Randy Shilts' famous book And the Band Played On doesn't deal with music even obliquely, yet that title came repeatedly to mind during the big 25th anniversary concert presented in Meymandi Concert Hall by three Triangle Brass Band ensembles (numbering 30+ per), led by a grand parade of directors, past and present.
We were reminded that when the TBB's forerunner was formed, groups known as British brass bands weren't all that common on this side of the pond, so when WRAL (Capitol Broadcasting) decided to create a sort-of house ensemble (since, among other things CEO Jim Goodmon was an ex-brass player), the result was something rare in these parts - and certainly so outside academic settings. The first gig was apparently at the TV station's state fair booth, and this critic remembers (from long ago) venue-overflowing sound from uniformed brass players performing in rooms far too small, and with ceilings far too low, for the volume the adult musicians generated. Meymandi - at the time the band started, just a twinkle in the eyes of the City's arts commissioners - is a good room for the TBB, even if some of the low brass sound seems to reach listeners from above while the rest of the ensemble appears to come at the audience directly from the stage.
On this occasion there were fairly short presentations by the TBB's newest group, the Triangle Youth Brass Ensemble, Jesse Rackley, director, and by its astonishingly mature bigger brother, the Triangle Youth Brass Band, led by Tony Granados, TBB's Music Director. (The latter band quite often seems to give the grown-ups serious runs for their artistic and technical money, a fact that all should find reassuring since this means that immensely talented replacements for the TBB are at the ready!) Both groups played music they will soon perform at competitions: the TYBE offered two items, including a nice set of hymn-tune variations by Philip Sparke; and the TYBB's three numbers included excerpts from operas by Verdi and Wagner.
The kids made way for the TBB itself, which before the intermission presented a mite-too-long (60-minutes plus), six-item program of its own, along the way featuring three former directors - Brian K. Doyle, David Reed, and David Rockefeller (plus Granados) - and the evening's sensationally brilliant guest soloist, Jens Lindemann, formerly lead trumpet of the Canadian Brass.
Doyle opened and closed the set, directing music by Jack Stamp ("Aloft") and Vaughan Williams ("Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes"). The premiere of Martin Ellerby's Cornet Concerto, commissioned for the occasion and funded by Wayne Vaughan and Shirley Drechsel, was conducted by Granados and played - on three instruments (not simultaneously) - by Lindemann. The music - in three movements, lasting about 13 minutes - is infectiously engaging and appealing, laced with often-dazzling solo lines but never once neglecting the band. At the end, someone whispered, loudly, "That guy can play!" but the obvious reply was "So can that band!"
This substantial group continued with David Reed leading Gordon Langford's ever-popular "Fantasy on British Sea Songs," after which Lindemann and Granados returned for Allan Gilliland's "Dreaming of the Masters III," sort of an historical survey of brass band styles but with nothing at all old or creaky about it; it ended with a joyous romp for all the players, after which a performance of James Curnow's "Holy, Holy, Holy" under David Rockefeller's baton took the proceedings to an entirely different plane before Doyle closed out the set with those Welsh hymn tunes.
Nearly two hours without a break for the audience was ridiculously excessive, and never mind the sometimes long-winded narration which, too often, served to break both flow (of the music) and concentration (of the listeners).
But it was worth hanging around for the significantly shorter second half, for which all the musicians from all three bands flat-out filled up the stage and then, with some awesome sound, every nook, cranny, pore, and nail-hole in the entire concert hall as former directors Robert C. Hunter and Michael Votta joined Granados, Reed, and Rockefeller for amazing music by John Williams, Stravinsky, Respighi, Meredith Willson, and others. Lest this review run as long as the show, let's simply say that highlights included Reed's leading of "Deep Harmony" by Handel Parker, Respighi's "Pines of the Appian Way" played like never before under Granados' direction, "Amazing Grace" (with an encore appearance by Lindemann), and "76 Trombones," the band's traditional encore for many seasons, again conducted by long-serving former MD Votta.
Along the way there were numerous splendid solo bits including some first-rate stand-up appearances by members of these bands, reminding us that visiting artists hold no hammerlocks on virtuosity.
At the three-hour program’s conclusion, there were whoops and cheers before some in attendance slipped off into the night - while others, including the guest soloist, betook themselves to a nearby gastro pub to reminisce and party till the wee hours.
Well done, all! But before the 50th, please invest in a clock.