Dartmouth Director of Bands Hits New Notes

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Brian Messier brings the Dartmouth Wind Ensemble to Rollins Chapel on May 11.

Brian Messier conducting the wind ensemble
Dartmouth Wind Ensemble director Brian Messier conducts during the group’s March 2023 performance in Sala Nezahualcóyotl, a top performance venue in Mexico City. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

When Brian Messier steps to the conductor’s podium in Rollins Chapel on May 11 it will be to lead the Dartmouth Wind Ensemble in an evening of Mexican, American, and European music, the latest offering in a series of concerts sponsored by the Mexican Repertoire Initiative

Started by Messier after he came to Dartmouth in 2019, the initiative brings Mexican music and composers to Dartmouth and other colleges and universities in the United States, and, in a cross-cultural exchange, also sends American students to musical programs in Mexican universities and institutions. 

The director of bands at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, Messier was the recipient this year of two American Prizes in Conducting: first place in the noncollegiate band division for his leadership of the ensemble The Valley Winds in Amherst, Mass., where he lives; and third-place in the college band division for directing the 55-person wind ensemble, which has also performed at Cornell University, Smith College and the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. 

The Mexican Repertoire Initiative emerged from Messier’s realization, when he was programming music for a Cinco de Mayo concert, that he “didn’t know any authentically Mexican repertoire.”

Compositions that imitated or echoed “Mexican” music ran a gamut from “being respectful and informed to being stereotypical,” and were written almost exclusively by white American composers, Messier says. 

Messier, who grew up in Fairfield, Vt., has always encouraged students to think of playing and composing music as lifelong pursuits even if they don’t necessarily lead to concert hall careers. In recent years he has also turned his attention toward audience-building.

“Where we are focusing on relevancy is in terms of representation. If we want people to pay attention to what we’re doing they need to see themselves in what we’re doing. They need to see possibility,” Messier says.

The initiative aims to provide a platform for composers and musicians in Mexico as well as shine a light on the musical and artistic contributions of the largest minority population in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics comprise 19% of the total population; of that 19%, people of Mexican origin accounted for 60% of the U.S. Hispanic population in 2021, the Pew Research Center reported. 

Without “diminishing the importance of the canon or the traditional repertoire,” Messier says, it is critical to showcase music that represents the breadth of people and cultures in the U.S. “To me, this is a largely unexplored area of repertoire, an unexplored area of racism, an unexplored area of representation.” 

For his work, Messier recently received the Holly Fell Sateia Award at Dartmouth’s 2024 Social Justice Awards ceremony, which recognized Messier’s “dedication to the Mexican Repertoire Initiative, and its impactful mission and efforts to increase awareness of the ongoing racism, inequality, and underrepresentation of Latinx communities in the wind band world.”

Brian Messier pointing a conductors wand
Brian Messier, here at a Dartmouth Wind Ensemble rehearsal during the 2023 Mexico City trip, has brought Mexican music and composers to Dartmouth and other universities. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

Messier’s research into the Mexican repertoire and its composers led in 2020 to a composition competition, which attracted more than 200 entries and laid the ground for the Mexican Repertoire Initiative. 

“The goal was open and he just happened to have the ball. It’s something that he is really passionate about,” says Rodrigo Martinez Torres, who was awarded first place in the 2020 composition competition and is now a Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies digital music student at Dartmouth.

He also was part of a wind ensemble tour Messier led to Mexico City during spring break last year to foster collaboration and help showcase work by Mexican composers.

The Rollins Chapel program includes work by contemporary Mexican and American composers, as well as classical music by Italian and Spanish composers. It will also feature guest conductors Alma Huerta, Julia D’Antico, and retired Marine Col. Michael Colburn, who was director of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band from 2004 to 2014.

Huerta met Messier through the initiative when she attended a conducting course he taught in 2023 in Sonora, Mexico; she has also followed his work on social media. “The work that Brian is doing is very important since it is generating an entire musical movement in Mexico in which composers, ensembles, directors, and our society are benefiting,” she wrote in an email. 

Students make up the tuba section in Mexico City
Chase Harvey ’25, left, joined National Autonomous University of Mexico students Diego Israel Hernández Santillán and Sandro Daniel Rivas Mendoza in the tuba section for their combined concert at Sala Nezahualcóyotl. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

“The truth is, not many audiences in America have heard Mexican music at all because this work hasn’t gotten out there. We’ve done our little part to change that,” says Joshua Price Kol ’93, the Hop’s managing director and executive producer.

Ian Smith ’24, the wind ensemble’s manager and principal trombonist, observes that Messier prompted “us to play things as traditional band or symphony players that we didn’t get exposure to.”

Messier could not have necessarily predicted when he began the Mexican Repertoire Initiative that it would have become what he now sees as his life’s work. 

“It’s something that I’ve only scratched the surface of,” he says. “We’re nowhere near accomplishing what I would like. I can’t imagine doing this work long enough to be done with it.”


The Dartmouth Wind Ensemble performs Creating Space at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, at Rollins Chapel. Tickets are $15 and up.

Nicola Smith