Moline native Beth Plunk has one of the most prestigious musical gigs in the world.
A Master Gunnery Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, the 1997 Moline High alum is principal flutist for “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band – which will perform a free concert Friday, Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Augustana College’s Centennial Hall, 3703 7th Ave., Rock Island.
Free tickets are available online now HERE, limit four per request. Seating is general admission, and ticket holders must be seated by 7:15 p.m.; remaining seats will be released to those waiting in the standby line at that time.
Founded in 1798 by an Act of Congress, the Marine Band is America’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization.
“It’s great to be in something that’s so big. We turned 225 this year,” Plunk said Monday in an interview with Local 4. “There are not many things in the United States that are 225 years old. It’s really exciting to be part of that and witness history.”
Some of Plunk’s career highlights have been playing for conductor and composer John Williams, who led the Marine Band 225th birthday concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this past July.
“It was just extraordinary; he’s got so much energy at 91,” she said. “On a personal note, I got to play the Princess Leia flute solo with him conducting and I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s all I really need to do.’
At the July 16 concert, band director Col. Jason K. Fettig read a letter from President Joseph R. Biden honoring the American institution’s 225th anniversary.
The letter from the Commander in Chief read, in part: “For 225 years, the United States Marine Band has been a staple of American culture and military excellence, inextricably linked to some of the most important events of the nation’s storied history. Whether performing for the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, accompanying Abraham Lincoln to Gettysburg, touring the country under John Philp Sousa, or laying to rest fallen heroes at Arlington, the Marine Band is a steadfast reminder of the very best that our nation has to offer.”
The concert included the band performing “For ‘The President’s Own,’” an original composition Williams graciously penned in 2013 as a token of esteem for the Marine Band in celebration of its 215th anniversary. Generously named for the ensemble by the composer, the piece combines virtuosic, intertwining lines with a series of playful themes and bright fanfares that brilliantly capture the many colors and textures of Williams’ music, according to the band website.
Plunk also treasured playing for the last visit of England’s Queen Elizabeth II to the White House. “Again, it’s one of those moments when they’re right in front of you and you can’t believe it,” she said. “That was definitely one of those surreal moments.”
Plunk began her musical instruction at age 6, with piano, and then started flute at 10.
She attended the former Garfield Elementary and in high school, played in the marching band, orchestra and Quad City Youth Symphony (for three years).
Plunk had a grandfather who was a Marine Corps veteran and her husband has an uncle and cousins who are Marine veterans.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory in 2001, and in 2003 received a master’s degree in music from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Her flute instructors included Randolph Bowman, the principal flute of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Jeanne Baxtresser, the principal flute of the New York Philharmonic.
Prior to joining “The President’s Own,” Master Gunnery Sgt. Plunk performed with the Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh and as guest principal flute with the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra) in São Paulo, Brazil.
She saw an opening for the Marine Band in 2004 and she had to go for an audition. “I was lucky enough to get that spot and I’ve been there ever since,” Plunk said, noting there are six flutists in the band. She’s served as principal since 2000.
The principal line in the music is usually the highest part and the solos, she said.
Plunk performs with the Marine Band and Marine Chamber Orchestra at the White House, in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and across the country during the band’s annual concert tour. She has also conducted training sessions at the Marine Corps Forces Reserve Band in New Orleans, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Band in California, and the Parris Island Marine Band.
Thrills in the capital
As a student, Plunk got to take to trips to Washington, D.C., first in 8th grade, and her high school band director took the band to play at the U.S. Capitol, in 1995. She didn’t get to go to the White House until joining the Marine Band, for a Fourth of July ceremony outside her first year, 2004.
“Usually, they host a picnic for the USO and invite a lot of military families to come enjoy the Fourth of July on the lawn,” Plunk said. Her first time was “overwhelming.”
“To see something you’ve seen so many times in photos and on the news, to see it in person and walk through the halls…it was spectacular,” she said.
When joining the 65-musician Marine Band, members enlist in the Marines and do six weeks of training at the Marine barracks in D.C., Plunk said.
The band just tours one month (during October) each year, in a different region of the country. The famous director John Philip Sousa started the Marine Band tours in 1891 (when the organization was nearly 100 already), Plunk said.
They do 29 concerts each tour, with this month 4,600 miles in 11 states, she said.
The last QC appearance was 2018 at Davenport’s Adler Theatre, the first time Plunk had been with the Marine Band in a local tour stop, attended by her family and friends.
“Former teachers come, and it was just great to have such a warm welcome,” she said. “I am so excited to come to Augustana; that’s where my Quad City Youth Symphony concerts were. I’m going to be soloing on this program, so I’m really thrilled to get a chance to play there again.”
Plunk will play the last movement of the virtuosic French flute concerto by Jacques Ibert.
Her mom (an Augustana graduate) was a season-ticket holder to the Quad City Symphony for decades and the first time Plunk saw a flute soloist was when she was 13, with the QCSO. “That was a huge part of my life, going to see the Quad City Symphony,” she said, noting her parents still live in Moline.
“ ‘The President’s Own’ U.S. Marine Band is, without question, the finest wind band in the country and, in my opinion, the world,” said Augustana Director of Bands James Lambrecht. “The musicianship and artistry on display are second to none and inspire music lovers, both young and old.”
“It is an incredible opportunity for the Augustana community to experience this world-class ensemble.”
North Scott High School Band Director Carl Collins said it is a privilege to be able to have the Marine Band in the QC.
“They are some of the finest professional musicians in the world, and one of the most significant cultural institutions in our nation’s history,” he said. “Not only will those in attendance hear a concert they will never forget, the students who have the opportunity to work with the musicians in the masterclasses they offer while they are in town will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with these outstanding musicians up close.”
Collins said “The President’s Own” is a model for many school band programs, and directors everywhere use their recordings as examples for their students.
The Marine Band has a long history of returning to the QC to perform, starting in Davenport in 1912. It’s played in Davenport 12 times total; at United Township High School in East Moline in 1963, and in Rock Island four times – beginning in 1930, with the last one at Centennial Hall in 1965.
Plunk and her husband Patrick (a freelance clarinetist and woodwind player) have two kids, ages 4 and 15. They try to get back to Moline at the holidays each year and her parents usually come to Washington once or twice a year.
Five presidential inaugurals
The Marine Band famously performs at every U.S. presidential inauguration, and 2021 was Plunk’s fifth – the first in 2005 for George W. Bush’s second, then two for Barack Obama, then Donald Trump and President Biden.
“I remember President Obama’s first inauguration being extremely cold – so cold that the instruments froze,” Plunk said. “For about five minutes we had to play recorded music while we tried to get them warmed up.”
For that ceremony (January 2009), it was too cold for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman to play their instruments live, so they pre-recorded the music the day before and played along to it during the inaugural, she recalled.
In cold temps, Plunk and other band members often wear gloves with the fingertips cut off so they can manipulate the instrument.
She got to perform with the Marine Band in Europe in summer 2022. But their mission is very focused in D.C., playing 200 events a year at the White House and for services at Arlington National Cemetery, for full-honors funerals.
They play for all state dinners at the White House, or less formal lunches and ceremonies. “The White House is constantly hosting award ceremonies and events and we provide all the musical support for that,” Plunk said.
Even though it’s kind of old hat by now, “it’s still pretty overwhelming every single time,” she said.
The political nature of the presidency and presidential campaigns (like the coming 2024 election) doesn’t play in the band’s repertoire.
“We’re members of the military,” Plunk said. “We’re just there to support the White House. The White House is such a historical institution. We support whatever is going on there and stay out of the political fray.”
For more information, visit the band website HERE.