” Bolstad said.
Due to COVID-19 accommodations, only about half the students in the ensemble can perform at a time, and those who did perform were physically distanced throughout the Concert Hall.
Balmages said the piece heavily features the oboe, Burch’s primary instrument, and the English Horn, an instrument in the oboe family that she played while a JMU student.
The hourlong video, with more than 2,500 views in less than 24 hours, includes Balmages’s only rehearsal with the group, a brief pause and the premiere. The premiere takes place in the last 15 minutes, followed by some closing remarks from Balmages.