Review: 2012 Music for All National Festival Honor Ensemble Concerts

Review: 2012 Music for All National Festival Honor Ensemble Concerts

By Michael Boo


With concerts by the Honor Orchestra of America, the Jazz Band of America and the Honor Band of America, the Music for All National Festival, presented by Yamaha, culminated three days of glorious music making by 27 bands, orchestras and percussion ensembles from middle schools and high schools. The festival was comprised of four individual festivals; the National Concert Band Festival, the Orchestra America National Festival, the Sandy Feldstein National Percussion Festival and the Middle School National Music Festival.

From across America, concert band, jazz band and orchestra members submitted recorded auditions to be considered for the three prestigious honor ensembles, with those selected coming to Indianapolis for up to three grueling days of intense rehearsals.

The Honor Orchestra of America, for the fifth year under the direction of worldwide conductor and motivational speaker Larry Livingston, presented two concerts at the downtown Indianapolis Hilbert Circle Theatre on Friday, March 16 and Saturday, March 17, sharing the venue with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. On Friday, Grammy-winning bassist, composer and arranger John Clayton led the Jazz Band of America in a concert at Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University. Also at Clowes, on Saturday night, the Honor Band of America performed the grand finale concert under the baton of Col. Lowell Graham, former commander and conductor of the United States Air Force Band.

The Honor Orchestra of America performed “La Damnation de Faust: Rakoczy March (Marche Hongroise)” by Hector Berlioz and “Symphony No 5 in D Minor, Op. 47, Movements 2, 3 and 4” by Dmitri Shostakovich. The Berlioz demonstrated the notable increase in depth of upper string warmth over prior years, perhaps due to more high quality string players submitting applications as this ensemble receives more exposure through educational circles.

Movement 2 of the Shostakovich showed off the professional maturity of the Horns and a violin solo by the concertmistress that was blessed with a richness to be emulated by all violinists. Movement 3 explored the subdued pathos and quiet angst of Shostakovich’s soul, the members of the orchestra giving Maestro Livingston the long, sustained phrases he was demanding. This led one to wonder if the breaths of the wind players and vibratos of the strings would sustain until the end of the movement.

Movement 4 kept the lid on the boiling cauldron of anger and tempestuousness until the pressure could no longer be contained. It was fascinating to watch the basses respond to the conductor’s direction to lean into the center of some elongated notes. The grand ending was taken at the slower, majestic tempo that Shostakovich wrote, and not the thrilling horse race tempo so many conductors resort to in order to get the work over with before the players run out of steam.

Afterwards, Maestro Livingston spoke about the orchestra, particularly commenting on the intense focus the members exhibited throughout the grueling rehearsals. “The performance level this year is as high as it’s ever been, and the way the members approached their music making was nothing short of inspiring. They put up with unbelievably long and demanding rehearsals that no professional orchestra would abide.”

He added, “I’m very proud to serve as music director and make music for these young people and to be involved with the mission of Music for All. For music in America to continue to flourish, we need citizens to be passionately involved with the adventure of making music. This is a mission we see at its highest level here at the Music for All National Festival, and it’s the passion that everyone brings to this mission that is central to why it’s been so successful. I shared that observation with the members of the orchestra and hope they understand how their presence here will pay priceless dividends in the future.”

On Friday night, the 19 members of the Jazz Band of America presented a concert of selections entirely arranged or composed by bandleader John Clayton. Felix Peikli, a 2012 Vandoren Emerging Artist clarinetist, joined the band for Clayton’s “Reverence,” a work originally written for jazz vibist Milt Jackson. A highlight of the concert was Clayton’s unaccompanied improvisation on Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” demonstrating a mastery of extended techniques that knew no end.

Clayton also traded off solos with the band’s bassist in “For All We Know,” a work made famous by Carmen McRae. From the serenity of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Heart and Soul” and Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” to the wild, blazing fire of Ray Brown’s “Squatty Roo,” the jazz band kept the audience in rapt attention, resulting in an extended standing ovation of screaming approval.

Afterwards, bandleader Clayton was overwhelmed by what had just transpired, stating, “Usually, it takes months for all the different personalities in a jazz ensemble to click like this. Because of the performance level, I didn’t have to talk basics. I was totally blown away, not knowing I’d be facing this level of professionalism.”

During rehearsals, Clayton spoke with the ensemble about “the two words that are going to rule their lives—the music. Each of these members needs to run everything through a music filter and must continuously think big and follow their heart. I encouraged them to not get sidetracked by doing things they think they need to do in order to survive.”

The Saturday night Honor Band of America concert featured members from 23 states. The concert opened with a performance by Vandoren Emerging Artist Liam Burke, performing Debussy’s “Premier Fantasy” for clarinet.

