Posted tagged ‘marine band’

Summertime, and the Listening is Easy: The “President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band on the West Steps of the U.S. Capitol, July 17, 2014

July 19, 2014

The weather this week smiled upon First Lieutenant Ryan J. Nowlin as he made his debut as assistant director of the U.S. Marine Band, “The President’s Own.” (The previous assistant, Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, took over the director spot when Col. Michael J. Colburn retired last week.) Outdoor concerts happen at the mercy of D.C.’s summer weather, but stormy Monday and Tuesday yielded to balminess for his first two concerts leading the band on the west steps of the U.S. Capitol. I heard the second performance of the program, on Thursday night.

If I ever get tired of this view of the band and the Mall, I guess it's time to move away from the DMV. Not yet, though.

If I ever get tired of this view of the band and the Mall, I guess it’s time to move away from the DMV. Not yet, though!

Gustav Holst contributed the most substantial work on the program, his Suite in F for Military Band, four short fantasies on English folk tunes filled with wonderful sounds from the master orchestrator. As concert moderator GySgt Sara Dell’Omo noted, the Marine Band really likes marches, but they refrained from pressing ahead too fast in Holst’s, allowing the tune to blossom. The setting of “I’ll love my love” swelled with emotion, and the “Hammersmith” movement had a great charge from the actual blacksmith-y hammer used in the percussion. Nowlin and the band couldn’t quite synchronize the superimposition of two folk themes in the finale, though, and the result sounded a little tentative.

Normally, the band handles any challenge thrown at it with ease, as proved in other selections on the program. In both Joseph Wilcox Jenkins’ “American Overture” and Henry Fillmore’s “The Circus Bee,” the band played like a single instrument: tossing off brass riffs in the former with a rhythmic energy and emphasis that induced excited dancing from the five-year-old in front of me, carefully grading the accelerando in the latter while maintaining maximum exuberance. John Philip Sousa’s “The National Game” marks another entry in that composer’s roll of catchy toe-tappers, and how is it that we don’t hear this march, written in honor of the National League by a D.C.-born composer, at Nationals games? It even has pratfall noises that one could sync with video of errors by opposing teams!

The program cannily interspersed solos to vary texture, too. GySgt Frank Crawford played his tuba in Jean-Baptiste Arban’s set of variations, “Carnival of Venice,” which normally calls for the more nimble trumpet. The challenge did not faze Crawford. As the difficulty of the variations gradually increased to ludicrous levels, with the tuba seemingly puting nary a note astray, the crowd started applauding out of a combination of astonishment and relief like that for a tightrope walker who has made another safe traversal.

Dell’Omo, for her part, stepped out of the concert-moderation role and into the soloist spot for two songs, showing a brassy mezzo and bringing out the breezy delight of “The Trolley Song” from “Meet Me in St. Louis” and taking a lovely wallow in the (mawkish) sentiment of “For Good” from “Wicked.”

By the end of the concert, more than a few passersby had been caught by the music; they made a ring of people behind the band, looking up at the Capitol Dome. The sun had set to the west down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the dusk had brought a touch of coolness to the air. Kids who had managed to sit mostly still for an hour of music had some more attention left to pay as the band roared through a transcription of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture.” To close, Nowlin and the band performed a stirring arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” followed by the Marines’ Hymn, which together had everyone on their feet.  It was a perfect ending to an evening of light music in the shadow of our nation’s Capitol.


The Marine Band switches to Wednesdays at the Capitol and Thursdays at the Sylvan Theater next to the Washington Monument next week. You gotta catch them if you like a nice light-music concert in the summer; nobody does it better, at least within the city limits. (The National Symphony used to do some lovely concerts at Carter Barron, but sequestration has put an end to that.)

The Army Band takes over Thursday nights at the Capitol next week for its excellent light-music performances, to add to its Friday night shows; I’m going to get over there before the summer ends.

The Air Force Band and Navy Band seem to have mostly gotten out of the light-classical business, but you should go see concerts by them anyway.

In the wintertime, you can hear these ensembles indoors, typically playing more substantial fare (here’s an example). Did I mention all these concerts are free?

Pretty sure DMV Classical is the only outlet to cover this concert, but Anne Midgette coincidentally has written a piece on military bands in general, which I commend to your attention.


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

June 20, 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.

Banding Together: “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band at Strathmore, March 12, 2012

March 14, 2012

A world-class ensemble that calls the DMV home played under a renowned guest conductor on Monday night and filled the Music Center at Strathmore. The group played nothing but works composed after 1900 and ended the evening having earned a raucous standing ovation.

Unless you read the title to this post, you’re probably saying “Wait—we have a world-class ensemble that plays Monday night concerts somehow?” But if you did read the title, you know that the group is “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, which played under Gerard Schwarz, builder of the Seattle Symphony and tireless advocate for American music. He met his match on Monday.

I am trying not to make any military-related puns in this review. Photo from the Marine Band's website.

