British-style brass bands and patriotic American music? A spectacular pairing! On Friday night the North Carolina Brass Band, led by conductor and euphoniumist Brian Meixner, kicked off their Memorial Day weekend concert series with great programming and even better playing.

Two bits of visual prelude before discussing the music:

First, the choice of venue couldn’t have been better. Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem is spacious and beautiful, with a sanctuary that is wide rather than deep – great for both the view and the clarity of sound. Though the chancel and stage area are replete with hardwood surfaces, the majority of the sanctuary floor is carpeted. For brass, this is good news: the bit of acoustic dampening provided by the carpet cleans up the attacks without deadening the reverberation.

Second, Meixner is a wonderful conductor. Sometimes animated, sometimes reserved, his patterns and cues have a precision and an economy of motion that is deeply satisfying to watch – and, I’m guessing, equally satisfying for the players following his baton.

Of course, with players of this caliber, the conductor doesn’t have to exaggerate. For Meixner, standing at the helm of the NCBB must be like driving a Ferrari. These musicians’ attacks, dynamic shaping, and intonation are top-notch.

Following an energetic and heartfelt National Anthem, the hot rod band now running fast and clean, the Maestro gave one sharp wave. Bursting forth from the ensemble and resounding through the lush and pristine acoustic of Ardmore Baptist were the glorious, declamatory first notes of John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March.” Sousa’s marches are so deeply embedded into American cultural consciousness that it’s easy to forget their craftsmanship. Much more than catchy tunes to rouse the patriotic fervor, these pieces have rhythmic intricacy, delicate voice leading, and a formal architecture that seems cut from stone.

Belying their potentially overwhelming power and density, the players of the NCBB brought out every detail of Sousa’s rightly famous music. Spectacular!

The program kept the audience’s attention with Offenbach’s “American Eagle Waltz,” featuring the incomparable Judith Saxton on solo cornet. Meixner took a moment to introduce the work and the soloist, educating the audience in the obscure tradition of American cornet virtuoso.

Saxton is known as a world-class trumpeter and professor of trumpet at UNC School of the Arts. The cornet, a standard in British-style brass bands, has a softer tone that blends better in an ensemble. And what a tone emanating from Saxon’s instrument! Of course her fingers and articulation were impressively nimble. But the sound was what caught my ear – sweet and bell-like, less sizzle than the trumpet and almost like a flute in the upper register.

That flute-like quality was most apparent in Steve Sutton‘s deft work on the E-flat soprano cornet. In a brass band, the soprano takes the place of the wind ensemble’s piccolo, and is scored analogously. The effect of the soprano scored an octave above the other cornets is beautiful and very convincing. Sutton’s control in the stratospheric tessitura was breathtaking.

A weak point in the program was John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen,” arranged by the well-known brass composer Philip Sparke. The performance was, as expected, quite good; but the scoring was surprisingly and inexplicably monochromatic, especially when compared to the spectacular following piece Images for Brass by the equally well-respected Stephen Bulla.

Balancing the Williams-Sparke was, for my taste, the best work of the evening: the famous organ showpiece “Variations on ‘America’” of Charles Ives. As an extra treat, this arrangement by Nate Beversluis was a world premiere. Ives was America’s first Avant-Garde composer, and remains one of its greatest. Nearly all of his output draws from American musical traditions. There’s no doubt that Ives loved his country and its music, but to Ives reverence and humor weren’t mutually exclusive.

This piece is full of disrupted cadences, deliciously dissonant layering, and outrageous settings (including a minor tango). What a piece, and what an arrangement! Bravo Beversluis, and bravo band.

The group couldn’t resist an encore in the form of one more Sousa classic: the “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Heart-warmingly conducted by donor Richard Gizinski, this final shout gave Sutton one last chance to show his chops – a wonderful, rousing close.

Have a free evening following a cook-out? Go to Charlotte on Saturday or Greensboro on Sunday and hear this group. I promise, it’ll be even tastier than the grill. See the sidebar for more information on the two repeating performances of this concert.