Frederick Fennell studied at the Eastman School of Music, a division of the University of Rochester, gaining his Bachelor’s degree in 1937, and his Master’s two years later, after which he immediately joined the teaching faculty of the Eastman School. Although trained as a percussionist, Fennell had wanted to conduct from his undergraduate days, when he had organised a marching band for Rochester University in 1933. He carried on with band conducting throughout his career at Eastman, gradually raising performance standards and greatly extending the repertoire for the wind band. In 1952 he formed the Eastman Wind Ensemble, in Dr Fennell’s words, in interview with Quin Mathews, ‘…a one-on-a-part reed/brass/percussion group that would be a virtuoso performing group, not the customary band of many, many, many duplications on a part, which I had been working with for twenty previous years’. All of the Wind Ensemble’s members were students.
At about the same time, the head of the Eastman School, Dr Howard Hanson, himself a composer and conductor of distinction, was approached by the head of Mercury Records’ classical division, David Hall, with the proposal that Mercury record several of the school’s different ensembles. In 1939 Hanson had persuaded the school’s board to allocate funds with which he could initiate a recording contract, following the success of a similar plan to create a music publishing programme. This ‘seed-corn’ money had been used to produce records from the Eastman School with RCA and then Columbia, but by the early 1950s the programme was dormant. Hall recognised that Hanson was looking to place a recording contract: the combination of Mercury’s brilliant recording techniques, master-minded by the engineer Robert Fine, and Eastman’s virtuoso performing standards resulted in a series of recordings that proved to be immensely successful.
The part played by Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble was significant: in all, twenty-two highly successful long-playing albums were produced, featuring a wide range of repertoire and excellent performances. As a result of these recordings, in Dr Fennell’s own words, ‘People started thinking about the sit-down wind band in a musical way. We weren’t interested in anything else but producing music, and we started out recording music that nobody was recording.’ The Wind Ensemble became a model for many similar groups throughout the American educational system, and its recording for Mercury of Percy Grainger’s A Lincolnshire Posy went on to be selected as one of the ‘Fifty Best Recordings of the Centenary of the Phonograph, 1877–1977’ by the magazine Stereo Review. Fennell has recognised the significance of these recordings, commenting: ‘…the point is they were made. And as long as one copy exists, it’s a record of what happened. It’s also a record of what can happen.’
Fennell moved to the University of Miami in 1965 as conductor-in-residence, a position he retained until 1980, while also appearing as a guest conductor with several major American and European orchestras, such as the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1978 he made another landmark recording: the first digital symphonic disc. Once again record industry executives made the first approach, this time Jack Renner and Robert Woods of Telarc Records. Initially they wanted to make a ‘direct-cut’ disc with Fennell directing the wind players of the Cleveland Orchestra, with the possibility also of experimenting with the then-new digital sound recording process. As the time for the recording approached, direct-cut gave way to digital. The result was an enormously successful recording of music by Bach, Handel and Holst: to quote Dr Fennell again, ‘We had there at the session the man who was going to cut the master, Stan Ricker, who was the great master cutter. We had everybody who was going to be involved with the presentation of this recording to the industry and the public. We had wonderful repertory, and we had marvellous musicians, a wonderful hall. We had everything going. And that’s what happened. It was exactly what it was supposed to be: a very successful recording session.’
Fennell’s next significant move was to the Far East: in 1984 he was appointed chief conductor of the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, the youngest of the lay Buddhist associations in Japan. Funded by its sponsors, this is the only full-time, fully professional wind group in the world, outside of military ensembles. Once again Fennell’s impact was significant, with the orchestra stimulating a considerable amount of musical activity through its concerts and recordings. In 1992 a new concert hall was named after Fennell in Kofu, Japan, and in 1995 he became the group’s conductor laureate.
Frederick Fennell received numerous honours from the worlds of music and academia, and in 1994 he was presented with the Theodore Thomas Award of the American Conductors’ Guild, in recognition of his leadership and service to wind band performance throughout the world. The two previous recipients of this award had been Solti and Bernstein. Fennell remains best-known for his Mercury recordings with the Eastman Wind Ensemble: these covered an enormous amount of repertoire by such diverse composers as Richard Wagner, Aram Khachaturian, William Walton, Gustav Holst, Richard Rogers, and Robert Russell Bennett. They are typically American with their combination of high technical polish and extrovert exuberance. More generally his skill as an orchestral conductor may be seen in his several ‘pops’ recordings with the Eastman-Rochester Pops Orchestra and the London Pops Orchestra, also with Mercury. His later recordings for Telarc and Reference Recordings with wind ensembles from the Cleveland Orchestra and from Dallas remain outstanding examples of the genre.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).