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Savannah Winds Patriotic Concert offers a star-spangled spectacular

  • Savannah Winds Annual Patriotic Concert is set for July 2.

Savannah Winds Patriotic Concert offers a star-spangled spectacular

27 Jun 2017

It’s that time of year to celebrate all things American.

Every year, the Savannah Winds community wind symphony presents a patriotic concert that offers a birthday celebration for the United States. It honors veterans and active military personnel with music and heartfelt tributes.

This year’s concert is set for July 2 at Armstrong State University’s Fine Arts Auditorium. The Savannah Winds is led by principal conductor and music director Mark B. Johnson of Armstrong’s Department of Art, Music & Theatre.

“We ask our audience members to wear red, white and blue and bring flags with them,” Johnson says. “It’s different from a typical concert.

“We can’t do it outside because the weather is too unpredictable and too hot,” he says. “We don’t have fireworks or anything, but we try to have fun with it.”

There is a strong military presence at each concert. This year’s concert will open with the performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” and the presentation of colors by the 3rd Infantry Division Honor Guard.

“We’ve got an incredibly active Army person doing the narration for ‘America the Beautiful’ this year,” Johnson says. “He’s the new garrison commander at Hunter, Lt. Col. Kenneth M. Dwyer.

“He was badly wounded in Afghanistan during his third tour, but he’s not let it slow him down at all. He, his wife and children just moved to Savannah, so we are going to welcome him to our city.

“We’re really excited about him reading the narration,” Johnson says. “That’s a pretty big moment in the concert.”

Col. Richard “Rich” Noel, Chatham County Veteran of the Year, will be honored at the concert.

Bill Cathcart will return as the master of ceremonies. In addition to Johnson, Anne Marie Hartley and Mike Nestor also will conduct and solos will be sung by Scott Rodgers and Peggy Johnson.

“The first half of the concert has some very special, challenging pieces of music for the band to play,” Johnson says. “We open the concert with ‘Esprit de Corps,’ which is built on the Marine Hymn.

“In our vernacular, it’s called a tour de force. It’s wide open, really fast, difficult, never quits and it’s a great opener for a concert.

“That will be followed by one of the most iconic marches in all band repertoire, ‘Commando March’ by Samuel Barber, written in 1943,” Johnson says. “He was literally ordered by his superior officer to write it, and it has been used as a soundtrack for a lot of black-and-white film footage of World War II.”

This year, an addition has been made to the branches of service that are honored.

“One of the band members felt we had not shown enough attention to the Merchant Marines, so we’re going to play the official march,” Johnson says. “We’ve never played it before. We’ve secured it from the Merchant Marines.

“These were the soldiers in charge of the caravans that brought supplies to and from Europe and the Pacific. I was not aware of how many of them perished during World War II, but there was an unbelievable amount of ships that went down weekly in these convoys.

“We’ll close our first half with a tribute to those who did not come back,” Johnson says. “That’s the ‘Arlington’ vocal solo where we show our film of Arlington cemetery.”

The money raised by the concert is used for music scholarships at Armstrong.

“We will present the Savannah Winds endowed scholarship of $1,000 to an Armstrong music student,” Johnson says. “There are two George Welch $500 scholarships we’ll present after the intermission.”

Then comes the second half.

“My assistant will conduct ‘God Bless the USA,” Johnson says. “Then we’ll do ‘America the Beautiful’ with Col. Dwyer.

“My wife, Peggy, will sing ‘God Bless America.’ That’s become a major hit for us.

“We’ll do our patriotic sing-along and the Armed Forces salute,” Johnson says. “The finale will be John Philip Sousa’s ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ with our special guest conductor.”

Every year, just for fun, a special “celebrity” guest conductor arrives. Last year’s guest was the U.S. Constitution.

“It followed up the penny, which was the year before,” Johnson says. “The Liberty Bell was the year before that.

“It’s quite challenging to pick the guest conductor. You’re trying to find something iconic to America, that is readily identifiable, and sometimes, that’s not easy to do.”

Probably the most unusual special conductor ever chosen was Mount Rushmore. So far, 17 different special guests have been recognized over the years.

“We repeated Uncle Sam in the very beginning,” Johnson says. “But everybody wants to see something different.”

The audience gets to vote on who they think the guest is. The winner gets to conduct the Savannah Winds in playing John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The concert starts promptly at 3 p.m.

“We would recommend that you come early,” Johnson says. “The doors will open an hour early.

“This is kind of important for senior citizens. We don’t want them waiting outside, not able to sit down.

“We do recommend people come early because the concert is selling out,” he says. “We’ll try to accommodate as many people as we can.”

The concert has become one of Savannah’s premier events, Johnson says.

“We wish our hall was bigger, that we could accommodate more people,” he says. “Some people have asked us to do it more than one time, but that is not possible.

“The band is made up of all volunteers, and they have things that keep them from doing the concert two days in a row,” Johnson says. “With all the military involved, it is difficult for them to commit to two concerts.”

In recent years, the concert has also recognized first responders.

“The whole idea of the concert has been to pay tribute to the men and women in the Armed Forces who are serving now and who have served before,” Johnson says. “It is for those people who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

“We’ve added to that first responders — the police, fire, EMTs, all those people who are the homegrown heroes. The ones who are the first to arrive at the scene and are the difference between survival or not.

“They’re part of our mission, too,” he says. “We take this concert very seriously because we know how important it is, and I’m very honored to be a part of that.”


What: Savannah Winds Annual Patriotic Concert: “In Celebration of Our Independence”

When: 3 p.m. July 2

Where: Armstrong State University Fine Arts Auditorium, 11935 Abercorn St.

Cost: $12-$20, discounts available

Info:, 912-344-2801