The Bienen School’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble (SWE) commemorated its 50th anniversary June 8-9 with a celebration of music and fellowship in Evanston. Nearly 200 alumni—representing virtually every major orchestra and US military ensemble—returned to campus for the reunion weekend.

The celebration culminated in a marathon concert of ensemble favorites Sunday evening, including wind masterworks, pieces that SWE had recorded, and other significant works that have become part of the ensemble’s identity. The performance was streamed live for those unable to attend.

“When we realized we had an anniversary, I thought this would be a wonderful time to celebrate and gather our alumni together,” said director of bands Mallory Thompson (79, G80). “We’ve been working on this for essentially two years.”

Founded in 1969 by its original director, John P. Paynter (50, G51), SWE has developed and maintained a reputation for innovation and artistry. The ensemble has released seven recordings to date and performed at several conventions, most recently the 39th College Band Directors National Association conference.

“SWE always performs at the highest level. While some of my proudest moments have been our recording projects, convention appearances, or virtually any concert, those are only the tip of the iceberg,” said Thompson. “I remember many meaningful and fun moments in rehearsal and performance that were special to me both musically and personally.”

Jennifer Marotta (00), a trumpet faculty member at USC’s Thornton School of Music and former member of “The President’s Own” US Marine Band, noted the unique feeling of being “back home” in Evanston during the reunion. “We all shared an experience at different times, and it was really amazing to bring all of our years together into one celebration,” said Marotta. “There were so many phenomenal musicians there from amazing orchestras, bands, and universities—yet I didn’t once feel an atmosphere of competition.”

Tubist Andrew Hitz (97) agreed that playing with fellow alumni—including many with whom he had never performed—was a great privilege. “I’ve been spoiled throughout my career with amazing performance opportunities all over the world, and this was still one of the most special concerts I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “We all came on our own dime not only to honor the great history of SWE and Northwestern University but to be able to make music with Mallory Thompson one more time. She is a special human who has impacted more lives than could ever be counted.

“We all came on our own dime not only to honor the great history of SWE and Northwestern University but to be able to make music with Mallory Thompson one more time.”

Andrew Hitz (97)


Under Thompson since 1996 as SWE’s second director, the group has maintained its legacy of excellence, participating in dozens of recent commissioning consortia and presenting numerous world premieres. The Bienen School’s top wind ensemble has also earned acclaim from such composers as John Adams, John Corigliano, Karel Husa, David Maslanka, and Jennifer Higdon. 

Jacob Nissly (05) said his experiences in SWE helped prepare him for his current position as principal percussionist of the San Francisco Symphony. “My job week to week involves a great deal of logistical detail in addition to musical preparation. The demands that Professor Thompson puts on her students, coupled with the demanding rehearsal schedule, force even a young undergraduate student to figure out quickly that there is an extra level of preparation unique to a percussionist. The repertoire for SWE and band music in general tends to be even busier for the percussion than a typical week for me in the San Francisco Symphony.”

The celebration weekend’s schedule included alumni panel discussions for students on such topics as effective audition techniques, performance preparation and mindset, creating professional chamber ensembles, entrepreneurship, strategies for building a studio, unexpected career paths, and freelancing. Additionally, Thompson facilitated meetings to match alumni with current students for mentoring sessions.

Christin Schillinger Hitz (01), a bassoon faculty member at Ithaca College, participated in the studio recruitment panel. “The students contributed dynamic, engaged questions reflective of an entrepreneurial training,” she said. “The focus, enthusiasm, and intellect of the students attending assured me that Northwestern graduates will be a force in the music field for years to come.”

Schillinger Hitz added that for many ensemble members, Thompson has been not only a mentor but a role model. “She is a master in her field; but more importantly, she is a great teacher who affects countless lives with little knowledge of the full impact of her influence. She is unapologetically herself: goofy, highly intelligent, and unafraid to yell at arguably the greatest players in the United States. We are all better players, better musicians, and better people for attending Northwestern and working under her baton.”

Support Future Generations of SWE Musicians

In honor of the Symphonic Wind Ensemble’s 50th anniversary, please consider making a contribution to the SWE Alumni Legacy Fund.

The goal is to raise $100,000 to endow the fund permanently to provide annual support for SWE special projects in perpetuity.

To donate, visit and designate your gift to “SWE Alumni Legacy Fund.” You may also contact director of development Sarah Generes at or 847-467-3849 to discuss giving options, including monthly or multiyear pledges. The Bienen School is grateful to those who have already contributed to this fund.

  • Mallory Thompson