Keith Brion's "Sousa at the Symphony" Reviews

DatePublicationPerforming Organization
27 Feb 2007The OklahomanOklahoma City Philharmonic
14 May 2005Naples Daily NewsNaples Philharmonic Orchestra
01 May 2005The Wichita EagleWichita Symphony Orchestra
01 Jul 2004Milwaukee Journal SentinelMilwaukee Symphony
15 Apr 2000The Scranton TimesNE Penna Philharmonic
10 Apr 2000East-Iowa GazetteCedar Rapids Symphony

The Oklahoman -- February 27, 2007
Orchestra spotlights music of Sousa
by Rick Rogers

For those of us whose introduction to music came by way of public school band programs, no discussion of that medium would be complete without some reference to John Philip Sousa. His marches were challenging to perform, but once mastered, they left you with a genuine sense of accomplishment. More importantly, they whetted an appetite to play more.

Today, the thrill of hearing a first-rate ensemble tackle a Sousa march remains an incomparable joy. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic's recent pops concert pair reinforced that feeling, thanks to the efforts of conductor Keith Brion and his re-creation of a typical Sousa concert.

Sousa's concerts were meticulously organized, swiftly paced and musically diverse. But Sousa offered his audiences one added benefit: the element of surprise. Instead of tacking on an encore or two at concert's end, Sousa would sprinkle his programs with a half-dozen or more, each identified by a poster-size card bearing the march's name. Sousa composed 136 marches, each a miniature gem featuring an infectious array of melodies, carefully-chosen harmonies and a rhythmic drive that was rarely interrupted.

Brion opened with Ambroise Thomas' overture to "Raymond," an attractive curtain raiser that spotlighted the orchestra's collective musical talents. Before the applause had completely faded, Brion segued immediately into what is widely considered the most popular newspaper march ever written: "The Washington Post."

The concert continued in similar fashion with a mix of marches, concert works and solo features. Karl Sievers, Charleen Ayers and Nancy Stizza-Ortega proved to be accomplished soloists in works for cornet, soprano voice and piccolo respectively. Bellstadt's "Napoli" (for cornet) and Damare's "Through the Air" (for piccolo) fall under the heading of novelty features. But Sousa, and by extension, Brion, never treated them as such. If they were worthy of being programmed, they deserved just as much attention as an orchestral classic.

Ayers tackled "Juliet's Waltz Song" from Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet" but was more convincing still in Victor Herbert's "Romany Life." Other works allowed Brion to shine the spotlight on one of the orchestra's many sections: the trombones gleefully smearing their way through Henry Fillmore's "Lassus Trombone," the percussion creating an entire toy box of sounds in Sousa's "Variations on Gershwin's Swanee," and the cellos sounding especially lush in Percy Grainger's "Irish Tune from County Derry."

Sousa enthusiasts had ample opportunities to satisfy their martial desires with a selection of marches that included "The Power and the Glory," "U.S. Field Artillery," "Semper Fidelis" and "Hail to the Spirit of Liberty." The highlight for me was "Daughters of Texas," a little-known Sousa march that my public school band had played for contest 40 years ago.

While Sousa is best remembered today for his marches, he was also adept at writing in other musical genres, as evident in Brion's choice of "Songs of Grace and Songs of Glory." Incorporating the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee," this moving work resulted from Sousa's desire to offer something reverential for his Sunday concerts.

Sousa's fervent patriotism found vivid expression in works such as "Hail to the Spirit of Liberty" and, since 1987, the official march of the United States: "The Stars and Stripes Forever." In keeping with that spirit of flag-waving, Brion paid tribute to servicemen past and present with a medley that spotlighted each of the five branches of the U.S. military.

You wouldn't trust just anyone with the responsibility of preserving and promoting the music of an American icon such as Sousa. But thanks to the efforts of people such as Brion, Sousa's place in American music will always be secure. Perhaps Brion put it best when he said, "I feel like I've been given the keys to the kingdom, so I see myself as someone who has a legacy to take care of. Bravo!

Naples Daily News -- May 14, 2005
Sousa program resurrects feelings of patriotism and old-time America
by Peg Goldberg Longstreth, Special to the Daily News

Sometimes it feels good to step back in time - like at least a half century or so. Like Thursday evening's "Sousa At The Symphony" at the Phil, which was, as it turned out, also a "Patriotic Pops."

Nestled in the midst of those two themes was the only incongruous music of the evening: a touch of opera, sung by Lee Merrill, a lyric soprano with a marvelous voice. Who cared? She was marvelous, capturing the hearts of the audience, first with "Adele's Laughing Song" from "Die Fledermaus," then with such immortals from Kern's "Showboat" as "Why Do I Love You," "Bill," and "You Are Love."

A bonus, Puccini's exquisite "O Mio Babbino Caro," was a crowd favorite. Patriotism was rampant throughout the two-plus hours, not just on stage, but off. Several members of the audience sported American flag designs on their ties, scarves or sweaters. The stage was adorned with the familiar red, white and blue bunting. Naples High School's JROTC color guard unit marched smartly across the stage at the onset of the program.

Five local residents, resplendent in full military dress, represented the armed forces during the annual Parade of the Services: Maj. Gen. Rudolph D. Bartholomew, U.S. Air Force; Cpl. Howard C. Terry, U.S. Marine Corps; Capt. Edward Cassidy, U.S. Coast Guard; First Lt. Corbin A. Wyant, U.S. Army; and Capt. Donald Peacock, U.S. Navy.

