It's one of our region's greatest treasures – a superior brass band built on hallowed British models – models that originally served both miners and motivators of the salvationist ilk. The Triangle Brass Band turns 20 this year, and a happy occasion it is. Although the celebration will last all season, the gala concert marking the anniversary took place in Fletcher Opera Theater on the evening of November 4. This is a smallish venue but it proved ideal for the 37-member band and was singularly appropriate, too, given that the TBB began its life as the band of Capitol Broadcasting with strong support of that company and the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. On this occasion, those roots were celebrated, too – the ensemble formed onstage wearing the red blazers (and band ties) that were part of its uniform appearance in those early days. The first number was given without a conductor on the podium, demonstrating the fact that it's the players who are the band. And the program for the most part focused on works and artists that have been mainstays of this ensemble from the outset.
The TBB was formed at the instigation of three distinguished artists and leaders: J. Perry Watson of NCSU, Paul Bryan of Duke, and David Lewis of the NC Symphony. It was heartwarming indeed to note that Bryan was among the alumni who mustered on stage for the evening's grand finale – Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." But before we got to that point, the wide-ranging program embraced some great works from the repertoire and some new and innovative material, too.
First up was James Hosay's "Sunburst Concert March," played with breathtaking incisiveness and precision by this first-rate outfit. WRAL's weather-guesser Greg Fishell, who has tooted his own tuba from time to time, introduced one of the evening's best-known scores, Gordon Langford's Fantasy on (five) British Sea Songs, providing rich detail on this and other scores throughout the evening in lieu of printed program notes. TBB Music Director Michael Votta conducted, ensuring the utmost in tight ensemble and quite astonishing control of dynamics.
TBB member Bob Peckham played flugelhorn in a drop-dead gorgeous arrangement by Ray Farr of Harold Arlen's "Somewhere, over the Rainbow." Brian Doyle, now at the Crane School of Music, returned to conduct his own arrangement of a suite of wonderful British choral music by Charles Villiers Stanford and Frederick Delius. The core of Evocations of an English Countryside are Delius' Two Aquarelles ("To be Sung of A Summer Night on the River"); Doyle has brilliantly captured the slow mood of these inspired pieces, and the band played them and the bracketing Stanford works gently and with great restraint.
At the outset of this review we mentioned the salvationist tradition that helped shape British brass bands – that is of course the tradition of Salvation Army ensembles. The TBB has devoted entire programs (and CDs) to this part of its musical heritage, so it was appropriate to include here Robert Redhead's "Quintessence," the sonority of which (as realized on this occasion) often suggested the all-embracing spiritual warmth imparted in great places of worship by immense pipe organs.
The first half then closed with a second rousing march, Jan Van der Roost's "Mercury March."
The second part began with a heartwarming photo montage dating back to the TBB's earliest days, accompanied by William Himes' splendid arrangement of "Amazing Grace." (The band reverted to black attire for the second half.) And while we're on a spiritual wavelength, it might be appropriate to note the evening's other great religious work, James Hile's rendition of David Holsinger's "On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss." Laypersons may not have recognized the title, but the hymn tune – better known as "It is well with my soul" – is surely familiar to Protestants, and after Fishell's powerfully moving account of the history of that hymn (the words to which were inspired by a family disaster), there can hardly have been a dry eye in the place as the music unfolded.
Bruce Broughton's "A Frontier Overture" may have been the evening's most challenging work, given it's mercurial nature – it's a piece that has a bit of everything and thus exemplifies in one reasonably compact dose the big, bold, brassy and ultimately brilliant work of the superb organization that commanded so much attention at this concert. But there was brilliance of another kind – infused with some almost Ivesian overtones – in Himes' version of "America the Beautiful" (enlivened with snippets from other patriotic tunes). And there was the brilliance and glitz, too, of Hollywood in the Main Title March from Superman by John Williams, as arranged by Stephen Lytle, the former East Chapel Hill High Bandmaster who returned to Raleigh to direct it himself.
Throughout the evening there were many fine solo bits, all demonstrating individual excellence and all demonstrating in no uncertain terms the in-depth strength of the collective ensemble.
TBB President Connie Varner then recognized members, based on their years of service. Seven artists – John Enloe, Randy Guptill, Bill Harriss, Jeanne Nelson, Wesley Tilley, Harvey Turner, and Wayne Vaughn – have been members through thick and thin, from the outset. To them – and to all the others (including my UNC classmate Dave Norris, whose artistry I have been privileged to enjoy for over 40 years) – we extend our heartfelt thanks.
The TBB grew by more than a few stands as alumni members assembled onstage, and "Stars and Stripes" capped the evening. It was a generous program that did what such galas are meant to do – it celebrated the art and the organization and all the good work it's done for all these years.
Conductors and musicians in other organizations could learn much from hearing the TBB and studying its programs. Fletcher is a small hall but at no point did the dynamics get out of hand, and indeed the quiet portions – of which there were many – were often breathtaking in their delicacy and beauty. Brass instruments can be played softly – and the effects of soft playing can be overwhelming, indeed. The lineup of works gave proof positive – if proof were needed – that mostly contemporary arrangements and original works can be "sold" to and appreciated by the public without fear. Bravo! And here's to another 20 years or so of the TBB – or more!
For more information, visit http://www.trianglebrass.org/. And to hear the TBB, plan now to attend the group's next concert, on November 17, at Edenton Street United Methodist Church.