Brass band gives nearly perfect prep performance

By Cathleen Leitch

Dr. Steven Allen is now seasoned in the art of conducting as he leads the Princeton Brass Band to what will hopefully be its most successful competition yet.



Practice makes perfect and experience yields good results, at least for the Princeton Brass Band, whose last practice was live in Fine Arts last Sunday.

The band, conducted by Associate Professor Dr. Steven Allen, performed one last show in preparation for the upcoming North American Brass Band Association championships on March 30 and 31. Allen’s band has become a veteran of this annual competition, hosted in Cincinnati.

“It’s all about really preparing and getting ready for the concert this weekend,” Allen said. “We call it our championship concert. It’s the last concert we do before we go down there.”

Created in 2004, the group was formed as an experiment for Allen. The conductor wanted to see if the American public would be interested in the British style of music by putting together high quality musicians. The difference is in styles: American jazz and British orchestral.

“There’s a very high level of musicianship in this band,” said Roik Hockenberger, who plays 2nd cornet. “Almost everyone in it is a graduate of a music school or a professionally trained musician. It’s a competing band, so we have to perform to a very high level because we’re competing with other bands around the country.”

The show featured six songs, though only five were listed on the program. Championship pieces “Suite: Pageantry” by Herbert Howells and “Tallis Variations” by Philip Sparke were up first.

Howells’ classic piece is very elaborate and constantly builds up to a loud spiraling with a variety of instruments. The middle movement is the opposite of the beginning; it is a heartfelt call to someone in the beyond that captured the audience.

“A lot of students come for the extra credit, [but] once they’re in the hall a lot of them are really surprised that they enjoy it,” Allen said.

The use of percussion added an unexpected edge that broadened the music and intrigued the listeners. Perhaps the most integral part was the xylophone, which added a new type of flavor.

“I’m really amazed,” freshman Karri Horvath said. “I liked that they used the xylophone with the brass instruments.”

“Tallis Variations” was the first piece to use the xylophone and it did so cleverly. Allen described the piece as originating from a hymn about judgment and the skeletal sound of clanking bones certainly helped display that inspiration.

Additional music included a seven-piece cornet performance and a scherzo, or fast tempo dance, played by three trombonists. These were more visually inviting than the larger band pieces. In the other, trombones played at three different octaves, taking turns in the spotlight.

This use of cornets instead of trumpets or French horns is what gives the band its warm sound and is another way it displays British style, according to Allen.

“I think a lot of people are surprised when they hear it because they’re expecting a big, brassy, earsplitting kind of noise, when actually the band does create this incredibly warm sort of sound,” he said.

The final piece, “Hymn of the Highlands,” was delivered straight from Scotland. As the song began, wave sound effects eased the audience but percussions took over with sounds comparable to banging on a trashcan or knocking blocks of wood together.

The sixth compilation, kept secret until the end, combined major hits from Abbey Road by The Beatles, bringing the British style full circle.

The standing ovation the Princeton Brass band received at last Sunday’s performance is sure to have bolstered its confidence and send expectations soaring as the band competes today and tomorrow.

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