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Gregg Powell, current
The accidental musician, Gregg Powell. (Image courtesy of Gregg Powell.)

One day in ‘May’

By James Tobin
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Happy accident

Gregg Powell, BS ’71, was seated on the stage of Hill Auditorium in a tuxedo, waiting to stand up and sing his part at the end of Gustav Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection.” It was about 9 p.m. on the evening of April 23, 1970.

The May Festival at U-M 
When the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra takes the stage at Hill Auditorium on Sept. 27 — its first performance in Ann Arbor since 1994 — music lovers of a certain age will inevitably reflect on the cherished association between the orchestra and its host. Under the legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy, the orchestra performed at Michigan every spring from 1936 until 1982. It was a long and beloved tradition within an even longer one — the University of Michigan’s May Festival.

Powell was 19 years old, a U-M sophomore in engineering and a member of the Choral Union. The choir was accompanying the Philadelphia Orchestra at the first concert of the 77th May Festival, the pageant of classical music held every year in Ann Arbor from 1894-1995. (Yes, the May Festival had to be held in April after U-M changed the end date of its spring semester in the 1960s … but we went with May in our headline anyway.)

The first notes of the symphony struck Powell’s ears. They rose from the double basses directly in front of him. The sound was like grumbles of thunder from over the horizon.

Powell was not a music major. He just liked to sing. His parents, as children of the Great Depression, had decided when he was a baby that he was going to enter a practical field that would guarantee a secure income — specifically, engineering.

They also made sure he had music lessons, and he had a first-class choir teacher at his high school in suburban Cleveland. But when he entered Michigan, it was in the College of Engineering, and that was going to be that.

Until he heard those double basses play the opening notes of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.

“Now, there’s something,” he told himself, “that you could devote your life to.”

“This is too important”

Powell, black and white

(Image courtesy of Gregg Powell).

Powell listened to the symphony, stood to sing his part at the end, then left the stage and went home.

He was still hearing the double basses.

“This is too important,” he thought. “I can’t ignore these feelings.”

He told his parents: “I just can’t commit my life to engineering.”

He bought some time with them. He transferred to architecture, then economics with a minor in psychology. Still practical. Because of changing majors he had to graduate a semester late.

Soon after that, he appeared at the information desk of the School of Music.

“Is there anyone here who teaches double bass?” he asked.

The woman at the desk managed to keep a straight face. She sent Powell down the hall to the office of Professor Lawrence Hurst, regarded as one of the greatest bass teachers in the world.

Hurst listened to Powell tell his story about the May Festival and the basses.

“Do you own a double bass?” Hurst asked.

Powell didn’t. Hurst asked another question or two. Then the professor said he could not take on Powell as a student. But he did send him home with one of the School of Music’s double basses and referred him to his graduate assistant for lessons.

To pay his bills, Powell got a sales job at Jacobson’s department store. Mostly he practiced the bass. A year later, he came back to Professor Hurst and played a concerto by Antonio Capuzzi.

“You’re my student now,” Hurst told him.

Turning down a promotion

Gregg Powell

(Image courtesy of Gregg Powell.)

The deep, resonant voice of the instrument fascinated Powell. It seemed to him that the melodious violins and flutes and clarinets provided the pretty ornaments on the surface of a musical structure, but the basses were the granite foundation.

He took lessons with Hurst weekly for 12 years, paying $15 an hour. “He was hugely demanding, old-school, hard-nosed,” Powell says. “He put up with no weakness. But if you survived, it was kind of like Bo Schembechler: ‘Those who stay will be champions.’”

Once a month Powell played in studio sessions with master’s students in the School of Music, though he never enrolled for a master’s degree of his own. In time he began to play part-time with regional orchestras.

After eight or nine years, as he was approaching 30, Jacobson’s offered him a major promotion. It would mean a real career in a corporate position. His parents and friends all urged him to take it. He could keep playing the bass as a hobby, they said.

Powell is a warm and gentle man. But he told all of them — gently — to go to hell. This was no hobby. He went down to part-time at Jacobson’s and practiced more. Three or four years later he quit the job to devote all his time to the bass.

