At the end of the 19th century, professional concert bands were integral to American musical life. Touring constantly, they played not just marches, but everything from popular songs to the newest operatic or concert-music repertoire.
But the golden age of professional concert bands ended with the emerging dominance of radio and jazz music in the 1920s.
The United States’ military bands have kept that tradition of band music alive. Wednesday night, the oldest of those ensembles, indeed the oldest professional musical ensemble in the country, The United States Marine Band, drew a very large crowd for its concert at Charleston’s Municipal Auditorium, part of its national tour.
The concert stayed to a formula that has worked for the band since the days when John Philip Sousa was conductor. It plays a mixture of marches and popular songs, mixes in some soloists, adds some serious music and tops it off with patriotic fare.
The band’s conductor, Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, led Walton’s Overture: “Portsmouth Point” with focused energy. It opened with jagged rhythms that were snapped off brilliantly before turning to sparkling, puppet-on-a-string melodies in woodwinds. Some slightly inaccurate trumpet and trombone flourishes were one of the few inconsistencies I heard all evening.
Donald Grantham is one of the most popular composers of band music. His “Let Evening Come” featured a sweet clarinet choir at the beginning then built a sweeping climax in the brass that had intriguing harmonic shifts.
The band switches effortlessly between popular and art music. Alto saxophonist Steven Longoria played Jimmy Dorsey’s “Oodles of Noodles” with a vibrant sound and articulation. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” let him strike a mellower tone.
First Lt. Ryan J. Nowlin, the assistant conductor, led the band in Malcolm Arnold’s Four Scottish Dances. The first had brassy ferocity in its blaring chords in trombones and majestic horn tune. The fleet reel that followed was subtle and gorgeous right down to the beautifully nuanced, and funny, bassoon solo in the middle.
The high oboe solo of the slow movement was lovely and plaintive. The finale had muscular brass and glittering, gritty woodwinds.
John Williams’ Fanfare, “For the President’s Own” was a quirky piece, featuring the instrumental sections in little solo passages that built into a cohesive whole. Bits of trumpet riffs led to a horn tune braced with vibraphone and jazzy bass clarinet, a sound that dates back to Williams’ music in the 1960’s. Trombones and marimba launched the final passage which built to a forceful close, with the full band interrupted by hammered timpani.
The band’s forays in to marches were brilliant for their nuance and phrasing: Williams’ “Raider’s March,” Edwin Franko Goldman’s March, “Jubilee,” and Sousa “Semper Fidelis” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Copland’s “Promise of Living” from “The Tender Land” had delicacy to its flute and English horn solos but built to a searing climax before settling quietly in repose.
Mezzo soprano Sara Dell’Omo sang four Harold Arlen songs with a finely colored voice and intimate phrasing.
A final salute to all the armed forces recognized the service of members of the audience. It was no surprise that a large number of Marine Corps veterans were present.