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REVIEW: Drum Corps International’s Drums Across the Tri-State

By By David Williams
For the Gazette

The green turf at Laidley Field turned “blue” Monday night by the end of Drums Across the Tri-State when the Bluecoats of Canton, Ohio, turned in a dominant performance of its show, “Tilt.”

The Bluecoats were one of seven drum and bugle corps in the Charleston competition, one of Drum Corps International’s stops in a summer-long tour that ends with a final competition in Indianapolis the second week of August.

“Bugle” in this context is not the no-valve brass instrument of cavalry charges in John Wayne westerns. In drum and bugle corps shows, the bugles are modern brass instruments spread among 64 musicians: trumpets, mellophones (like French horns but with the bell facing forward), marching baritones (the trombone voice) and tubas (which balance on the players’ left shoulder).

The drums are marching batteries of snare drums (9 players), tom-toms (4 or 5 players) and bass drums (5 players, each playing a different, integrated part). That group is augmented by a vast array of percussion instruments including marimbas, vibraphones, timpani, bells, gongs, suspended cymbals and whatever else the arrangers can conceive that are set at the edge of the field (12 players).

In the last few years, electronic amplification has been permitted, and most corps even have a keyboardist who plays synthesizers.

When you mix in the constant motion of the marching drill, elaborate props and the work of the color guard ­­— a group of about 20 performers who spin flags and rifles, plus mix in modern dance — you have a spectacle. That spectacle takes about 12 minutes, the length of a marching band’s half-time show at a football game.

The Bluecoats’ “Tilt” started with “Uffie’s Woodshop” by Tyondai Braxton that had the brasses playing unison flourishes and tubas launching a huge build-up of layered ostinatos. Vienna Teng’s “Hymn of Acxiom” was a ballad-like contrast with ethereal accompaniments in the keyboard percussion and lyrical lines from the brass that built to a huge climax.

The “tilt” of the title was expressed in the way the corps was staged and moved. An orange border was laid on the field, but off-line with the field’s lines. About a dozen triangular platforms were used for standing, leaning and sliding motions. The players leaned at angles while they played.

A frenetic closer, “to wALK Or ruN in wEst harlem” by Andy Akiho, brought great drumming and mind-bending chromatic effects where the ensemble played loud chords that slid into the synthesizer’s bending pitches, making it sound as if the harmonies were melting.

I have followed corps for 40 years, first as a band director and then as a composer, and “Tilt” is the most original show I have seen.

The Rockford, Illinois-based Phantom Regiment, the show’s sponsor, has always played classical music for its shows. Its “Swan Lake” by Tchaikovsky had clean, resonant brass playing, gorgeous movement from the color guard and neat percussion.

The Boston Crusaders’ show, “Animal Farm,” mixed “Old MacDonald” and “My Darling Clementine” with music by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Knipper and Barber in the type of cut-and-paste collage that was at the heart of 20th Century music. The effect was bizarre at times, but the playing was polished, especially in tight counterpoint between marimbas and brass and the evening’s only extended solo for bass drums.

Crossmen, from San Antonio, Texas, played “A Gypsy Soul,” deftly mixing in a jazzy “Caravan” and a hallucinogenic “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Peter Erskine’s “Bulgaria,” full of hurtling patterns of seven beats, was the dazzling opener.

Spirit of Atlanta played with a stylish sound with its gorgeous brass and superior percussion pit, including a timpanist who played the walking bass part to some jazzy Gershwin on her drums. The drum solo near the end was just slightly out of kilter between the battery and the pit.

Oregon Crusaders, from Portland, played a high-concept show, “Nevermore,” based on Poe’s “The Raven.” A recording played lines of the poem, read by James Earl Jones. The music responded to the moods evoked by the poetry. The music was appropriately dark, and the brass glowed darkly.

The tubas took a solo turn at one point, playing in divided parts and close harmony, which is a very unusual sound. However, it did not work well, sounding more like phrases in search of a complete thought.

Mandarins, from Sacramento, California, played “UnbreakABLE,” another high-concept show with plenty of narration (about the indomitable human spirit) that sapped the energy from the music by leaving the segments unconnected. The playing and movement were very good, though, and the sound was bracing.

The order of finish as determined by the judges was: Bluecoats, Phantom Regiment, Boston Crusaders, Crossmen, Spirit of Atlanta, Oregon Crusaders and Mandarins.

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