Monday, March 2, 2015

Curmudgeonly Critique

Steve and I both had the blessing way back in junior & high school of being in respective marching bands with a perfectionist for a band director. Then again, it could be considered a disadvantage, leading to dissatisfaction with sloppy bands and indifferent directors. Our internal standards were set high, though with differing results. He became so good that he earned a night on stage with Satchmo. I... well, I did the marching thing really well but the horn practicing thing, not so much. I did, however, take my standards of what a band ought to be with me when the family moved to St. Paul, and it was just a part of my dissatisfaction with relocating to the big city to have gained an indifferent director.

We both still have high standards for what a band ought to be. And we were both prepared with high expectations for tonight's Sun City Concert Band Sousa Concert. We cheerfully forked over the $16 for our tickets. We arrived early for good parking and good seats. Then we looked at our programs.

I don't know about you, but when I see something advertised as a "Sousa Concert" I expect it to be Sousa's music. Does that really seem so unreasonable? I know not all of his music was marches, but there should be a plentiful representation of them, shouldn't there? Steve and I spent the drive over guessing which marches we played back in school we'd hear again tonight.


There were 12 selections on the program. Of those, 5 were by Sousa. Not even a majority. Of the 5, two were marches. Of all 5, there was 1 we'd heard before. It was, of course, "Stars and Stripes Forever." Had it not been, I would have walked out demanding a refund. I was tempted to walk out anyway, but they held that selection for the finale. I'm not opposed to learning new music by a beloved composer, but part of the reason he/she is beloved is because there was some great music produced, and with so little to be heard anyway, why not some more familiar stuff? Seriously, why not?

For the record, I was already butt-sore halfway through. Somebody running the community center must have stock in the Most Uncomfortable Chair Company. Not only is the seat padding an optical illusion, but the chair seat folded open tilts slightly downward, so one spends the entire time bracing against sliding forward and off the chair.

The band itself was fun to listen to, despite the - shall we call it false advertising? Bait and switch? Several musicians stood out to us both, and in a good way. Most were on our side of the band, so we may have missed others on the other side, but our side had percussion and trumpets. We both got a kick out of the tympanist. While she appeared to be 90, possibly even past it, age was no issue in her command of her music. She was exact with her rhythm, able to vary volume exquisitely, and jumped right in there with damping out the sound like she was showing those drums just who was boss, leaving no question that it was she.

Well before the music started, we noted the second chair trumpet player: he had a scooter rather than a chair. While a few other musicians had walkers that we could see, he was the only one we spotted on wheels. Shortly before the concert, the first chair stepped away and we also noted that the 2nd chair was on oxygen. Blowing a wind instrument when one didn't have sufficient wind for just being? This could be interesting! Steve commented it showed his passion for the trumpet. I personally couldn't imagine continuing to try playing once I needed oxygen, but then I was never that dedicated to playing. Having seen what he was playing  through, we took extra special appreciation when he was featured as the only trumpet in a leading phrase of one work. You couldn't call it a solo since a few other instruments were playing, but he was the one you really heard. When he finished, the first chair trumpet gave him a pat on the back.

Those were the good parts of the concert. Unfortunately, somebody decided they needed a "guest artist." Remember, there were 12 selections. She sang 5 of them. So much for expectations, eh?

The first impression wasn't promising. Look, I know I'm in no position to criticize somebody for being in the Plus Size category. But just because it happens to be the current fashion trend to wear dresses that emphasize big butts and sculpt themselves around every torso bulge and curve no matter how huge, that doesn't mean they are actually a good choice for performance apparel. Or for that matter, any kind of apparel. If fashion sense were her only flaw, I'd not bother to comment on it. But there was this whole overwhelming package.

She was everything the two of us hate most in opera singers. Her vibrato could cover three notes for every one she was trying to hit. In a way that was a plus for her, because it meant she could - mostly - eventually reach the note she was trying for before it was time to move on to the next. At least it seemed to work when the notes were fairly slow. Rapid notes could be anywhere, though by three or four of them she usually got back on the proper note. The tonal quality I think is what is called mezzo soprano (Steve thought it should be nasal soprano, though I don't think they have that category), and sometimes it wasn't too hard to listen to. Occasionally when she started a phrase she made more of a non-musical growl rather than a musical note.

I guess there are people who like that sort of thing, but Steve and I are not among them. She did get a lot of applause, and nice comments from the conductor on how easy she was to work with. That seemed to me like getting good grades in school for perfect attendance rather than learning the subject. The most applause was when she finished her last song, though only Steve actually said in my hearing that it was because she finished, though I agreed.

Besides, for the last song the 1st chair trumpet switched to a fluegelhorn and stepped up on the mini stage with her in order, as the announcer said, to help her with her last song. I suggested to Steve that it was a good thing. She could use all the help she could get. Him I could applaud: the horn was a great counterpoint and had a lovely tonal quality.

Not that anybody will, but should someone from the band want a bit of advice, I'd suggest a little (hell! a LOT!) more Sousa in something called a Sousa Concert. It's their 23rd annual one, so maybe everybody else gets the joke and we're the new ones who get fooled thinking the title means what it says. But I like coffee in my coffee, chocolate in my brownies, meat in my hamburgers, and yes, Sousa in my Sousa concert.

LOTS of Sousa!

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