Sunday, August 08, 2004

Exploring the CD Collection #5

Marine Band Showcase
The United States Marine Band
Colonel John Bourgeois, conductor

Ever since my days in the concert band both in high school and college, I've felt that the concert band (occasionally called the "wind ensemble") tends to be unfairly treated in classical music circles. Many think of it as a symphony orchestra minus the strings, with the woodwinds "beefed up" to take over those parts in transcriptions of symphonic repertoire. The truth of the matter – that the concert band is its own animal, with advantages and disadvantages of its own, and is capable of musical expression to a greater degree than just about any other possible ensemble with the exception of the full symphony orchestra – isn't often granted, and this seems to me a pity. There's a lot more to concert band music than Sousa marches and the music for those wonderful competitive British brass bands. (Not to slight either genre, there, for both are fascinating.)

The "Gold Standard" for wind bands in the United States is the United States Marine Band, which is actually the oldest continuously operating musical ensemble in our nation, having been established by an Act of Congress signed into law by President John Adams in 1798. Often called "The President's Own", it is the Marine Band that provides the music for Presidential Inauguration ceremonies, receptions of foreign dignitaries on the White House South Lawn, state dinners, and more, including public concerts. This is no organization of "second-rate" musicians; performers are selected by an audition process as rigorous as that employed by many professional orchestras, and the members of the Marine Band are career professionals, as well as members of the United States Marine Corps.

The present recording was once available through the Musical Heritage Society, which is how I acquired it, although I have no idea if it is still available as such. According to the Marine Band website, the Band's recordings aren't for sale but are instead distributed to public institutions like libraries and schools (so check your libraries; the Marine Band has a lot of fine recordings.) I actually bought it because it is, to my knowledge, the only recording available on CD of a particular work (more on that in a bit), but as is often the case with CDs I buy for a single work, there's a lot of music on here to treasure aside from the piece I wanted. (Which is, by the way, a big reason why I reject the "Why should I buy an entire CD for one song!" argument in favor of digital distribution.)

There is a Bach transcription here, Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564, that is the only transcription on the disc. The other seven selections are music specifically written for wind band, and there isn't a single Sousa or K.L. King march in evidence. There is one by Beethoven, the March in D Major, that the great composer wrote for the bands of his day, and there is Percy Grainger's wondrous Children's March: Over the Hills and Far Away, which is one of the most charming pieces of music ever composed. Grainger's Marching Song of Democracy is here, and it's an interesting work in its own right. There is Camille Saint-Saens's work for wind band, Orient et Occident, which is a standard of the band repertoire. And there are several "modern" works, one of which is the reason I sought this disc out. That work is Elegy, by Mark Camphouse, and it is one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard.

I was fortunate enough to get to perform this work in my freshman year of college, and I still remember how stunning I found the piece. It opens with a solo flute, sounding a motif that recurs throughout the piece, and very, very gradually the rest of the woodwinds enter. One barely notices when the brass arrive, and the overall texture of the work never really becomes strident except for one section in the middle. The meter changes fairly often, if I recall correctly, and there are many solo passages for the various instruments in the band (including two gorgeous parts for solo trumpet, which I sadly was not lucky enough to get to play, being as I was a freshman behind two better players). The work seems to never really make a full melodic statement, until the very end; instead, melodies come and go, are suggested and toyed with, and each time we think we know where the melody is headed, it goes someplace else – until an amazing climactic section when Camphouse allows the full melody to sing forth before the work fades out, again with the solo flute that started it and a mis-matching note sounded by the bells. The liner notes to the CD include these words:

In addition to being an elegiac tribute to the composer's late father, the work serves as a sincere musical memorial to the heroic sacrifices made by men and women of the armed forces in the defense of freedom.

I've always wondered how my college band director happened onto this piece, which we began rehearsing in fall of 1989, little more than a year after its premiere by the President's Own Marine Band in July of 1988. I'm very glad that he did, though.

One more postscript about Elegy by Mark Camphouse: it was the first piece of music I could bring myself to listen to after the horror of 9-11-01, three days later.

For a limited time, Elegy can be heard here. This is a big file (just under 7 MB), since the work is over fourteen minutes long, and I had to use the lowest compression rate available, so it's not the best sounding file. But I do hope it gets heard a bit. This piece seems to me to deserve better than to simply show up on college wind ensemble programs as the "modern work" of the night. A concert band is capable of far more than martial music.

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