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A new musical composition commissioned by a Maryland concert band takes its inspiration from the pandemic

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/9/2022 John Kelly
Juan Gallastegui, music director of the Rockville Concert Band, commissioned “The Year 2020" to honor those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The work will have its premiere March 13 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. © Sam Prather/Imagine Photography Juan Gallastegui, music director of the Rockville Concert Band, commissioned “The Year 2020" to honor those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The work will have its premiere March 13 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville.

Update: After this column was published, Rockville Concert Band music director Juan Gallastegui tested positive for covid. The March 13 performance will be conducted by Len Morse and will not include “The Year 2020.” That composition will have its premiere on April 10.

For musicians, the first sound associated with the covid-19 pandemic wasn’t a sound at all. It was silence — the silence of canceled concerts. During those early lockdown days, gathering to make music — or listen to it — was impossible.

“We did our rehearsals, but online, which was basically a bunch of people talking about how much we missed making music,” said Juan Gallastegui, music director of the Rockville Concert Band. “At some point I said, ‘Well I’m sure we are going to get out of this.’”

But even once they were out of it, Gallastegui reasoned, they should never forget those lost to the virus. He also felt the musicians and their supporters should celebrate their hopes for the future. And so Gallastegui decided to commission a special piece of music for the band to play. On Sunday afternoon, the Rockville Concert Band will present the world premiere of “The Year 2020,” written for it by Dutch composer Johan de Meij.

The 8½-minute work, de Meij said, is his way of translating into music the fear and frustration he felt as the pandemic spread.

De Meij was calling from Amsterdam, where he will conduct a Dutch brass band in a televised appearance this weekend.

Dutch composer Johan de Meij wrote “The Year 2020” for the Rockville Concert Band. © Peter Ross/Peter Ross Dutch composer Johan de Meij wrote “The Year 2020” for the Rockville Concert Band.

“We’re calling it the Corona Liberation Concert,” he said. “This concert has been postponed like five times since 2020.”

Sunday afternoon’s Rockville Concert Band performance — at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre and streamed online — will mark almost two years since the pandemic forced the group to change its tune, so to speak. First there were the cancellations. Then, when restrictions lifted slightly, members were able to gather in small groups to perform outside.

These ups and downs are reflected in de Meij’s composition. It begins with the sound of the performers’ feet pounding the floor like soldiers on the march.

“I envision the pandemic came as an invisible army and then took over the entire world,” de Meij said.

Said Gallastegui, “You feel like something’s coming and we don't know what that is.”

The mood is dark for the first half of “The Year 2020,” then lightens.

“It transitions into the second theme: the hope, the brighter side of this whole issue,” Gallastegui said.

De Meij said he struggled with how to end the piece.

“The first ending I had was on a big chord, a major chord,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. That's no good.’”

The original ending was too bright, with a resolution that de Meij found overly clear and happy, inappropriate for the year 2020 — or even for today, when we’re still not sure how, or if, the pandemic will end.

“It ends very softly in an E flat major chord now,” he said.

Members and supporters of the Rockville Concert Band — formed in 1957 and with about 50 volunteer musicians — raised the money to commission the piece.

“We know that anything that Johan de Meij writes enters directly the canon for wind ensembles,” said Gallastegui, who was named the ensemble’s director just as the pandemic started.

In addition to composing, de Meij is a busy conductor. Or was. He spent most of the past two years stuck at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley.

“I wrote an incredible amount of music,” he said. “If I didn’t have that I would go completely crazy. Writing music was like a therapy to me. It kept me going.”

Hearing music can also be like therapy. Gallastegui believes music can help all of us keep going, even in a pandemic.

Music’s power may not be as tangible as a face mask or a vaccine, “but at some point music comes to help people, to help with the healing process, with the reflection period,” Gallastegui said. “We’re not done with this pandemic. The years to come will bring more reflection on what we did — and what we didn’t do, what were our priorities, what were we thinking — and music will have to have a role in this.”

“The Year 2020” is among five pieces the Rockville Concert Band will perform Sunday at 3 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Dr., Rockville. Free tickets are available at fscottfitzgerald.showare.com. The show will be streamed at rockvilleconcertband.org.

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