Keeping it Light: The U.S. Marine Band on the West Terrace of the U.S. Capitol, June 19, 2013

It may be banal to start with talk of the weather, but Wednesday was a beautiful night in our nation’s capital: sunny, warm but not hot, drier than normal, a light breeze to waft away one’s cares. In such weather, it seems a shame to spend an evening indoors, even for classical fans. What to do?

Go to a free band concert, of course. No groups play music outdoors better than bands, which were originally designed for that purpose, and no band I’ve heard surpasses “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, not only in sheer quality of playing but also in imaginative selection of repertoire and audience-friendly presentation. The weather may have boosted the pleasurability of Wednesday’s concert, but it would have been a lovely listen even in the stinking heat more common to DMV summers. (Note to stinking heat: Please do not take this as an invitation to arrive.)

A not-unpleasant vista on a summer's eve. Photo by the author.

A not-unpleasant vista on a summer’s eve. Photo by the author.

The concert began and ended with marches: Karl L. King’s “The Mystic Call,” with effervescent flutes swirling above jolly tromping bass, and Louis Saverino’s “March of the Women Marines,” more straightforwardly ebullient. But much of the remaining repertoire showed off the band’s ability to play at a more relaxed tempo. John Mackey’s “Hymn to a Blue Hour” fit the twilight time perfectly, with the sky just beginning to darken after the sun set over Pennsylvania Avenue. The Marine Band made its harmonies glisten and shimmer, while Captain Michelle A. Rakers guided them effectively to a stirring climax and heart-rending denouement. The opening “night prayer” tune in the overture to Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” sounded similarly luminous, like a candle flame with hands cupped to protect it against the wind.

GySgt Sara Dell’Omo, moderating the concert, did a great job of introducing these works, which doubtless were unfamiliar to an audience including many children and at least one faultlessly quiet dog. She narrated some history about the works, but she also took care to associate a particular image with each piece – Mackey at his upright piano with the sounds of the city swirling around him, Hansel and Gretel huddling in the forest, the swirling river in Ron Nelson’s “Savannah River Holiday Overture” contrasted with the quiet on its banks. This is an extremely helpful way to bring in people who might feel adrift in music with an obvious narrative thrust but no words to go by.

Sara Dell'Omo, courtesy Marine Band (though her hair was different on Wednesday).

Sara Dell’Omo, courtesy Marine Band (though her hair was different on Wednesday).

Those people got a double bonus when Dell’Omo picked up another microphone to sing two tunes with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, the poppiest part of a pretty meaty program for something outside. She had the brassy “Pardon My Southern Accent” down pat but occasionally was drowned out by the band’s otherwise-discreet amplification. No such problems arose in her “Moon River,” which had many members of the audience quietly murmuring along, in a way people can really only do outside without other people getting mad.

The showstopper on Wednesday, though, was James Barnes’ “Duo Concertante,” a brief concerto for trumpeter MSgt Christian Ferrari and euphonium soloist SSgt Hiram Diaz, both of whom played with astonishing precision while never making a sour noise on their temperamental instruments. The fast outer movements bristled with activity, and the dueling cadenzas had me on the edge of my seat, but the heart of this work is the slow middle movement, where Barnes spins soaring melodic lines from a five-note motive. The Marine Band once again excelled in making gorgeous hushed tones, and the two soloists effortlessly spun out their elaborations of the central motive, intertwining with each other, the band and, it sometimes seemed, the gently darkening evening around them. I’m going to try to hit all the other military bands’ Capitol concerts this summer, and I expect a lot of fun, but it’ll be hard to top this one.

“The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band appears each Wednesday night on the West Terrace of the Capitol and each Thursday night at Yards Park, weather permitting. July 10 and 11 are the 215th anniversary concerts, which will feature a new work written for the occasion by John Williams.

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