New York Staff Band 125th Anniversary Festival

Thursday, 22 March 2012 was a sunny, warm day in New York City. As the beautiful day turned into a pleasant evening, a large crowd gathered outside world-renowned Carnegie Hall in eager anticipation of the 125th Anniversary Festival of the New York Staff Band (Bandmaster Ronald Waiksnoris). Special guests for the evening included The King”s Singers and the principal trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra, Philip Cobb.

The concert began with a new piece, War Cry, written by the band’s resident composer, Dr. Dorothy Gates. Based around the old song ’Ever is the war cry, victory, victory”, this work combines the excitement of the late 19th-century era when the NYSB was founded with 21st-century harmony, an appropriate start to the anniversary celebration.

Joseph Turrin is a leading New York-area composer and pianist with a long association with the New York Staff Band. For this occasion, Turrin composed Rejoice, and Be Glad!. a new work based on the familiar words from Psalm 118: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Next up was the first item featuring Philip Cobb, William Himes’ Jubilance. Originally written for the principal cornet of the Chicago Staff Band, Peggy Thomas, this solo features a large dose of original music and portions of three songs all centered around the theme of “joy”. Cobb has a strong Salvation Army heritage, and honored this by coming onto the stage to perform this solo wearing his Hendon Band uniform. As expected, the performance was flawless, with impeccable timing and smooth lyrical playing when required.

The King’s Singers then came to the stage for their first set. The association of this stellar a capella vocal group with the Salvation Army stems from a performance at the annual Hendon Highlights concert some years ago. Part of that association has seen the group record three collections of performances of Salvation Army choral music, Choral Essays Volumes 1 – 3. This set consisted of selections from these recordings, including The Quiet Heart (June Collin), When We Cannot See Our Way (Stephen Bulla), Don’t Doubt Him Now (Leonard Ballantine) and In This Quiet Moment (Ivor Bosanko). The conclusion of the set was Reflections, a suite by Norman Bearcroft, which demonstrated to the fullest extent the incredibly accurate pitch and timing of the Singers, with challenging close harmonies beautifully presented.

The King’s Singers and the New York Staff Band collaborated on the next item. Leonard Ballantine adapted his arrangement of Amazing Grace, originally written for soprano vocal solo with brass band, for this concert. The piece presents the familiar hymn in a gospel style, building to a glorious climax for the for the final verse.

Commissioner R. Steven Hedgren is the Territorial Commander for the USA Eastern Territory, which sponsors the Staff Band. He brought a brief devotional thought, entitled Without a Song, Part II, a reference to the devotional thought brought at the Staff Band’s 90th anniversary celebrations by Commissioner Richard E. Holz. Commissioner Hedgren pointed out the central place of music in Salvation Army worship and the enhancing effects that music has in the spiritual life of believers. Following the Commissioner’s remarks, the band continued in the devotional mood, presenting Wilfred Heaton’s meditation Just As I Am. Based on the well-loved tune by William Bradbury, associated with Charlotte Elliot’s poem, “Just as I am, without one plea,” this item is perhaps the supreme expression of this musical form, which is unique to Salvation Army brass band music.

The first half of the program concluded with the premiere of another work, this one by Scottish composer Peter Graham. Voyage to Worlds Unknown was inspired by the story of the composer’s grandfather, who traveled from Glasgow to New York in 1923, bound for the coal fields of West Virginia. Accompanied by a multimedia presentation including a beginning narration by Graham, the piece tells the story in five continuous sections:

  1. TSS Cameronia: the grandeur and majesty of the vessel
  2. Full Ahead: A Scottish jig and reel of increasing tempo
  3. Ae Fond Kiss: the haunting Robert Burns song representing separation from a loved one
  4. The Crossing: in the teeth of an Atlantic gale come memories
  5. The New Colossus: the journey’s end as New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty emerge from the mists

Following an intermission, which was probably considerably more active than is typical for a Carnegie Hall event, as many people in the large audience engaged in conversations and renewed old and made new friendships, the Staff Band brought the audience back with the oldest item on the program, Erik Leidzén’s festival march Pressing Onward. Originally composed in 1921, this pioneering work could be considered the origination of the “festival march” in Salvation Army repertoire. It was included in the program as a tribute to the spirit and service of the more than 600 brass players who have been members of the New York Staff Band since its inception in 1887.