A life in music

For a deep dive into the history of U-M’s May Festival, read James Tobin’s story “The May Festival Rising” at heritage.umich.edu. 

In time Powell became a member of the symphony orchestras of Ann Arbor, Flint, and Saginaw, and he became the personnel manager of the Flint and Saginaw groups.

“Each on their own is part-time,” he says. “Everyone who plays for an orchestra like the Ann Arbor symphony or the Flint symphony puts together a crazy-quilt patchwork to make a living. A lot of them teach. Most of us play in multiple orchestras.”

And Powell makes a good part of his living as a contractor, putting classical musicians together with churches, ballet companies — any organization that needs an orchestra.

When he was approaching 40, he met a soprano with the Flint Symphony. They’ve been married for 30 years. Shayna Powell sings and directs the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale.

“One little decision set a path,” Powell says. “The May Festival of 1970 changed my life forever.”

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN, an author and historian, is a Michigan alumnus and professor of journalism at Miami of Ohio. His latest book is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency ( Simon & Schuster, 2013). He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University.

COMMENTS

  • Jim Shade - Law 1981

    Imagine my elation when, as a first year law student who grew up in Philadelphia, I found out that my orchestra was going to play in Hill Auditorium. I had moved to Grand Rapids in 1970, so I hadn’t witnessed Mr. Ormandy’s direction for almost a decade. I attended every May Festival concert (in the nosebleeds) for three years. And to this day I have never heard “The Victors” performed more valiantly than those encores.

    Reply

  • Michael Lipham - 1999

    What a great piece – more of these please!

    I never knew Gregg’s story! I was aware that that he is a great musician, an unusually well-organized personnel manager and very easy person to work with.

    Congrats on the write-up!

    Reply

  • Barbara Kessler - 1973

    Hello Gregg. I’m so happy to know you were able to stay on a path that has given you joy. Best regards from 5 decades ago – I was a freshman in the RC and lived next to C.

    Reply

  • Robert Landgren - 1962 LSA, 1966 MED

    I, too, sang in the Choral Union – in the early 60′s. I remember vividly sitting in the stage stands for the singers for rehearsals and even for performances when we didn’t sing. The hands of director Eugene Ormandy were magic (he didn’t use a stick). I remember one rehearsal with guest conductor Aaron Copeland. When it was time for the union break, the musicians walked out on this American titan! My academic path had a few similarities to Gregg’s. I started in architecture and then switched to chemistry, economics, and finally premed. Music has remained a major focus of my life.

    Reply

  • Susan Bigby Breiholz - "63" School of Music

    My husband and I both sang in the May Festival as Ann Arbor School children under the direction of Margarite Hood. The beautiful sound we produced was thrilling & probably influenced my decision to enter the School of Music.
    One of my mother’s most cherished memories was singing with the Choral Union in the 30′s when the soloist was Lily Ponds.

    Reply

  • John Welch - 1970 Dent

    As a musically preoccupied dental student, I spent four great years in the performance environment of Ann Arbor, a precious adjunct to my professional education. I vividly recall the April ’70 Mahler “Resurrection” PSO performance in which Mr. Powell participated as a Choral Union member. The wife of one of my dental school classmates also sang in the Coral Union that year.

    This is a very inspiring article that illuminates the many pathways to personal happiness and success in life driven by latent talent combined with honest personal conviction and perseverance

    Mr. Powell is a great example of “The Michigan Way”.

    Artes, Scientia, Veritas

    Reply

  • Robert Epstein - 1947, 1951 med

    I sang in the Choral Union in 1950. We did the Verdi Requiem and a “modern” piece I can’t recall, but it required all sorts of skips of octaves and twelfths. My memory is that very few (if any other) 3rd year medical students made the time for the Union, but it remains one of the joys I carry now into my tenth decade. Performing under Eugene Ormandy must have been the dream of a lifetime for many a professional musician, but WE DID IT and he turned us all (temporarily) into pseudo-professionals on the spot. I played the flute starting at 12 and for many years, never very well although I had a year of lessons from the future principal flutist at the Metropolitan Opera — he was only 19 at the time!!

    Reply

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