Monday, January 9, 2017

This week's Moment of WOW!


As many know, I inhabit a number of different musical worlds, as a teacher, conductor, and erstwhile scholar. But I can even create subsets there, as I have conducted choral, wind, and orchestral ensembles (often, my bands and orchestras forget that I was once a "throat"). There is one big characteristic that the instrumental folk share: they are snobs.

Yes, a number of my orchestra friends look down upon the bands of American. "All they play are marches. No Beethoven symphonies nor Mozart concertos!" AND (horror of horrors) they march--outside! Note to orchestral wind players: you didn't develop all that technique by playing third heckelphone in the Pumpkin Center Philharmonic. Some of the finest wind players on this continent have one thing in common: many played in our Armed Service Bands. And another note: there's more to band than Sousa (for whom I make no apology) and Drum Corps International.

But let's mention, albeit briefly, Sousa marches played by orchestras. They sound ridiculous: the editions are always in the wrong key and the re-scoring lacks any intent of the composer. PLUS, orchestra conductors just play them too damn fast; it's kind of like, "this is easy, let's get it over as quickly as we can."

Then again, lots of band folk, particularly band directors (only the hoity-toity "wind ensemble guys," in their ubiquitous turtle necks, are called "conductor"), refuse to play transcriptions. There are even some--gasp--who refuse to play marches. A couple of years ago, I was glancing through a tour program of what has been (and still is) a fine band program. In the annotations, the conductor (roughly my age) admitted that he's never conducted The Liberty Bell. What? You ask. Seems impossible to me, and--honestly--I would probably never admit to it in public. Wind and orchestra conductors are stuck in the mindset that, if a composition is short and popular, it must be crap. How so not true.

The march is the only musical form indigenous to the wind band; it's as simple as that. Without delving into extreme minutia (as we musicologists are prone to do), let's accept the Britannica definition:

March, originally, musical form having an even metre (in 2/4 or 4/4) with strongly accented first beats to facilitate military marching; many later examples, while retaining the military connotation, were not intended for actual marching. And, let's be honest, they're not just written for military bands: I can think of a march in Beethoven's Eroica symphony and another in Chopin's B-flat minor Sonata. There's the March to the Scaffold (Berlioz), Mendelssohn's Wedding March, and so many more.

But to this conductor--with an occasional turtleneck--there are a limited number of different kinds of marches: concert marches, quick-step marches, funeral marches (and more in this vein) and the be-all and end-all of the genre: the Helluva march.

But let's start with Sousa, who wrote 130-some marches, depending on how one counts. One of his earliest, Revival March (1876) was written for the Philadelphia Orchestra! There are also some others that have been uncovered in steamer trunks with parts strewn everywhere and even one tucked away for decades on the shelves of the Library of Congress. Needless to say, there's a lot more than Stars and Stripes Forever. But exactly what did the old man (and his wife) favor over all the rest?

Sousa's Favorite? It's said to be Semper Fidelis, penned at the end of his career with the U. S. Marine Band, "The President's Own." It's a march without a "dogfight," that ferocious strain tucked in amongst statements of the (frequently) lyrical trio. But Sousa make up for it in that fantastic trio: it's first stated by the trumpets as a kind of bugle call; the second time adds woodwind flourishes, and the third time (!) the low brasses sound forth in a commanding countermelody. Put it all together and it sounds something like this:

video

Performed by the Tri-State Wind Symphony, Brian Hughes conducting. c. 2015

But what of Mrs. Sousa's favorite? Probably not The Fairest of the Fair, the composition of which was prompted by a pretty girl at one of the Sousa band's concerts. According to the Sousa's daughter Helen, her mother's favorite was The Thunderer, composed in 1889. This performance by "The President's Own." If you've never heard them, sit back and enjoy.



The United States Marine Band, Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, conducting. January 2015.


Then there is the "Bohemian Sousa", Julius Fucik. We've done more to bastardize this poor fellow than nearly any other. It has long been a tradition to perform his Entry of the Gladiators under the big top and play it like a galop. That's really too bad, but thanks to the evils of tradition, if it's done right, people will complain, "But it's so slow." So let's go with Florentiner; nah, that one's well known too. Here's one (Fucik's Opus 360--he was a prolific guy) that is one of his least known. But it, like many others here, is a helluva march: Gigantic.


The Quad City Wind Ensemble, Brian Hughes, Conductor. c. 2016

One must include at least one composition of Iowa's march king, Karl, that is. I'll admit that I've not always been a King fan, partly again began one of his best marches is played too fast! Every circus march is not a galop and this one, Barnum and Bailey's Favorite, when approached with the care it deserves (there's a lot going on here), is truly a masterpiece.


The Quad City Wind Ensemble, Brian Hughes, Conductor
Iowa Bandmasters Association Conference, May 2014

We have not even scratched the surface. This link will lead in several directions, but one needs to hear a lot of them to grasp a composer's style. It's kind of like discovering Beethoven; the only real way is by listening to all the string quartets. That's a lot of listening. Instead, visit the U.S. Marine Band website and download the first three volumes of their "Complete Sousa Marches." They've got 55 edited and recorded and--the best part--they're absolutely FREE. Best use of our tax dollars I can think of (besides education).

Here's one more. I offer it just because it's a long time favorite and indicative of a different style: the concert march.

Written for his (and my) music fraternity, here's The Sinfonians, played by the 125-strong UW-Madison University Band, a whole bunch of non-majors. I think they're pretty good.










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