June 22, 2018
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Gala concert celebrates 70 years of grads, 200 years of history

By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

Hampden Academy’s new 900-seat performing arts center hosted an almost-full capacity crowd — the largest ever by a long shot — on Saturday, Nov. 24. It was not some hot-shot performer that drew the enthusiastic fans. It was more like a giant family reunion — one that included live performances, world premieres, and the uniting of 70 years’ worth of alumni who made music together on one stage.

The program was lively, lovely, and performed with joyous enthusiasm. But Hampden’s Gala Concert celebrating the opening of the Performing Arts Center was something far more than entertainment. It was a gathering of community members, teachers, families and an assembly of alumni that spanned at least 70 years’ worth of students who have made music in Hampden’s schools. Everyone came to celebrate the realization of a dream that many thought would never come to fruition. For choral director Heidi Corliss and band director Pat Michaud, the event was the sweet culmination of 25 years of work and anticipation.

“When I joined the faculty 25 years ago, there was already talk about building a new school — some day,” Corliss said.

To see that school become a reality has been a wonderful experience, according to Michaud.

“It’s hard to find the right words,” said Michaud, who started working as band director at Hampden Academy in 1986. “There is a lot of emotion, seeing all these kids from across the years, and a sense of satisfaction in what we do. It means a lot to us that this was important enough for so many people to give up all this time [for rehearsing and performing] on a vacation weekend.”

Corliss explained the origins of the concert idea.

“Once we knew we were moving into a new building, we realized that the kids who graduated wouldn’t have the opportunity to perform in the new auditorium,” she said. “All of the kids from all the years leading up to this event were an essential part of our being here. We wanted them to know that it was their talent and enthusiasm and work that impressed our community enough for them to support this incredible new space.”

“We wanted to share this experience with those who, for years, played all of their performances in a gymnasium,” Michaud said. “It is a gift to all of us — a reward for everyone.”

What made the event especially meaningful for Hampden’s two music directors is their longevity in their positions. The vast majority of the 60-member band and equally large chorus graduated in the last 25 years.

“These are all kids that I taught.” Michaud said. “To see them experiencing that joy again all together is really fun.”

For current students, Corliss added, it was also a great lesson to see that music education goes beyond the daily drudge of high school. Today’s high school students sang and played their instruments next to former students who graduated recently, a decade ago, or as far back as 1944. Some alumni have become music professionals, others just enjoy making music as a lifetime hobby. There were alumni parents, grandparents and even one family that had three generations on the stage.

Two original works were commissioned for the gala event. Terry White composed an instrumental piece called “The Building of Traditions,” which integrated Hampden Academy’s school song with 200 years’ worth of traditional music and musical genres. Hampden alumnus David Madore’s composition for the chorus was called “In The Beginning,” a hauntingly beautiful piece. Both new works highlighted the passage of time and history, with a forward looking hopefulness.

But the best part of being in the new performing arts center is seeing the face of any Hampden graduate when they first walk out onto the stage. Their jaws drop open, their eyes widen and an irresistible smile blooms on their face. Both Corliss and Michaud heard these words over and over again:

“I can’t believe I’m standing here on this stage, in Hampden.”

A special note for Hampden Academy alumni

The MSAD 22 Education Foundation is assembling a database of all 7,000 Hampden Academy alumni in the hopes that it may evolve into a full scale alumni association to keep alumni informed of current events in the district, help alumni networking, and raise funds for continued excellence in district schools. Register your contact information and learn more at msad22foundation.org.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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