Harwich's John Hagon: A Life In Music

By: Debra Lawless



Conductors need be ready when things go haywire during live concerts.

This is one lesson that maestro John P. Hagon of Harwich, who has been teaching at Berklee College of Music since 1978, impresses upon his conducting students.

“What do you do?” Hagon says. “You try to keep going.”

Clarinets are the backbone of a band, just as violins are the backbone of an orchestra. Once when Hagon was about to conduct a band concert, it so happened that none of his clarinets showed up.

He asked himself, “What pieces can I do without clarinets?” he recalls. He recast the program on the spur of the moment, and the concert went ahead. “It’s humorous now, it wasn’t at the time.”

Hagon, 81, reminisced about his six-decade conducting career last week in Starbucks in East Harwich. His career began in Wisconsin when he was just 21, and it continued when he and his wife Darlene, a vocalist and teacher, arrived on the Cape in 1967. Today Hagon is conducting a band and an orchestra as well as teaching part-time. He believes he has conducted every town band on the Cape at least once.

Hagon grew up in Milwaukee and attended the University of Wisconsin. His debut as a conductor came during his senior year when he led the university’s symphony orchestra. The piece was “Themes from an Outdoor Adventure” by Aaron Copland. Last month, Hagon conducted the same piece to open a concert in Hyannis called “Sixty and Sensational: A Musical Memoir” with the Cape Cod Concert Band. The concert included pieces Hagon performed with school and community bands, musicals he conducted and a section on John Philip Sousa called “Marching Along.”

“They were like the Boston Pops of that era,” Hagon says about Sousa (1854-1932), a composer and conductor known for military and patriotic marches. The Sousa Band traveled over one million miles worldwide. “He generally got the best music, wind and percussion players that he could in his band.”

Hagon has a particular affinity for Sousa’s music and says it “comes back every three years when I decide to put the costume on.” The “costume” looks like what Sousa wore, which is similar to what members of a Marine Band wear. Some people believe Hagon actually resembles Sousa when he wears his costume.

Hagon’s son Sean, also a musician, played a major role in the “Sixty and Sensational” concert, too. Sean, who began his musical studies at age five, now teaches at Berklee and is chair of the professional music department.

“Sean is heavily into writing music,” Hagon says. During the concert the band performed Sean’s “Suite from ‘American Pickers.’” The song is background music for the television program of that name on the History Channel; Sean has also written music for PBS’s “Genealogy Roadshow” and other television programs.

Hagon’s wife Darlene, whom he met in a graduate class at Boston University in 1966, was in the audience for the commemorative concert. Darlene taught vocals in the Barnstable Public School system and later gave private lessons. She also directed various church choirs for over 40 years.

As well as the Cape Cod Concert Band, which rehearses at the Barnstable Municipal Airport after hours, Hagon leads the Cape Community Orchestra, which rehearses at the Harwich Community Center. The two groups rehearse and perform from September to May, taking the summer off. Each group generally performs two or three concerts per year.

“Community bands are basically made up of musicians who [have music as] their avocation rather than their profession,” he says. Members have various levels of playing ability and range in age right up into their 80s or 90s.

Conductors all have their own styles. Like the Cape Symphony’s Jung-Ho Pak, Hagon describes himself as an “energetic” conductor. He says, in fact, that he used to conduct in the style of the late Leonard Bernstein, who sometimes appeared to dance in place and jump, expressing the music’s tempo through his whole body, even his eyebrows. “He’s like on the far side of energetic,” Hagon adds.

As well as conducting, teaching has been another constant in Hagon’s life. From his early days teaching in the Wild Rose, Wisc. public school system to his days in the Barnstable Public Schools to chairing the Berklee College’s music education department, Hagon has been passing on his musical knowledge to young people.

And as for the Cape Cod musical scene – there is good news.

“If one wanted to sing every night of the week one could do it,” Hagon says. In fact, many instrumentalists in the groups he conducts do play with a band or orchestra every night.

“There were always town bands, now there are various choral groups,” he says. “The opportunities to play and sing are pretty extensive here.”

Music can bring us to tears. And it can unite us, as in Bernstein’s Christmas 1989 concert marking the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, Hagon says, making music is many things. It’s a way to develop creativity; it’s a way for individuals to work together.

“As my wife says, music is my hobby,” he says. “Music is my vocation and avocation.”