Philip Cobb returned to the stage and presented Tico Tico (Zequinha Abreu, arr. John Iveson). Composed in 1917, this is a classic 20th-century Latin item, often associated with trumpeter Rafael Mendez. Cobb demonstrated his range and dexterity overlaid with the bright timbre of the trumpet, emulating with great accuracy the Brazilian flavor of the piece. As with the first offering from the guest soloist, this item was met with prolonged applause.

Staff Bandmaster Waisknoris then recognized the former Staff Bandmasters in attendance, Vernon Post and Derek Smith, and also the composers of items on the program who were present, including Dorothy Gates, Joseph Turrin, William Himes, Peter Graham, Leonard Ballantine, Stephen Bulla and Lt.-Col. Norman Bearcroft. Then, in a surprise moment, he mentioned a virtuoso trumpet player from New York who just a few minutes before had been playing with the New York Philharmonic across town at Avery Fisher Hall – Philip Smith. Smith had made a quick journey to Carnegie Hall and joined Philip Cobb on stage, where they performed Peter Graham’s cornet duet Quicksilver with the Staff Band. This was a highlight of the evening – principal trumpet players from two of the world’s finest orchestras playing together.

The Staff Band then showed their versatility, with Valero (James Swearingen, arr. Sandy Smith). The composer of this item is the staff arranger for the Ohio State University marching band, an all brass and percussion ensemble. One of the frequent concert partners of the New York Staff Band is the Brass Band of Columbus, which has its origins in the OSU band. Rescored for British brass band instrumentation, this item is a good representation of the style.

The King’s Singers returned for their second set, this time presenting a “Pops” set, beginning with the title item from their latest recording Swimming Over London, composed by former member Bob Chillcott. Other items in this set included a medley of Lazy Bones (Hoagy Carmichael) and Up a Lazy River (Johnny Mercer & Sidney Arodin) arranged by Daryl Runswick, Home (Michael Bublé, Amy Foster-Gilles & Alan Chang, arr. Alexander L’estrange) and a jazz item, Straighten Up and Fly Right (Nat King Cole & Irving Mills, arr. Alexander L’estrange).

As with the first set, the Singers then joined with the Staff Band for an item. In Voce Jubilo, composed by Stephen Bulla for this concert, is a medley of five spirituals skillfully woven together with quotes from other spirituals and sacred songs. The five songs on which the piece is based are “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit”, “I Got Shoes”, “Deep River”, “Peter, Go Ring Them Bells” and “In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning”.

The final program item of the evening was Fire in the Blood (Paul Lovatt-Cooper). Written for the International Staff Band’s 120th anniversary celebrations in the summer of 2011, this piece takes its inspiration from the words found on the Salvation Army flag: “Blood and Fire”. Three songs are incorporated in the work, “Sing for Joy” and “Lord, You Know That We Love You”, both Salvationist songs by Richard Phillips and Howard Davies respectively, combined with Laurie Klein’s contemporary worship song “I Love You, Lord”, which has a place in the composer’s personal spiritual journey. The piece is an exciting and excellently crafted work, and provided a thrilling conclusion to the celebration festival.

After the loud and long standing ovation subsided, Bandmaster Waiksnoris led the band and audience in an encore of sorts, a new arrangement of God Bless America, with the audience joining in to sing the chorus of this familiar American patriotic song.

The Staff Band traditionally ends each program with a vocal benediction, singing William Bearchell’s arrangement of Rock of Ages. This festival was no exception, with the King’s Singers joining with the band chorus. As the last chord faded in the hall, it was evident that the New York Staff Band’s 125th Anniversary Festival was a unique event, one that honored and celebrated past and present members of the group, and their sacred mission.

Source: Brass Crest Staff Report