News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 28, 2013

RIVER OF SOUND: Composer sees symphony bring his musical imagination to life

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — David Watkins smiled as he stood on the Tilson Auditorium stage. The audience stood, too, applauding.

Two of his compositions had just been performed by the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra. Neither piece — “A Wabash Portrait” and “River Fanfare” — had been played publicly in decades. The community’s 2013 Year of the River celebration revived interest in the works by Watkins, now 79 years old, and became the theme of the symphony’s April 20 concert. The night gave his compositions their grandest moment.

“Wabash Portrait” closed the performance dramatically. Conductor David Bowden called Watkins up to take a bow.

“He was beaming,” Bowden said, “and very, very proud.”

Watkins leaned over to Bowden and said, “It was perfect.”

An old piano in a Texas farm house, 800 miles away and nearly 75 years ago, led to that glorious evening.

Watkins grew up “dirt poor,” the son of a sharecropper dad, who moved his family around Texas six times before David reached the seventh grade. When he was 5 years old, David’s grandparents decided to give away their piano to one of their grown children. They conducted a drawing, and David’s mother won. He proved to be a natural, learning to play more quickly than his 14-year-old sister. “I could hear a sound and go over to the piano and find it,” he said.

Watkins has been immersed in music ever since. “When I was in high school and I had to chop cotton in the fields, I’d fantasize about being a nightclub piano player or a concert pianist,” he said.

The spark for such dreams was “getting that piano,” Watkins recalled. “I never, ever doubted that my life was going to be in music.”

Fate kept steering him toward that destiny. When he got a chance to audition for piano lessons from the local school superintendent’s wife, Watkins played the “Beer Barrel Polka,” and she accepted him. When a band teacher at another school heard Watkins play piano during an assembly, he arranged to get the sixth-grader a French horn; it became Watkins’ primary instrument as both a performer and instructor. From junior high school until 11th grade, Watkins’ schools had no band. The high school football coach didn’t want any potential players picking music over the gridiron. When the coach retired, the band returned and Watkins joined.

The right-place-right-time instances continued, as key people Watkins had impressed unlocked new opportunities for him. He got into the U.S. Army band and the Dallas Symphony without an audition. In the 1961-62 season at Dallas, Watkins’ conductor turned out to be European great Georg Solti. After his Army hitch, a degree at North Texas State College, and five years with the Dallas Symphony, a professor at Indiana University, Philip Farkas — an acclaimed former principal French horn player for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — invited Watkins to become an IU graduate assistant. There, he met a young horn player named Nancy in one of the IU orchestras.

“We made a very nice duo, and we’ve been playing together ever since,” a grinning Watkins said of Nancy, his wife of nearly 50 years now. “It can get very cozy in an orchestra pit.”

From mind to paper

The pair brought their talents in 1965 to Terre Haute, where David taught horn and music literature at Indiana State University for 32 years before retiring. They joined the Terre Haute Symphony, and David stayed 40 years before retiring, and Nancy is still playing. In fact, she played in the April 20 show, as the orchestra delivered her husband’s compositions.

Though David, two of their three daughters and four of their grandchildren were in the audience, Nancy didn’t try to see their reactions as “A Wabash Portrait” and “River Fanfare” were played. “I just wanted to get the notes right,” she said.

She and the symphony did just that, in David’s opinion.

“Having it match what I imagined it would be was really wonderful,” he said.

Imagination fuels his songwriting. “I don’t know how other people write music, but I hear it in my head and put it down on paper,” Watkins explained.

He used that intuition in a unique way to craft “A Wabash Portrait.” He created the 13-minute score in 1991, commissioned by the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the city’s founding. In the composition, Watkins “pasted together” four songs based on the historic river — “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away)” by Terre Haute native Paul Dresser, “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” by Ballard MacDonald and James F. Hanley, 1920s pop song “Wabash Blues” by Dave Ringle and Fred Meinken, and the long forgotten “Terre Haute Street Fair March” written in 1898 by C.A. Nightingale.

Watkins came upon the “Street Fair March” when a friend at ISU’s Cunningham Memorial Library sorted a collection of band arrangements donated to the library. Its inclusion in Watkins’ “A Wabash Portrait” gave the obscure 19th-century song new life. “I don’t know that it would be known of if it weren’t for David’s composition,” Bowden said.

‘He has fun with it’

To transition from one song to the next, Watkins has the orchestra replicate the playful sounds of a nature. Those include a clanging cowbell at the outset of the “On the Banks of the Wabash” segment — a memory from his Texas boyhood. “I remember sitting on my grandpa’s porch and hearing these cowbells off in the distance,” Watkins said.

Other sounds in “Portrait” toy with symphonic stereotypes, Bowden said, and are classic David Watkins pranks.

“He said, ‘I put some things in the piece that are designed to make you chuckle,’” Bowden said. “He just has fun with it.”

The end result of his arrangements and writing is “a very fine musical composition,” Bowden said. Indeed, the symphony used the closing section of “A Wabash Portrait” as its signature opening for every concert for many years.

Watkins’ “River Fanfare” gets a similar thumbs-up from Bowden. Watkins penned that piece in the Americana style of legendary composer Aaron Copeland to mark the Terre Haute Symphony’s 60th anniversary season in 1986. “I tried to write a fanfare that in no way rivals [Copeland’s], but it’s within his harmonic language,” Watkins said.

The symphony opened the second half of their April 20 concert with “Fanfare,” written for the brass instruments — trumpets, horns, trombones and a tuba. “And boy, oh boy, they played the socks off that,” Bowden said.

To Bowden, the year-long 2013 Year of the River observance, with a variety of activities to raise awareness of the community value of the Wabash, seemed like the ideal opportunity to perform Watkins’ “Portrait” and “Fanfare.” Pleased, Watkins said, “If it weren’t for the Year of the River, it wouldn’t be happening.”

The evening’s performance was recorded, with hopes for the compositions to be included on a CD. They successfully recreated the sounds in David Watkins’ mind. “Everything is there,” Bowden said, “just as he intended it.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or