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Column: SALUTE! concert has emotional ties for conductor


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Think about something that is special in your life. Something that holds deep meaning.

For a number of attendees at tonight’s SALUTE! concert, that certainly would be their service in a branch of the U.S. military. If they’re anything like my maternal grandfather, who served in the Army in World War II, fighting for one’s country provided a sense of pride.

David Bowden, Columbus Indiana Philharmonic music director, feels pride when he is on stage conducting the orchestra’s SALUTE! performance. But it goes beyond leading a performance that honors veterans living and dead. That’s because it has personal meaning.

His father-in-law, Donald Sjaardema, who turned 92 Thursday, served in the Army Air Forces in World War II as an officer and bombardier. Unfortunately, his plane was shot down over Germany, and he became a prisoner of war.

Sjaardema was imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, location of the “Great Escape” — a mass escape from the German prison in 1944. He also survived the forced march through extreme cold to imprisonment in Stalag 13A at Nuremberg and later imprisonment in Stalag 7A at Moosburg. Sjaardema and other prisoners were liberated at the end of the war by Gen. George Patton’s troops.

“He’s my hero,” Bowden said of his father-in-law.

When this time of year rolls around, the conductor also can’t help but think of relatives who served in the military.

“I have cousins who were in the Vietnam War and who experienced significant problems because of that,” Bowden said.

“Agent Orange was a terrible thing,” he said, of the toxic herbicide that left both physical and mental scars on soldiers.

Bowden said he called one cousin Tuesday to wish him happy birthday a day late and to thank him for his service.

“He’s had a very hard life,” the conductor said.

Bowden just completed his 26th year at the helm of the Philharmonic. He also conducts orchestras in Carmel and Terre Haute and has many guest-conducting opportunities across America and in Europe.

But no performance has the same meaning as SALUTE!

“Out of all the things I do annually, this is the most deeply meaningful,” he said. “I am so thankful for the freedoms we have and the sacrifices in so many ways to have this country.”

Bowden has conducted the concert since it started in 2001.

He recalls Harry McCawley, the former associate editor of The Republic, pitching the idea of a concert to him and the late Alice Curry, longtime Philharmonic director.

It was a “Bingo!” moment, he said, deciding that the Philharmonic could provide a free concert to residents and that the community could gather to honor veterans for their service and sacrifice.

“This is important,” he said.

During the concert, the reading of letters from servicemen who never returned home is emotional for Bowden.

“I have a difficult time keeping it together,” he said.

That emotion he feels is a driving force for him to conduct the concert year after year. So is the knowledge of how much veterans have appreciated the concert.

Bowden recalled a story that Columbus native and 27-year-old singer, actress and theater company manager Kate Hamilton told him.

She was in a Georgia airport about to board a plane when a man in military fatigues approached her and said he remembered her as the woman who sang at the veterans concert in Columbus, which was in 2010.

Tears welled in the man’s eyes as he described how touching the concert was to him and his unit members, who were passing through Camp Atterbury to be deployed.

It’s also touching for the conductor.

“This is among the most significant things I do in my life,” Bowden said.

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