BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School instrumental band spring concert May 16 included a special surprise for principal Nancy Iatesta, who will be retiring at the end of this year.
The wind ensemble performed the world premiere of “Folk Song Celebration,” an original piece of music commissioned by the BRMS music department to commemorate Iatesta’s support of the arts.
Upon learning that Iatesta would be retiring at the end of this school year, music department directors Thomas Murphy and Ashlen Udell decided they wanted to do something special to honor her.
“Nancy Iatesta makes decisions that keep the arts in mind each day,” they said. “There are large decisions regarding staffing, funding, scheduling, facility and teacher support. Not only does Mrs. Iatesta help make those big decisions, but also the daily decisions that can impact an arts education.”
One way to honor someone in the music department, Udell said, is to have a composer write a piece of music specially for them.
Composer Chris Bernotas was just the right person for the job, Udell said.
“We in the music department have all played pieces by Bernotas,” she said. “He is an expert with the middle school level compositions that not only teach musical skills, but also touch the hearts of audiences.”
The process began with providing Bernotas background information to compose a piece that would be personal and meaningful. “Folk Song Celebration” commemorates Iatesta’s heritage through traditional Irish and Italian melodies blended with original music.
Just hours before the concert began, Murphy and Udell received news that “Folk Song Celebration” will be published, meaning that the piece can be purchased and performed by thousands of band students all over the world. Each time it is played, it will include the inscription "Commissioned by the Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School Wind Ensemble. Director Ashlen Udell; Commemorating the leadership in support of the Arts of Mrs. Nancy Iatesta, Principal."
The publication process will take approximately two years.
Murphy and Udell said they worked hard throughout the school year to plan the surprise.
“We had many secret conversations running around the school, trying to make sure that this stayed a secret for an entire year, which is extremely hard in a school this size,” said Udell.
Other administrators signed documents needed to move the project forward so Iatesta would not find out. They also engaged the help of Iatesta’s husband, John, in discretely inviting extended family to the concert.
Keeping the secret was no small task.
“Nancy is a very observant principal and notices everything,” John Iatesta said. “She notices the kids and things that they’re doing and she knows most of the kids names in the building, so for her not to catch wind of something like this going on is a big accomplishment.”
“She really wants it to be about the kids,” he added. “She loves and supports the kids with everything, whether it’s sports, academics or music.”
The covert efforts were a success.
“The whole evening was a surprise, it really was,” Nancy Iatesta said. “It’s humbling and overwhelming, but they couldn’t have picked a better tribute coming from a school district where music is such an outstanding part.”
Addressing the audience after the performance, Iatesta said, “This is phenomenal. This means so much to me. One thing that always drew me to this district is the appreciation that this community has for the arts. In some districts these programs are being cut. We don’t cut them here, we grow them here.”
Bernotas’s composition integrates subdued Irish lullaby and upbeat Italian Tarantella sections, alongside original music composed to tie it all together.
“I was so excited for the opportunity to write a piece to honor a principal who has been so incredibly supportive of the music department,” Bernotas said. “I think it is wonderful that the teachers wanted to honor her in this very special way.”
“Folk Song Celebration” was indeed special and personal to Iatesta, who said the music evoked sentimental memories of her maternal grandfather, who lived to the age of 98.
“When it got to the Italian part, the Tarentella, I remembered him doing that at family weddings,” she said. “He’d be out there in his 90s on the dance floor dancing that song. That hit me right away when I heard that part of the music.”
“This means a great deal to me,” she added. “It’s been a very special night and something I will always treasure.”