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It's a Sit-Down Band, Playing Marches of a Master

Music: The New Sousa Band replicates the sound and sights--including the black-braided outfits--of John Philip Sousa.

July 15, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hal Holbrook played Mark Twain, James Whitmore based his one-man show on Will Rogers. Hordes of Elvis impersonators have loved us tender. None of them, however, faced doing those portrayals without words or lyrics.

Today at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, Keith Brion and his New Sousa Band will re-create the sights and sounds John Philip Sousa made famous from 1892 to 1931--right down to the white gloves and 35 yards of black braid on the outfits. And when director Brion takes the podium, he is John Philip Sousa.

Well, almost.

"Sousa was possibly a colder interpreter than I am," Brion said last week in a phone interview before a performance with the Louisville Orchestra. "He was born in the flaming middle of the Romantic Era . . . and later was seemingly unaffected by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Sousa was a classicist.

"You cannot be 100% another person no matter how hard you try," Brion said. "One has one's own musical sensibilities. I'm very much aware of his, and I certainly don't violate them. But I'm a more romantic creature."

Sousa's programs, on the other hand, can de duplicated.

The New Sousa Band will perform a mixture of light classics, novelty numbers and virtuoso solos including the overture to Weber's "Oberon"; Percy Grainger's arrangement of Bach's chorale prelude "O Mensch"; a sacred work by Sousa, "Songs of Grace and Songs of Glory," which opens with a setting from Verdi's Requiem (Brion is planning a compact disc of Sousa sacred music); and the "Enchanted Garden" from Ravel's "Mother Goose" suite.

As in Sousa's time, his marches serve only as encores--but those encores might appear after almost every piece on the program; encores are announced with signs. A typical concert features at least half a dozen Sousa marches, such as "El Capitan," "Washington Post" or "Semper Fidelis." To mark the 100th anniversary of its composition on Christmas Day, 1896, Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever" will conclude every program this year.

The same mix will serve for an upcoming tour of Japan and the Far East--amazingly, the first overseas jaunt by a fully professional concert band from the U.S. since 1911. Though Brion, who is based in Hamden, Conn., has toured nationally with the New Sousa Band for 17 years full time, military and college bands are the ones that travel internationally.

*

According to Brion, former director of bands at Yale University, few full-time professional concert bands exist in the world. The most notable are several in Japan and one in Northern Europe.

Though he acknowledges "wonderful efforts" by the Dallas Wind Symphony and by "one quasi-professional wind symphony" in Orange County (David Warble's California Wind Orchestra), the United States is home to only a smattering of municipal and corporate-sponsored bands. The last full-time professional band in this country (Frederick Fennell's Eastman Wind Ensemble) flourished in the 1950s and '60s.

Brion believes that for bands to gain a real foothold, they need to stick to what they do best.

"We are an entertaining band, as Sousa's was--the quintessential pops concert of all time," Brion said. "But we cannot [afford to] get into the serious music thing. I asked the conductor of a local chamber orchestra, What's the real purpose of your orchestra? 'To lose money,' he said." A week ago, the New Sousa Band converted to nonprofit status.

Sousa the band musician was also a sophisticated classical musician, active as an orchestral violinist even as a teenager and later in a string quartet. When he was invited to take over the U.S. Marine Band at the age of 26, he'd never before conducted a band.

Yet according to Brion, phrasing as taught in classical conservatories may actually be damaging to performances of Sousa's music.

"There was a trend in the middle of this century to connect [musical ideas] across the bar lines, to energize the lead note or pickup note, make the little notes do a lot," he explained. "But at the turn of the century, long notes had more emphasis. Little notes were little notes--not fawned over by soloists. . . . Length of a note had a lot to do with its intensity and volume.

"If you hear recordings of people talking 50 years ago, you'll see that speech accents have changed dramatically. A music publisher I know, who also happens to be a historian, told me that when Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, it was not government 'of the people, by the people and for the people,' as we say it today. It was 'of the people, by the people, for the people.' A change in emphasis can change the meaning."

There have been other changes in the past 50 years. Brion believes that if Sousa were alive today, he would have accepted female musicians, and in one nod to progress, almost half the members of the New Sousa Band are women. The band has 43 members, which Brion considers the smallest authentic Sousa band. "It also happens to be the size that can get on a bus," he noted.

Some things Brion won't change. The ornate outfits still feature black braiding on a black uniform, for instance, even though from a distance the braiding can be almost impossible to discern. (Brion noted that Disneyland uses gold braiding on its band uniforms to make it more easily appreciated.)

Brion believes that such touches are hardly details when it comes to re-creating the Sousa experience--and not just for the audience. For the musicians, he said, playing in the band is "like a fantasy baseball camp.

"These are great players, but when they put on that uniform, they become part of a great legend. Even though these same players might be dour-faced guys in a symphony orchestra, they get in these outfits and they get lighted up."

Keith Brion and his New Sousa Band perform tonight at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 7 p.m. $14-$18. (800) 300-4345 or (310) 916-8500.

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