The 21st annual finale concert was hosted by Carl Grapentine of WFMT-FM Chicago for the 19th consecutive year. As in the past three years, the concert opened up with Jack Stamp’s setting of “The Star Spangled Banner,” conducted by Music for All’s Senior Educational Consultant, Gary Markham. Col. Lowell Graham then took charge for the remainder of the concert, which saw the audience eagerly offer up a standing ovation at the conclusion of each work.

Col. Graham brought out the pure adrenaline and brashness of Walter Beeler’s transcription of Dmitri Kabalevsky’s “Overture to ‘Colas Breugnon,’” the clarity of the rapidly moving woodwind lines and the brief brass outbursts sounding as distinct as any commercially-available recording.

Percy Grainger’s “The Warriors” was next, in an arrangement by Frank Pappajohn that was commissioned by Graham, with Gary Markham serving as the off-stage conductor. This piece, subtitled, “Music to an Imaginary Ballet,” featured a constantly shifting tonal palette enhanced by a harpist and two pianists. Cascading outbursts of winds and a wide variety of tinkling mallets often terminated soaring ascending melodic lines. It’s a shame more people don’t know of this spectacular work, so full of aural fireworks. How much sleep did the members lose dreaming about the preparation of this piece?

After a brief intermission, three new members were inducted into the Music for All Hall of Fame. Chuck Campbell, inducted posthumously after losing a battle with pancreatic cancer, was an esteemed band director at George Rogers Clark H.S. and North Hardin H.S., both in Kentucky. Chuck Henson has long been known as the “Voice” of the Bands of America Championships. Stu and Sharon Holzer worked hard for six years as band parents at Centerville H.S. in Ohio, and have served on the Bands of America Event Staff for twenty years.

The concert resumed with “Brooke’s Chicago Marine Band March” by Roland F. Seitz, rather akin to a circus march. Demonstrating the faith he had in the band being prepared so well, Col. Graham simply gave the downbeat and then immediately stepped off the podium and left the stage for the remainder of the march.

Ira Hearshen’s “Symphony on Themes of John Philip Sousa, Mvt. II, after “The Thunderer” was another of Col. Graham’s commissions for the USAF Band. Hearshen treated the melody as a sensitive tone poem with many contrasting moods, including a tender chorale that continuously built up from the distant horizon to a glorious burst of sunrise, leading into a huge climax and a surprising decrescendo to a quiet end. It was an unusual and captivating take on a famous march that originally had only one mood—full steam ahead.

The final work on the concert was Julie Giroux’s “Overture in Five Flat.” That’s “Flat” as in singular; the term referring to the composer’s instruction that the band had five minutes flat to finish the work. Prior to conducting the piece, Col. Graham stated, “Strap me in. This is going to be a ride!” The band then embarked on an overly-caffeinated, finger busting, lip rupturing, slide bending, reed shattering, valve jamming, stick breaking roller coaster ride that drained every ounce of adrenaline from those in the audience. At the end, Col. Graham turned to the audience, threw his arms in the audience and shouted, “Hey!” The audience was still screaming as emcee Carl Grapentine announced the performance came in at 4:10…well under five minutes.

Col. Graham brilliantly succeeded in giving the audience a program of sophistication and artistry that was supremely crowd appealing. This was his first time as director of the Honor Band of America. It is likely not to be his last.

Afterwards, Col. Graham spoke of the experience of working with the members of the band, stating, “Coming from the Air Force Band, I didn’t have to back up to work with these kids. They have the capacity to perform at a level that wasn’t even on the radar 20 years ago, and they demonstrated that tonight.”

Col. Graham has long had a commitment to programming music that appeals to a general audience, while keeping the musicians engaged. He reflected, “I’ve spent my career conceiving programs for the public in America and throughout the world. Being accessible to the public is not easy, and the music should be challenging for the performers. This fits in with the mission statement of Music for All, which speaks of the need for us to represent our best to the entire nation. We are involved in something far bigger than ourselves.”

He concluded by admitting he was surprised at just how good all the members were. “We really morphed as a team, resulting in something even greater than the sum of our individual parts. While I expected that to happen, it was still magic when it did.”

The next Music for All National Festival will be held in Indianapolis on March 14-16, 2013. Come enjoy and appreciate America’s finest youth musicians making remarkable music.

Michael Boo holds a Bachelor of Music Education degree and a Master of Music in Composition and Theory. He writes for Music for All and WGI and is the Staff Writer for Drum Corps International. A published composer and 2011-2012 ASCAPlus Award recipient for "creative contributions to American music," he’s traveling to China this summer for the seventh year in a row to participate in various performances of his works.