Brian J. Dix of Central Valley, New York, wanted to serve his country. He also craved a career as a musician. Rather than sacrifice one for the other, he went through the rigorous training of both the United States Marine Corps and the Armed Forces School of Music. His endeavors have culminated in his 2010 Presidential appointment to the rank of major and his assumption of the command of the United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, officially known as "The Commandant's Own," a title that connotes its elite status as the group of musicians for the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Now, during the New York Philharmonic's Summertime Classics series, conducted and hosted by Bramwell Tovey, Major Dix and this world-renowned ensemble are joining musical forces with the Orchestra for a "Star- Spangled Celebration" (July 2, 4, and 5), performing Broadway selections, marches, and a set arranged for drum and bugle corps. It marks the unit's Philharmonic debut and the realization of Major Dix's dreams from his teenage years. "My high school band director arranged several class trips to the Philharmonic's Tuesday afternoon rehearsals; I attended one of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique with Zubin Mehta conducting. I was enthralled," recalls Major Dix. "From then on my driving ambition was to be up on that stage with that orchestra." New York audiences also appeal to the marine in him for, as he says, "They demand so much from the artists that perform for them, and we respect that. We strive to meet and, where possible, exceed their every expectation."
The unit descends from the 18th- and 19th-century "field musics," marine musicians with the duty of communicating battle commands to the troops in a way that was more efficient and reliable than vocal commands. By the late 1800s they literally orchestrated the day of the marine from sunrise to sunset. "It's amazing," Major Dix says, "how the bugle became the official communicator of the marines. A plethora of calls developed : one to wake, one for pay call, one for sick call : for a total of about 75 to 80 calls per day. It's amazing for the bugler to memorize, but even more so for the common marine to understand each call as a directive." The modern manifestation of the band was formed in 1934 to provide Presidential support : a kind of public relations unit that boosted morale during wartime. As time passed, the ensemble earned great acclaim performing pieces composed especially for its unique style and instruments before civilian audiences.
Major Dix : who will conduct during the performance, who is widely regarded as a distinguished arranger and composer, and who has prepared some of the music that will be performed : says of the collaboration with the New York Philharmonic: "'The Commandant's Own' play instruments with some very specific needs. Unlike the orchestra's trumpets, for example, our bugles have only two pistons and are pitched in the key of G, making our sound characteristically bright, powerful, and homogenous. To meld with the orchestra's sound you have to completely redistribute the balance of power. It's a question of textures, key relationships, and type of instrumentation. It makes its integration with a symphony orchestra : something that has rarely been tried before : quite challenging," he laughs, "but surmounting that challenge just makes this an even bigger historical moment." He cites a list of firsts, including Birth of a Drum Corps, which he arranged for the occasion, declaring: "I can pretty much guarantee that no work composed for drum corps has subsequently been transcribed for orchestra!"
Major Dix has created a life that builds on both of his early loves : of country and of music : and has found his military duties to be thoroughly compatible with his work in music. "This double life has shown me what leadership is: it is being able to present our artistic mission flawlessly just as we would a military operation. When retired marines and civilians see us live and at our finest, it is easy for them to believe that capable people have the watch : that we will keep the torch of tradition burning while keeping our nation safe."
Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.