Life Remembered: Former UI band director Harry Begian

Life Remembered: Former UI band director Harry Begian

The third band director in Illinois history has died.

Harry Begian, 89, of Alpena, Mich., died at home on Monday. Visitation will be at the Bannan Funeral Home, Alpena, from 2 to 8 p.m. Thursday. Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday.

The son of Armenian refugees, Mr. Begian became one of the best-known names in band history, serving as director at the University of Illinois from 1970 to 1984.

Before that, he made his reputation at a Detroit high school, Cass Technical High School, from 1947 to 1964.

He was director of bands at Michigan State University for three years and another three at Wayne State University. After a year of retirement, he also served as conductor of the Purdue University Symphonic Band in the mid-'80s. He conducted a tribute concert here as recently as three years ago.

Gary E. Smith, who directed the Marching Illini from 1976 to 1997, called Mr. Begian "a mentor and a great friend."

"We were like family. He supported me throughout his tenure, and we remained lifetime friends," Smith said.

"I probably learned more about musicianship from him than anyone. He was a brilliant musicologist who knew theory, composition and literature, an amazing resource for a band."

Dan Perrino, an emeritus UI professor and administrator, said Mr. Begian's hiring was a coup for Illinois.

"Harry had an international reputation. He was the outstanding band conductor at Interlochen," the famous summer camp and arts festival in Michigan, Perrino said.

Perrino, who has an encyclopedic memory of UI and music history, said Mr. Begian was a giant in a tradition of giants.

The first UI band director, A. Austin Harding, was a friend of John Philip Sousa and created what many saw as the first serious college band.

Harding's successor was Mark Hindsley, who was known nationally as a guest conductor, transcriber of orchestral works for band, and leader of several band organizations.

Perrino had heard Mr. Begian at a summer youth music camp. When then-Chancellor Jack Peltason was looking for a replacement for Hindsley, Perrino recommended the Michigan director.

"There was very little problem getting him hired, Harry had so many recommendations," Perrino said.

Perrino said Mr. Begian found a full, rich sound in the UI Band.

"He had a reputation for developing bands. He gave (the UI Band) a wonderful symphonic sound. His music was pretty much from a romantic perspective. He got such a rich sound from the wind instruments."

He said the conductor "attracted students from all over country."

Smith said students loved Mr. Begian because "first of all, he was very generous with his knowledge."

"He was a quiet man, not an outgoing person. But when you would pursue him for knowledge or information, he would open up," Smith said. "At the same time, he was an internationally renowned person, about as famous as you can get in the band world."

Mr. Begian was said to be very demanding on the podium.

"He was sometimes referred to as a tyrant on the podium. Off the podium, kids called him a pussycat," Perrino said.

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Mark Clark wrote on July 28, 2010 at 10:07 am

I am having trouble finding the words to express my feeling about Dr. Begian's passing. There is so much to say about him as a musician, as an educator, and as a human being, and in all categories, I am struggling to find superlatives that are up to the task of honoring this great man. He was the best, and all of us under his baton were made better for having known him. I'd like to think, that some how, some way, some place, there is a podium and a band, and that Dr. Begian is spellbinding the musicians and the audience once again. Mr Sousa, please step aside for awhile, and let this man make his wonderful music once again.

Trombone1 wrote on August 01, 2010 at 7:08 pm

I think Dan Perrino’s description of Dr. Begian as a “giant of giants” in his field is right on target. Always focused on the very best musical outcome…every time, it was actually easy to understand what he wanted on the podium. Just attend a major symphony orchestra concert that includes significant “classic” wind compositions, and listen…with heart and soul. It’s a tall order to replicate this sound and dedication, but Dr. Begian, in my opinion, was one of only a handful of band directors over the course of decades that could do it.
He was tough on musicians only if they did not deliver their “personal” best; he was a very giving person and exuded great personal warmth.

Wayne Bjerregaard
Large Symphonic Band (1972-1973)

gimpcornet wrote on August 02, 2010 at 4:08 pm

I had the privilege of playing for Dr. Begian at Cass Tech from 1959 until 1962. It was a wonderful experience! Yes he was a Tyrant on the podium but that "Tyrant" made Cass into the best high school band in the United States. We went to Music Educators National Conference as the performing artists. It was unbelievable. He will be missed!

Trombone1 wrote on August 02, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Re: Tyrant
I guess it's what you've been exposed to, the context.
Spend a week in a major symphony orchestra and you might want to label any and all of the Directors, tyrants.
He was very demanding.
I do laugh at Gary Smith's "being hit with the beam" description. That I know is true. I made a mistake one time and my stand assistant got the beam...and cowardly as I must admit I was at the time, the blame!

Wayne Bjerregaard

CTClarinetist wrote on March 19, 2011 at 1:03 pm

I was a vocational music student at Cass Tech during Dr. Begian's last two years at CT. I recall the day when he told me that he had completed his doctoral studies at U of M: his face simply beamed with joy. I, too, remember that uncomfortable feeling of making a mistake. I was sitting first desk, second clarinets as we performed a transcription of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D Minor. The fugue begins in the second clarinet part. Unfortunately, I inadvertently emitted a very noticeable overtone (bird) that caught Dr. Begian's attention. His face was not beaming with joy. During rehearsals he would occasionally exclaim, "pasta fazool" when he was pleased or excited about something. He was my most important musical influence.