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Brass Band Review

Triangle Brass Bands Serenade Durham

December 8, 2002 - Durham, NC:

On the afternoon of December 8, the Triangle Brass Band and the Triangle Youth Brass Band gave a joint concert in Durham's Carolina Theatre. The city was (and, as of this writing, remains) a disaster zone, but there was both light and heat in the hall, and the small crowd - 80 or so, at the outset* - responded, well, warmly.

We've been pondering several things of late, including the meaning of (customer) service, survival of the fittest, and, for reasons we can't readily explain, the first two levels of Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs," which happen to be "body" and "security" needs. The former category encompasses requirements for air, food, water and a certain temperature range. The latter includes issues relating to safety. Both are a long way down the pyramid from "self-actualization" and "spiritual" considerations, which sit at the top of the diagram often used to illustrate Maslow's theories. The TBB's concert assuaged these and other needs for both performers and audience, on this occasion, but perhaps in ways that some people could hardly begin to comprehend. It was, in a word, a respite - and a welcome one, at that!

The concert was billed as "Zappa Meets the Triangle," but that was somewhat misleading, for there was only one Zappa piece on the program, and it was fairly short. Frank Zappa (1940-93) was a curious guy with some far-out views on society and authority whose introduction to serious "art" music came via a Varèse Lp; he wrote "classical" music before turning to rock, with which he established his fame. Based on the recordings and rare live performances of his music I've heard, it is clear that Zappa was a leading "cross-over" artist whose scores are refreshingly devoid of the clap-trap all too often encountered in that genre nowadays. Thus it was a pleasure to hear the Triangle Brass Band's smooth, polished reading of "Dogbreath Variations," arranged for band by the afternoon's guest conductor, Ray Farr. The piece is based on the song "Dog Breath," by Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Some critics have treated the work harshly (one wrote, "...Zappa's golden sense of irony and sarcasm are readily apparent in a composition fit for a cheesy 70's action movie..."), but the TBB played it brilliantly, infusing it with light and shade. It would have been nice to have heard more**, for this was less a "meeting" than a passing glance....

Farr now lives in Norway, where he continues the proud tradition launched by brass bands in his native Britain. His bio is impressive (see http://home.online.no/~rayfarr/ [inactive 8/03]), and he was impressive in action, too. His part of the mostly-seasonal program began with Philip Sparke's lovely version of "Carol of the Shepherds" and continued with Eric Ball's three-part mini-suite, "The Kingdom Triumphant," which quotes some familiar themes, including the famous "Dresden Amen." This is subtle, often magically-crafted music, and the band played it radiantly, proving (among other things) its virtuosity, about which CVNC ers have previously commented, and demonstrating conclusively that brass players can play softly . Just before the Zappa-Farr number, trombonist Caren Enloe soloed in Leslie Condon's "Song of Exuberance." She was one of the stars of the recent NCS-NCJRO holiday concert (reviewed in these pages), and she was stunning here in an even more prominent role. Condon provided a jazzy interlude in the work, which was predominantly sultry and subdued. After the Zappa, two Christmas numbers served as the grand finale. William Himes' "Message of Christmas" is, as Farr said, a potpourri of favorite holiday tunes. Gordon Langford's setting of "Silent Night" contained an unusual treatment of the familiar tune, bracketed by more conventional realizations of its overall serenity. Throughout, Farr was watchful, expressive, and poetic in motion, and he elicited outstanding playing from one of the Triangle's greatest musical treasures. It's a truism that the difference in a band and an orchestra is strings, and there aren't any in the TBB, but this is a virtuoso ensemble in every respect that mainstream classical people find so admirable about our best symphonic organizations.

The program began with a six-selection set played by the Triangle Youth Brass Band under the direction of Music Director Tony Granados and guest conductor Farr. Four of these numbers were seasonal and a fifth suggested sleigh rides of old. The group began with James Wood's arrangement of Leroy Anderson's "A Christmas Festival." Farr then directed his own "Adventures in Brass," which was heavily indebted to Carl Orff's "O fortuna" and a batch of other things, and which was otherwise loaded with musical cliches, but which succeeded brilliantly, thanks to the "composer's" inspired leadership, the band's inspired (and inspiring) playing, and the spirits generated by all concerned among the perhaps still-shell-shocked crowd. Farr's arrangement of Adolph Adam's "O Holy Night" allowed the young musicians to demonstrate their high levels of rock-solid ensemble and musicianship in an ethereal piece. Stephen Lytle's version of Prokofiev's "Troika" (from Lt. Kije ) was a welcome reminder that seasonal music need not necessarily be based on Christmas themes, and Derek Broadbent's edition of Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter" (and what could be more bleak than the Triangle in the grip of a severe ice storm?) reminded us that some of the best seasonal music pre-dates commercialism.... Alfred Reed's "Russian Christmas Music," arranged by Bruce Fraser, is a four-part mini-suite inspired by various Russian themes, including liturgical ones. In its way, it is as brilliant as Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Overture," so it was an ideal number with which to end this half of the program.

The playing of the TYBB's 43 members (9th-12th graders from schools all over the Triangle) was in many respects as polished and accomplished as that of the adult group. We are richly blessed to have these two outstanding ensembles in our midst.

The music in each part totaled around 33 minutes, but this was a full-length concert with a longish intermission, during which the Bands' fine CDs were being sold in the lobby. The M.C. was WCPE's David Ballantyne, who talked too much about the familiar music and not enough about the less-well-known material. There was an attractive program with an insert containing the afternoon's lineup, but the house lights were kept too low to read it, and clearly someone thought it necessary to have a speaker. Generally, we favor more music and much less talk, but since many attendees had to return to dark and cold homes, we won't begrudge the windy chatterbox or the presenters on this occasion....

Two footnotes, added 12/13/02:
*The presenter reports that approximately 200 people attended this performance. Our estimate of the size of the audience was made about five minutes before it began.
**Zappa's "classical" music is available on several CDs, one of which is conducted by Pierre Boulez. A fascinating introduction that includes a short orchestral realization of "Dog Breath Variations" (along with "Uncle Meat" - which, we learned after the fact, was played by the TBB following "Dogbreath" at the Durham concert...) remains available on Ryko RCD 10578, issued in 1997.

Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.