A very pleasant surprise.
I thought I had run out of things to say about the Long Beach Municipal Band's annual patriotic concert, the latest iteration of which I caught on a balmy evening at Los Cerritos Park last week.
But no. Conductor Larry Curtis not only programmed fresh material, he led with unusual sensitivity, the band played at an extraordinary level, and there was even a not-so-subtle message.
First, the material. I had not heard John Williams’s “Liberty Fanfare,” composed for the 100th anniversary of the eponymous statue, before. It is rarely performed, for some reason, but makes for an effective, and lively, program opener.
A piece called “Concord” by one Clare Grundman turned out to be a well-crafted mashup of Revolutionary War tunes, including “Yankee Doodle.” Patrick Gilmore, a Civil War-era bandleader whose name will be familiar to those who know the lyrics to “76 Trombones,” wrote “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a tune that American composer Morton Gould arranged for his classic “American Salute.”
I also had never heard Bruce Healy’s arrangement of George M. Cohan’s patriotic songs before; this was the world premiere. Healy used to arrange for the Disney bands, and you could tell. But Disney-fied Cohan worked perfectly on this occasion. And I didn’t think I knew Edwin Bagley’s “National Emblem” march, but when they got to the second tune, better known as “Oh, the Monkey Wrapped His Tail Around the Flagpole,” I did.
Even the medley of service tunes, a longtime staple of these concerts, was new; this one was by Bob Joles, and Curtis invited not only vets but their offspring to stand at the appropriate moment. It was nice to be able to thus honor mom and dad, who were in the Army. Glenn Miller transformed Frank White Meacham’s “American Patrol” into a big band classic, a sound the Muni Band’s excellent winds reproduced effortlessly.
Then there was Curtis’ sensitivity. It showed itself from the opening Banner to the closing “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Each, and all the pieces in between, exhibited some really nice dynamic contrast and flexibility of phrasing, lending musical distinction to what can be, and has been, a pro forma affair.
The playing. Goaded by Curtis’s engaged leadership, the band rose to the occasion, thundering, sparkling, and dazzling as the charts demanded. Chris Eblé’s solo trumpet stood out, as usual, and the piccolos in “Stars and Stripes” have never sounded so brilliant.
Then there was the message. Curtis alluded more than once to the country’s current divided state, and how he felt about it, without casting blame. But instead of Cohan’s overt, bellicose patriotism, he quietly suggested that “This Is My Country,” the concert’s penultimate selection, should rather be “This Is Our Country.” Hard to argue.
Our Muni Band plays in various parks through Aug. 2, and there are few nicer ways to spend a Long Beach summer evening.