Saturday, June 29, 2013

Saginaw composer Catherine McMichael pens ode to sunken tall ship HMS Bounty

The late HMS Bounty in the Saginaw River headed for Bay City, in 2010

story/photo of ship in Bay City by janet i. martineau

A majestic tall ship constructed for a movie, and which twice visited Bay City for a Tall Ship Celebration, may have sunk off the coast of North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

But the HMS Bounty lives again in music -- during a  five-minute piece commissioned by the Bay Concert Band and composed by Catherine McMichael of Saginaw Township.

“I did research on both ships,” says McMichael, referring to the 1787 Royal Navy one on which the novel ”Mutiny on the Bounty” was based and the larger replica of it built in 1960 for the Marlon Brando movie of the same name. “And I read as much as I could.

“I decided I wanted to evoke an image of an historic ship on the high seas, sails at full mast, riding over the swell of the waves. I did not want to evoke her story, or write a dirge, although the piece does honor the tragedy of the ship as well as its majesty.”

McMichael’s “Legacy of the Bounty” will premiere at 7pm Thursday, July 11, during  a free Bay Concert Band performance at the Friendship Shell in Bay City’s Wenonah’s Park -- with this year’s contingent of visiting tall ships moored within sight on both sides of the Saginaw River. 

“It’s a great setting for its premiere, in the right place and with the water,” says McMichael.

McMichael says she penned the piece in a week and that it contains a long trumpet  line with woodwinds rising in answer and a middle section that evokes some of the turbulent history surrounding both the real-life original  and the sinking of the one built for the movie. 

While she says she never saw the Bounty when it visited Bay City in 2003 and 2010, she has sailed on a tall ship out of Providence, R.I.,  during a night trip and loved hearing the slapping of the sails and the cracking of the ropes.
Peter Makar Jr. IV , the conductor of the Bay Concert Band, says the  board of the band decided that some sort of piece concerning the Bounty would be appropriate due to the events of last year and the fact that it had been to Bay City in the past.

McMichael jokes that all he asked of her piece it that it pay homage to a “noble British Nimrodian” and that Makar  too wanted it  to focus on the ship’s life more than its sinking.

Says Makar, “There were several people considered for the composing task but after some discussion the board decided on Catherine and offered her the commission.”   

“Catherine had written a multi-movement work many years ago that was premiered by us in honor of the passing of local trumpet player and band member Andy Andersen. (That work was commissioned by his wife, Mary.)  That and the fact that Catherine was very experienced and living in the area made her selection seem like the logical choice.”

Composer Catherine McMichael
Makar says he has only heard the “Legacy of the Bounty” once -- a computer-generated version. 

“So  it is hard for me to get a perspective on what it will really sound like.  Computer programs tend not to provide the color and sonority of any large ensemble.

“What  I did take away was that the work is very appropriate to both the ensemble playing it (a definite challenge for any composer) and the idea that prompted its creation.  It is a fine work and I will be very proud to lead the Bay Concert Band in its premiere.”

Makar played brass trombone in the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra  for 32 years and also served as the manager of the Saginaw-based New Reformation Band for several years 

McMichael’s piece is second on the all-nautical July 11 program. Also on the bill are “Parade of the Tall Ships,” Sousa’s “Glory of the Yankee Navy March” and “Hands Across the Sea March,” “Montego Bay,” “Fantasy on American Sailing,”  “Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Songs” and  “Army of the  Nile March.”

The Bounty replica also was used in the movies “Treasure Island” with Charlton Heston and two of the “Pirates of the Carribben” installments with Johnny Depp. At its sinking its worth was valued at $4.6 million.

Two lives were lost in the 2012 sinking, which had 16 aboard. The captain’s body never was found. But the body of Claudene Christian, a crew member who claimed she was a descendant of Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian, was found by the Coast Guard.

“A text message from her received during the hurricane said to not mourn for her; that she was where she wanted to be,” McMichael says of her research information.

“She wanted to work on the Bounty. She fully felt it was her destiny and that  her family had come full circle.”

As for McMichael’s legacy, she has composed and published  more than 120 works in a career dating back  to the early 1990s -- upwards of 60 of them commissions.

Serving as inspirations for her orchestra, chamber ensemble,  solo instrument and choral pieces are dogs, the Gates of Paradise in Florence Italy, Cape Breton folk music, flowers, tall grasses, the legend of Sleeping Bear, mountain summits, and the Saints and Sinners sculpture by Marshall M. Fredericks.

She also plays piano with the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra and River Raisin Ragtime Revue, and directs the handbell choir at First United Methodist Church in Saginaw Township.

The Bay City Tall Ship Celebration runs July 11-14 with 10 ships participating. This year’s visit honors the 200-year anniversary of the end of the War of 1812, a 32-month military conflict between the United States and the British Empire and which established this nation’s naval dominance.

For more information on the Tall Ship Celebration:

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