For sheer quality of playing, “The President’s Own” ranks first among ensembles that call the DMV home. In sustained notes and chords, as in the opening section of Paul Creston’s “Celebration Overture” or the quotation of “Amazing Grace” in Aaron Copland’s “Emblems,” the massed woodwinds blend so well and make such an even sound that you could mistake them for a uniquely rich and seductive organ. Later in the Creston, oboist Master Sergeant Leslye Barrett took her solo melody with the utmost assurance, sustaining a smooth line while remaining expressive, traits shared by all of Monday’s soloists.

The horns never put a foot astray in even the thorniest passages, like the spikier harmonies of “Emblems,” and the brass section matched what seemed to be dozens of distinct colors perfectly to each moment of music. Throughout the concert, the percussion came in right on point and with just as much volume as it needed to; when no percussion is playing, the musicians played in robust but flexible rhythm. And though they saved it for the biggest moments, the Marine Band can fill a hall with more sheer thrilling volume than anyone else. Can a band be as refined a pleasure as a top-flight symphony orchestra? When it’s this good, yes.

At times, conductor Schwarz seemed like a kid in a candy store, picking from each section the specific delights he wanted at any given moment. This was never more true than in the work Schwarz composed for and premiered at this concert, “Above and Beyond.” It began with a trumpet fanfare that bore more than a passing resemblance to the one Copland wrote for the common man, but soon Schwarz called for a slower section that pulsed with wind color. Before the piece, Schwarz told us it described an unspecified journey (he went into excessive detail about all the different types of journey it could be), so obviously the calm mood had to become complicated by thornier music, and the initial fanfare that set off the work had to come back and remind everyone of the motivating impulse for said journey. So not the most original work in the world, but the melodies had a certain felicity, and Schwarz made canny use of the vast capabilities of the band.

Marine Band concerts feature a lot of new-to-me repertoire, and Monday’s edition under Schwarz was no exception, as the audience got familiar with the “Ceremonial” of English composer Bernard Rands. This work sounds like Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” in a funhouse mirror: both rely solely on repetition of similar-sounding main themes that are initially played by a solo wind instrument (bassoon for Rands) over insistent snare drum accompaniment, then developed with more and more elaborate orchestration. But Rands works in a predominantly minor mode, and between each iteration of his theme ambiguous harmonies tried to throw the monotheme machine out of whack. Rands also elaborates the rhythm as the theme repeats, making it more and more complex, giving the piece another source of internal momentum to fight and evolve against the interruptions. I found myself waiting impatiently to hear what would happen next.

“Lincolnshire Posy,” by Rands’ countryman Percy Grainger, could hardly have been more different — the posy comprises six jaunty arrangements for band of Grainger’s own transcriptions of English folksongs. Here Schwarz led with lilting rhythms and the Marines followed merrily along, enjoying Grainger’s rich colors and occasional flagrant wrong-note interjections. It was a pure crowd-pleaser, unlike “Um Mitternacht” from Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, which really was written for only winds and percussion and thus sat in the Marine Band’s wheelhouse. Mahler contrasts the ripeness of his melodies with strange snaps and slides in the accompaniment, and Staff Sergeant Sara Dell’Omo sang with a riveting purity and assurance, especially in the cathartic final stanza when sunlight seems finally to break out over the song.

The only transcription on the program was a doozy: Frank M. Hudson’s resourceful rendering of “Medea’s Dance of Vengeance,” itself adapted by Samuel Barber from his ballet. With the flutes whooping Medea on to greater feats of vengeance and the brass crackling in fury, the orchestral strings were completely forgotten in favor of the icy hand of terror that seemed to be gripping the back of my neck.

My only disappointment with this concert was that, while we did get the Marine Hymn as an encore, we did not get “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” as both a tribute to the U.S.A. and to John Philip Sousa, the Washingtonian who made the band great. Just another reason to check out the Marine Band’s full slate of free concerts, presented almost every Sunday at various DMV locations. They can’t all be as spectacular as Monday’s concert, but in my experience every one has something wonderful to offer, and you’ll be hearing a D.C. institution continuing to do its thing after two-plus centuries of excellence. And perhaps a rousing march in among the masterworks, too.


  • The program notes were exceptionally good.
  • The band’s director, Colonel Michael J. Colburn, gave an articulate, engaging encomium to Schwarz before yielding the stage to the guest conductor. Somehow it did not feel rote like most of these classical-music encomia do, possibly because of the use of jokes and specifics.
  • The freeness and military-ness of the concert attracted a different crowd than usual. It was nice to see kids in flip-flops in the splendor of Strathmore, listening attentively.

Semper Hi Fidelity: The Marine Chamber Ensembles, Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 21, 2010

Tired of paying top dollar for chamber music concerts that sound promising on paper but come across as undifferentiated slabs of same-y colors and dusty repertoire? Send in the Marines! The Marine Chamber Ensembles, which performed in the John Philip Sousa Band Hall on Sunday afternoon, draws their members from the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band, which you may remember as the ensemble that actually played live at President Obama’s inauguration. (Take that, Yo-Yo Ma!) They displayed a similarly intrepid spirit in programming Sunday’s concert, featuring three works by living composers, two intriguing arrangements, and one Romantic rarity, all for the low, low price of zero dollars.

