Obituary of Donald Ross Hunsberger
Donald R. Hunsberger of Pittsford, New York, passed peacefully while surrounded by his loving family on Sunday, November 5, 2023, following a brief illness. Don was predeceased by his father John, mother Meta, brother John C. Hunsberger, nephew John C. Hunsberger, Jr., nephew John Hillegass, and brother-in-law John “Jack” Hillegass.
Don is survived by his wife Marjorie (“Polly”), daughters Susan (Michael) Tain and Laura (Edward Pekarek) Hunsberger, granddaughters Emily and Katherine Tain, sister Jean Hillegass, nieces Joan (Robert) Buck, Kristen (Troy West) Comstock, nephews Jeffrey (Lisa) Hillegass and Timothy (Roxanne) Comstock, and brother-in-law Chester “Chip” (Frances) Comstock.
Born during the Great Depression in the southeastern Pennsylvania town of Souderton, Don’s musical brilliance became readily apparent. He traveled to Rochester, New York at age eighteen to pursue his dream of a musical career at the Eastman School of Music, where he met Polly, his beloved wife of 61 years, and earned three degrees: a Bachelor of Music in 1954 (trombone performance major); a Masters of Music in 1959; and a Doctorate of Musical Arts in 1963. He would soon become a revered conductor, composer, author, recording artist, teacher, and always a vibrant champion and ambassador of classical music.
As a graduate student in 1954, Don became the arranger and trombone soloist in the “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, until 1958. Among Don’s many career highlights was the U.S. Marine Band performance during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1957 presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol, for which Don performed as a soloist and prepared the musical arrangement.
Don’s legend grew through the years as the Eastman Wind Ensemble Music Director from 1965 to 2002, and thereafter he continued as Professor Emeritus of Conducting, and as a frequent guest conductor. Don also held the title Professor Emeritus of Conducting and Ensembles, and was the Chair of Eastman’s Conducting and Ensembles Department for decades.
Under Don’s spirited leadership, the Ensemble performed internationally and created an extensive catalog with the celebrated wind band. The Ensemble’s contemporary performance techniques and Don’s virtuosity made them coveted orchestral recording artists, with performances on Sony Classics, CBS Masterworks, Mercury Records, DGG Records, Philips, and Decca, among others.
Don conducted the Eastman School of Music’s Dryden Orchestra for a composition on the soundtrack of the 1985 film, A Room with a View, starring Helena Bonham-Carter. Two years later, Don first collaborated with famed American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on a number of musical projects, including arrangements and conducting for the Hunsberger/Marsalis album Carnaval, for which his scores and the recording were nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Solo Performance with Orchestra category. The recording reached #1 on the Billboard Classical Charts.
Don toured with Marsalis in the spring of 1987, including performances at the Boston Symphony and Carnegie Halls, receiving popular plaudits and critical acclaim. Don also contributed to the soundtrack of the 1995 televised series, “Marsalis on Music.” He and Wynton remained friends throughout the decades after their successful collaborations. Among his closest professional lifetime friends were fellow U.S. Marine and noted percussionist, John Beck, Jazz Education Hall of Fame member, Rayburn “Ray” Wright, and Mark Davis Scatterday, Don’s former student and colleague, who now leads the renowned Ensemble.
Under Don’s expert direction, the Ensemble toured Japan and Southeast Asia in 1978, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. Following that successful tour, Sony Corporation and Eastman Kodak sponsored six additional tours of Japan and Taiwan between 1990 and 2000. Since 2002, Don was also a Visiting Conducting Fellow at the Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo, as well as a conductor and teacher with a number of U.S. and Canadian university residency appointments.
In addition to performing over 100 premiere performances, along with countless tours, tireless teaching, and popular recording, Don contributed to various written works as an author and editor, including the books, The Art of Conducting, The Wind Ensemble and Its Repertoire, and the Emory Remington Warmup. His innovative scoring techniques for contemporary wind band instrumentations have inspired generations of musicians and meaningfully advanced the musical art form.
Don created and conducted performances of orchestral accompaniments for nearly two dozen silent films with fifty orchestras, including the National, San Francisco, Houston, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Utah, Virginia, San Diego, Jacksonville, Honolulu, Winnipeg, Syracuse, and North Carolina Symphony Orchestras as well as the Philharmonic Orchestras of Rochester, Buffalo, Kansas City, and Calgary, among others.
He was a past president of the College Band Directors National Association, and served as a member of the boards of directors for CBDNA, the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles, and the Conductor’s Guild. Don most recently served as Chairman of the Board of the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester.
Don was an avid sailor, spending many summers either on Canandaigua Lake in New York or at his family’s longtime home in Chatham, MA. Don loved being with his family and friends, and as a self-described foodie, he enjoyed decades of culinary delights with the Pittsford “Gourmet Group.” During his rather active retirement years, Don contributed to a host of local non-profit organizations, including the Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester, as a valued volunteer and respected member of many boards of directors. Don also enjoyed his participation in the “Pundit Club” thoroughly, which tasked its members to prepare and deliver educational presentations, the last of which by Don detailed Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, proudly tracing back to his Souderton roots.
A Celebration of Life will be held at Third Presbyterian Church at 4 Meigs Street, Rochester, NY 14607 on Saturday, December 9 at 11:00 a.m. The service will also be streamed live for those who are unable to be in attendance (www.thirdpresbyterian.org).
In lieu of flowers, Don’s family encourages memorial donations to be made to the Eastman School of Music Donald and Polly Hunsberger Endowed Conducting Scholarship and/or the Third Presbyterian Church Hunsberger Choral Scholars Fund.
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