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We may officially have almost a month of Spring left, but the weather and the festivities are in agreement: Summer has arrived in North Carolina. For music lovers, there's no better way to begin the summer than with the most traditional of "outdoor" ensembles – the brass band. Residents of the Old North State can happily boast one of the few professional brass bands in the country.
Brian Meixner, founder and director of the North Carolina Brass Band, has quite the pedigree. With a doctorate in euphonium performance from the University of North Texas, Meixner is currently Associate Professor of Music at High Point University. Before moving to North Carolina, he served as principal euphonium and assistant conductor for the River City Brass Band, the nation's pre-eminent brass ensemble and the prototype for the American version of the traditional British brass band. Now Meixner directs an all-star group of brass virtuosi from around North Carolina.
Taking the stage at Greensboro's Carolina Theatre, the band kicked off their "Brass Picnic" with Dmitri Shostakovich's "Festive Overture." This exciting and colorful fanfare put the timbres of the ensemble on full display. With an enormous range of instruments from bass tuba to soprano cornet, plus a complement of three percussionists, the brass band was anything but homogenous in sound.
One of the gems of the brass repertoire is Jean-Baptiste Arban's variations on "Carnival of Venice." NCBB principal cornet Ashely Hall treated us to a dazzling display of technique. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause after each variation, which Hall graciously acknowledged with a nod and a smile.
Another highlight of the first half was a pair of jazz numbers – Sy Oliver's "Opus One" and Ray Henderson's "Alabamy Bound." Easing the tension of the large works from the standard repertoire, the jazz pieces allowed both band and audience to relax and swing a bit.
After opening with Franz von Suppé's famous overture to Light Cavalry, the second half got underway in earnest with Ed Kiefer's "Mountain Dance." This colorful fantasy made use of some mountain and old time music associated with the Appalachian region.
In the U.S., brass bands are closely tied to the military, and the second half honored this association. Stephen Bulla's "Armed Forces Salute" combines the official songs of all five branches of the U.S. armed forces into a single overture. In a heart-warming tradition, veterans and current service members were asked to stand when their branch's song was played.
After a lush rendition of "America the Beautiful," the concert closed with a rousing number, Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing." Featuring Danny Frye on drum kit, this famous big band showpiece brought out the best in the band; they roared, rollicked, and wailed with authenticity and gusto.
The audience rewarded the ensemble's musicianship with due applause, and succeeded in bringing Meixner and the band back to the stage for an encore. An ensemble so intimiately familiar with the patriotic repertoire can hardly resist the mother of all marches, Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." Their performance was top-notch, and soprano cornettist Steve Sutton fired off the flute and piccolo trills with relish.
Bravi and thank you to Brian Meixner and the NCBB for a great start to summer!
This performance repeats tonight in Winston-Salem. See the sidebar for details..