Several of these works held particular appeal for me, which is the main reason why I was so eager to brave the clammy rain and chilly temps to get into the Sousa Band Hall on Sunday. For example, most of Richard Strauss’ music impresses me more than it moves me. The sheer sumptuousness of the orchestration deadens my emotional response, and as far as I’m concerned, almost all of his tone poems are half again as long as they need to be in order to get his point across.

Enter Franz Hasenöhrl’s arrangement of Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Strieche” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”), which shortens the work, reduces it to chamber proportions — clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, double bass — and retitles it “Till Eulenspiegel…einmal anders!” (“another way!” I am not sure the exclamation point is necessary!). On Sunday, Staff Sgt. Douglas Quinzl nailed the famous horn solo that opens the work and played admirably throughout in extremely exposed conditions. Gunnery Sgt. Eric Sabo got a huge fat tone from his double bass, crucial to Hasenöhrl’s conception, in which most of the lavishness of the original orchestration devolves onto the big boy of the string section. This version ain’t gonna displace Strauss’ original in the canon, but it was fun to hear, even if (in the final analysis) I must admit to missing some of the death scene that Hasenöhrl omitted.

Jennifer Higdon‘s “Steeley Pause” gave the flutes of Gunnery Sgt. Elisabeth Plunk, Master Gunnery Sgt. Betsy Hill, and Staff Sgts. Heather Zenobia and Kara Santos a hell of a workout, with their cool tones whirling about like dervishes and piling up in close harmonies. It is to the credit of all four flautists that their various tones were precisely rendered, as the audiences would have experienced excruciating aural pain had they not been; instead, “Pause” felt literally like a blast of fresh air, not surprising from the mind of flautist Higdon. The piece also worked as an engaging palate-cleanser between the two bigger, more Romantic works preceding and following; it was a canny decision by bassoonist Master Gunnery Sgt. Roger Kantner, who coordinated the programming.

It may seem odd to have just called something by Peter Schickele “Romantic” — yes, he is that dude who dresses up as Bach’s fictional long-lost son; no, not everything he writes has humorous intent — and yet the autumnal tone and big, passionate melodies of the first movement of his quartet for violin, cello, clarinet and piano certainly put one in mind of Brahms. Gunnery Sgt. AnnaMaria Mottola maintained a lovely, bell-like tone in numerous extended passages at the top of her piano, creating a lullabyish sound as the other instruments murmured warmly. The second movement (marked “Fast, driving”) recalled the American populist sound of Copland, and Mottola in particular shone again, with her more percussive instrument pointing the rhythms. Master Sgt. John Norton’s clarinet got to shine in the “Slow, elegiac” third movement, which had an appropriately aching quality and lots of lovely melodies, before a blistering finale in which Schickele (and violinist Master Gunnery Sgt. Peter Wilson) balanced hoedown influences with his own invention to delightful effect.

The quartet was my favorite discovery of the afternoon, an immediately likable work written after I was born; unfortunately, not a lot of groups can deploy this combo of instruments, but you can buy a recording here.

Two missteps followed intermission. Camille Saint-Saëns’ late wind sonatas fit right in with the French tradition of urbane, charming, deceptively emotive music for winds, and his bassoon sonata is no exception, but Kantner in his role as bassoonist struggled audibly to navigate its high notes and runs. Master Sgt. Audrey Kupples next presented three transcriptions of Romantic pieces for her alto saxophone, with Master Sgt. Karen Grimsey accompanying on harp; the tonal combo delighted the ear, but unfortunately Kenny G has spoiled sax transcriptions of vocal works (for my ears, anyway), and playing Schumann’s “Traumerei” as a legato melody robbed it of some of its heartbreaking suspended quality.

In many of its concerts, the Marine Band sends ’em out clapping with “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” On Sunday, the chamber ensembles did the next best thing, putting together a brass quintet to play Eric Ewazen‘s “Colchester Fantasy.” Enterprisingly, Ewazen named each of the four movements after a favorite pub in Colchester, England, and his writing recalled both the antique heritage of said pubs and the modern-day fun that can still be had in them. The quintet filled the hall with Ewazen’s bright invention, especially in the first movement, “The Rose and the Crown,” where the musicians rambunctiously tossed motives and chords around, and the finale, “The Red Lion,” a high-powered, high-spirited fugue.

Although they never stop performing publicly for long, January is a particularly excellent month to go see the Marines play music; this Sunday and the next one feature the Marine Band and the Marine Chamber Orchestra, both playing similarly intriguing repertoire and varied instrumentation, both concerts just as free (and recommendable) as last Sunday’s. It’s good to know that we can rely on our men and women in uniform to triumph in exotic musical realms where civilian ensembles fear to tread.

I apologize for this review being so late, but at least it’s been late enough that I’m sure this is a DMV Classical exclusive. Yeah, baby!