In a world where we seem obsessed by the new and novel, it is always good to celebrate something that has stood the test of time. In a day and age which is witnessing the demise of bands both within and without The Salvation Army it is especially noteworthy for an event to mark the longevity of a brass band. That the band in particular is based in New York City gave reason for over 1000 people to brave freezing temperatures and virtually fill The Salvation Army’s wonderful art deco Centennial Memorial Temple. This building has been described by no less a celebrity than the New York Philharmonic’s principal conductor, Lorin Maazel as the best kept secret in New York. The audience gathered to celebrate the founding of the New York Staff Band in 1887 by Ballington Booth, the son of General William Booth, the Salvation Army’s founder. The esteem in which Eastern USA Salvationists hold the band was evident as it was greeted by a standing ovation prior to a single note being played! The program was planned to show the band’s wide range of playing styles as well as paying tribute to those who have gone before, and some who are still with us. A FANFARE OF PRAISE by Robert Redhead with the cornets and trombones standing around the outside of the band makes for a fine program opener. It was followed by a program opener from an earlier generation, the cornet feature, HERALDS OF VICTORY by Richard Holz, the conductor who during his tenure raised the profile of the band to world status. On a personal note this number was the first that this writer ever heard the NYSB play in 1960 on its groundbreaking United Kingdom tour. The music of Kenneth Downie is almost ubiquitous these days and we next heard his EXULTATE! featuring the old gospel song – “Would you know why I love Jesus?” For a number of years now the Black Dyke Band’s principal trombone Brett Baker has been the trombone tutor at the Star Lake Musicamp.
It seemed most appropriate to invite him to be the guest soloist for this notable evening. His major contribution to the evening was Dr. Ray Steadman Allen’s FAITH ENCOUNTER, written especially for Brett and here receiving its US premiere. Described as a companion to RSA’s earlier solo – The Eternal Quest – the programmatic content of the new work is based upon John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. The solo challenges the stamina, range, technique and lyricism of the soloist all of which Brett Baker is capable of conquering. As in many of RSA’s solos, the work also makes major demands of the band.
The devotional section of the evening followed with Sir Dean Goffin’s fine “sermon in sound” THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. Described by the band’s executive officer Major Richard Munn, compere for the evening, as a classic of its genre. The performance drew us into a time of reverent contemplation. William Himes’ adaptation of the contemporary worship song by Sara Groves, HE’S ALWAYS BEEN FAITHFUL, featured an accompaniment of piano and band. Victoria Ward, tenor horn player and daughter of the band’s principal cornetist Gordon was the vocal soloist and the song caused us to think of God’s faithfulness as displayed through the long-term ministry of the band. A reading from Scripture was brought by the band’s chaplain Major Thomas Mack. Major Mack is the longest serving playing member of the present band having at some time occupied each of the chairs in the euphonium/ baritone section during his thirty seven years of service.
THE CALL OF THE COSSACKS by Peter Graham paid tribute to Salvationists serving in Russia and Eastern Europe. It also acknowledged its composer’s time as Editor for the Eastern Territory’s publishing house. It was during his time as “composer in residence” for the band that Dr. Peter Graham’s fine corpus of major works for brass band began to come into prominence. Four movements of the suite demonstrated the abilities of the band and in particular Gordon Ward – cornet, Burt Mason – trombone, Aaron VanderWeele – euphonium, and Andrew Garcia – flugelhorn. The music brought us breathless to the interval. For some time now the band has used various ploys to bring us out of the interval. In their tour of the UK in 2003 a trumpet choir brought us back to our seats. This season we were taken to the other extreme of the band with an ensemble of two euphoniums and two tubas presenting the final section of Rossini’s WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE arranged by Peter Smalley. Ray Ogg wrote very little music that is still played today, but his march ROUSSEAU is as fine as any ever written. Bandmaster Ogg was the conductor of the Chicago Staff Band which this year is celebrating its centennial. The playing of the march was a fitting tribute to the companion band from the USA Central Territory.
Brett Baker returned to the stage to further demonstrate his tone and control in a lovely presentation of Erik Leidzen’s setting of THE OLD RUGGED CROSS. Band and soloist were at one in a performance which brought a hush to the capacity audience – instantly transformed into a worshipping congregation through the power of “music with a message”. The band chorus has long been a major part of the New York Staff Band’s concerts. Major Thomas Mack is the present chorus master and he led the band chorus in a bright presentation of the spiritual EV’RY TIME I FEEL THE SPIRIT arranged by John Humdberg. Bandmaster Ron Waiksnoris has been a member of the band for more than a quarter of its existence, and has been its conductor since 1992. He paid his own tribute to the band, past and present, thanked the audience for its intrepid presence and brought back Brett Baker to play a final number. This turned out to be an intriguing adaptation of Eric Coates’ great DAM BUSTERS MARCH, in Brett’s own words made “more difficult” by fellow trombonist Dorothy Gates the present music editor for the Eastern Territory. In January 1965 the International Staff Band gave the first performance, in Edinburgh, of the work described by many as being the “coming of age” of Salvation Army music. It was destined for the Royal Albert Hall and the Army’s Centennial celebrations.
Ray Steadman Allen’s THE HOLY WAR depicts the idea of conflict between good and evil as told in John Bunyon’s eponymous allegory. The imagery contained in the music is as relevant today as ever with the assertion contained in Luther’s hymn “A mighty fortress is our God”. Another standing ovation greeted the conclusion of this great work. (If I may be permitted another personal aside, it was this work that fired my imagination and determination to become a musician.) For many years the band has concluded its concerts with the stirring Sousa march STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER followed by the band chorus’ singing of ROCK OF AGES. We may have heard it before but it never fails to bring the evening to a fitting conclusion, inspiring both patriotism and devotion. The evening will long stay in the memory of those who attended. For those unable to attend, look out for the DVD to follow soon.