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Cold War. Warm Memories.

By Marilou Carlin

Among the Class of 1961 alumni returning to the University of Michigan campus for the 50th Reunion Weekend (Oct. 27-30) are a group of musicians who share a particularly special bond.  They are the former members of the U-M Symphony Band, a group that made history when it toured Russia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe for 15 weeks in 1961, at the behest of the U.S. State Department.

The alumni are being honored with the 2011 “Hall of Fame” award bestowed by the School of Music, Theatre & Dance Alumni Board.  52 of the band’s original members made the trek back to Ann Arbor for the celebrations.

Still the longest State Department sponsored tour in U.S. history, the groundbreaking odyssey was conducted at the height of the Cold War and was only the second cultural mission of its kind to take place during that tense political period.  Under the direction of legendary conductor Dr. William D. Revelli, the Symphony Band musicians were America’s cultural emissaries, using music to forge common ground with our adversaries.

It was an eye-opening experience for the band members, exposing them to cultures and ways of life that were completely new to them while also providing thrills, challenges and invaluable professional experience.

“The tour was beyond any dreams I had ever had,” said tour member Richard Longfield. “Each city and country provided opportunities, lessons, and insights beyond the experiences of performance and became an indelible part of my educational and personal development.”

The impact that the tour had on its members was so profound that these alumni have taken a lead role in establishing the SMTD Global Tour Fund to support future international and domestic touring by major U-M ensembles.  The 1961 tour was also a major inspiration for last May’s tremendously successful China tour by today’s U-M Symphony Band.

Several events celebrated the reunion of the 1961 Russian Tour Band during the 50th Reunion Weekend including a reunion dinner; a reception that brought together the 1961 Russia tour members with the 2011 China tour members; a panel discussion of alumni, faculty, current students and China tour members titled “Cracks in the Wall: U-M Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War;” the SMTD Alumni Reception and Awards Ceremony in which the 1961 Russia Tour Band was inducted into the SMTD Hall of Fame, and the Band-O-Rama Concert at Hill Auditorium.

In addition, the Michigan Marching Band saluted the ’61 Tour during the halftime show on Saturday, October 29.

Marilou Carlin is a development writer for the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.