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.