When AJ Gluchowski conducted his college search, he found a website listing East Coast schools that had bagpipe bands.
The University of Mary Washington stood out. Once he was accepted, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, native made plans to join UMW’s Eagle Pipe Band, eager to perform with other avid pipers at Mary Washington and in the Fredericksburg area.
Then COVID hit.
Gluchowski, a rising sophomore majoring in music, spent his first year of college doing lessons and rehearsals entirely online. But now that pandemic restrictions are easing, he’s been making up for lost time. On the heels of performing at Mary Washington’s recent Commencement ceremonies, Gluchowski will make his Fredericksburg Nationals debut Monday evening, opening a Memorial Day concert at the stadium with a rendition of Amazing Grace. Several UMW music students will also perform with Virginia Cello Ensembles Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Christine Hartigan.
“I haven’t performed for an audience in months, so it is very exciting,” said Gluchowski, who first started playing bagpipes six years ago when his mom suggested it was a good way to get in touch with his Scottish heritage. With his high school pipe band, he frequently played sporting events and concerts. “I love sharing my passion for the bagpipes with as many people as possible.”
For the past year, he’s only been able to do that through a screen, taking weekly lessons on Zoom with senior music lecturer Andrew Donlon. “The bagpipes are extremely complex,” Gluchowski said. “It’s like a puzzle, attempting to keep certain parts of your instrument in the right places while producing the best sound possible.”
He’s also rehearsed virtually with Lauren McMillan, who serves as director for UMW’s Eagle Pipe Band, which was founded in 1997 and features both current students and alums as well as pipers, drummers and Highland dancers from the Fredericksburg region.
“AJ has been a major asset to the band over the past year,” said McMillan, an assistant professor of historic preservation at UMW. “Not only because of his talent, but his adaptability and passion for Mary Washington and the Eagle Pipe Band.”
Hartigan, who founded Virginia Cello Ensembles a decade ago, said she first got the idea to bring in a bagpiper when her 35-member orchestra rented space at Pollard Hall two years ago, and she heard the Eagle Pipe Band rehearsing.
“I figured the Memorial Day concert was a great opportunity for a student to perform publicly for the first time in 18 months,” Hartigan said. Her ensemble added woodwinds, brass and percussion for the concert – including UMW student musicians Travis Erikson and Ivy Sanders – to become a full 70-piece symphony orchestra.
The program will include patriotic favorites like Stars and Stripes Forever, the Armed Forces Medley, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and American folk waltz Ashokan Farewell, with violin soloist Kelsey Payne, a rising junior at Mary Washington.
The concert is the second big engagement this month for Gluchowski, who also played bagpipes at two of UMW’s Commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020 on May 6. “It was an honor to be a part of such an important Mary Washington tradition and represent the Eagle Pipe Band,” he said.
He hopes Amazing Grace is equally cathartic for the audience on Monday, as many emerge to enjoy live music for the first time after more than a year of hardship and loss.
“The virus has affected us all in different ways, but I always say that music has a way of speaking to each and every one of us,” said Gluchowski, who reflected on one particular verse. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”
The Virginia Cello Ensembles Symphony Orchestra Memorial Day Concert will be held on Monday, May 31 at 6:30 p.m. at FredNats Park. Admission is free and the park opens at 6 p.m.