Monday, March 5, 2018

Review: Concord Band Winter Concert, "Anniversaries"

by Cal Armistead 

First, full disclosure: despite living in the Concord area for nearly twenty years, I’d never been to a concert of The Concord Band until last Saturday evening. And now, although I’m late to the party, I can with authority chastise myself for missing out all these years. It was my great delight to finally experienced this local cultural treasure first-hand at 51 Walden in Concord on March 3rd.

The inspiration behind the music for the Winter Concert was “1818, 1918, 2018Anniversaries,” and began, stated music director and conductor James O’Dell, with the celebration of the 100th birthday this year of composer Leonard Bernstein. “Then we started thinking, ‘what else can we tie in?’ We came up with [Charles] Gounod’s 200th,” he said. As for the rest? The connection was applied loosely, he admitted, “a little bit, but not too much.” Certainly anniversaries are on the minds of The Concord Band members and enthusiasts as they contemplate their 60th year in 2019.

The concert began with Overture to Candide, its performance dedicated to assistant conductor Steven Barbas, who was unable to lead the piece as planned Saturday night due to a death in his family. The exciting Overture was a treat for theater nerds in the audience (this reporter included), reminding us of the comic operetta based on Voltaire’s work that had its premiere under the direction of Bernstein by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1957.

The next number, Funeral March of a Marionette with its dancing xylophone instantly brought to mind the image of movie director Alfred Hitchcock stepping into his famous big-bellied profile. O’Dell described the tune as “a clever little march, a tongue-in-cheek piece,” which was originally conceived by Charles Gounod as a parody of a music critic he detested.

The grand Toccata Marziale by Ralph Vaughan Williams conjured images of a royal parade, and indeed was composed for the Commemoration of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924.

A particular treat for the evening was the performance of A Trumpeter’s Lullaby, featuring the impressive talent of trumpet soloist (and Concord Band principal trumpeter) Richard Given. The piece was written by Leroy Anderson at the prompt of Roger Voisin, first trumpet of the Boston Pops. In turn, Given himself studied with Voisin at the New England Conservatory, allowing the appreciative audience to experience this direct lineage of talent and inspiration. The number—which was dedicated to the memory of longtime member and trumpet player Ron Smith, who recently passed away—was rewarded with whoops, whistles and cheers.

The Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s On the Town conjured the unmistakable excitement and razzle-dazzle of Times Square in 1944. “Dance of the Great Lover,” “Pas de Deux” and “Times Square Ballet” created fun auditory images of three sailors seeking romance and adventure during 24-hour shore leave in wartime New York City.

Following intermission, The Concord Band went interplanetary with the Gustav Holst tone poem “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from his composition The Planets. Although conceived in 1914 to reflect the rising threat of World War I, to this listener it also evoked images of marching Star Wars storm troopers planning intergalactic war. After rising to the musical equivalent of artillery attacks within a cacophony of chaos, the music quieted, seeming to lay destruction bare, for all to look upon, and contemplate.

“A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center in 1971. This meaningful piece reflected—as noted in the program—Bernstein’s desire to compose an ecumenical service “that would combine elements from various religions and sects of ancient or tribal beliefs.” At the time, he’d attempted to explore what he perceived as a spiritual crisis. Certainly A Simple Song, the introductory movement to his Mass is as pertinent today, nearly five decades later, as it was then.

Gounod’s Petite Symphonie showcased nine woodwind musicians from the Band. A fun, light number that evoked frolicking woodland creatures, it followed—as the program states—“the standard Mozart serenade instrumentation of two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two horns, but Gounod also included a single flute part for [celebrated flutist Paul] Taffanel.”

Rolling green hills, homes with thatched roofs, and grazing sheep were brought instantly to mind by Irish Tune from Country Derry, written by Percy Grainger. The pipes were calling (along with beautiful flute melodies) with the familiar strains of “Danny Boy.”

The concert was brought to a close with Grainger’s Shepherd’s Hey, evoking English “Morris Men” dancers wearing jingling bells. This whimsical, joyful, swirling, twirling piece provided a big finish, leaving the audience cheered and satisfied. Including and especially, me.

I am thrilled to have finally “discovered” The Concord Band after all this time (what was I thinking?), and although this was this first concert I attended, it will be far from my last.

Writer Cal Armistead is the author of the young adult novel Being Henry David, and is a member of Custom Blend, an Acton-based a cappella group that has sung together for 16 years. She resides in Acton.

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