Virtually every man (and several women), it seemed, stood during the playing of familiar refrains from their various military branches.

The crowd got some exercise, too. They stood for the "Star-Spangled Banner." They stood and sang "God Bless America." They sang, clapped and whistled during various other selections.

Yes, it felt good to wander down memory lane and step back in time. Back to a time when your grandparents and their friends were captured on now faded photographs, smiling, their picnic baskets brimming with real fried chicken and preservative-free home-grown vegetables, mile-high biscuits with real butter and preserves, the aroma of freshly baked pies and cobblers wedded to the delicate fragrance of crabapple blossoms and lilacs.

The omnipresent bandshell was nearby, as was, of course, the pure, crystal clear river or lake, where everyone swam without the threat of toxic waste, or pedophiles and lunatics lurking nearby to snatch and savage happy children playing Hide and Seek in the woods.

It was for these people, whose lives were lived in the key of C major, and for whom church socials were the Elmer's glue of their faith, that Sousa composed.

Keith Brion, guest conductor and former director of the Yale University Band, is an admitted Sousaholic. His arrangements, program creations "in the style of Sousa," uniform, gloves, baton and conducting style are part of his meticulous research and attention to detail - guaranteed to provide audiences the feeling they have just stepped back in time.

Unlike the other programs in this year's Pops series, this one re-created the ambience of small-town America, particularly during the 1930s, '40s and '50s. The "Nifty Fifties," "Big Band," "Broadway," all either venerated the dawning of television, or took Neapolitans mentally back in time to performances and dances they heard in the "big city."

John Philip Sousa and his contemporaries defined small-town America and the surrounding countryside. If you played in the band, it was Sousa's marches that were drilled into your mind.

Freezing in the bleachers, your fingers numb, it was Sousa whose marches you most often performed before and during halftime of football games. You sweltered in your wool band uniforms as you sat in the bleachers waiting to perform during basketball games. You nervously awaited your debut playing taps, or your first piccolo solo during "Stars and Stripes Forever," while hundreds of people stood at somber attention in the cemetery on Memorial Day and listened to a student recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

You marched to Sousa and his contemporaries at the excitedly awaited county fair, at the State Fair and in countless band competitions. Sousa was performed during Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving parades and services at the cemeteries, on the courthouse square and during political rallies.

Every parade (and there were many in small-town America) was influenced by Sousa. In theory, something like 10 selections constituted the "regular" published program Thursday evening, including a few medleys. In actuality, since numerous marches were interspersed, their titles flashed to the audience on large cardboard placards, there were more like 22 selections.

That was fine with the audience, all of whom appeared to be having a wonderful time. Principal trumpet Matt Sonneborn received cheers (and a few members of the audience even stood) following his conclusion on cornet of a brisk, very dramatic solo, "From The Shores of the Mighty Pacific."

The trombone and baritone sections shined on numerous occasions, standing to performing their fortissimo slides during the aptly title "Miss Trombone."

"Auditorium Festival" was a strangely wonderful number, originally composed to give the Pittsburgh Symphony the opportunity to prove they were equal to the Chicago Symphony (this was more than a few years ago); nestled in the midst of the melody were several rounds of "Auld Lang Syne."

Principal flautist/piccolo Suzanne Kirton dramatically staggered to the front of the stage, lugging a tuba belonging to the Phil's tuba player, Dennis Nulty. Nulty, who not unsurprisingly resembles a fullback, carried Kirton's tiny piccolo. Pure corn, and the audience loved it.

They also loved "The Elephant and the Fly," a duet performed by the two players, as well as Kirton's clear mastery of the tiny instrument, demonstrated during "The Whistler and his Dog." Interspersed in this bouillabaisse of music was the Irish air most commonly known in this country as "Danny Boy." The Phil's cello section gave a particularly fine rendition of this nostalgic number. And interspersed in this and several other later selections were some luscious, heavily vibrattoed sections performed by Concertmaster Glenn Basham and his associate, the always passionate Ming Gao.

"Doesn't it make you proud to be an American?" commented one woman in the audience to her friends as they were leaving.

Peg Goldberg Longstreth was trained as a classical musician and owns Longstreth-Goldberg art gallery in naples. You may email her at jlongstreth@plgart.com.

The Wichita Eagle -- May 1, 2005
Symphony finds Sousa instructive 100 years later
by Chris Shull

The Wichita Symphony Orchestra celebrated John Philip Sousa at its "Sousa at the Symphony" pops concert Saturday night. It also presented a different kind of concert in the Century II Convention Hall -- one where serious and popular music were seamlessly mixed.

Though guest conductor Keith Brion set about to recreate the sound and pacing of a Sousa concert as it was heard 100 years ago, he also presented music in a formula that seems perfect for listeners today.

Brion was dressed like Sousa in a plain black band uniform with white gloves. He led the orchestra through an opera overture and Sousa's own variation on "Swanee." It also performed "Auditorium Festival," written by Victor Herbert with "Auld Lang Syne" as one of its themes.

Soprano Charleen Ayers sang a lilting aria from Gounod's opera "Romeo and Juliette" and three gorgeous songs from the Broadway musical "Showboat." The styles mixed perfectly, partly because Brion and the orchestra (like Sousa before them) didn't differentiate in his treatment of them.

Good music is good music, they seemed to say -- just sit back and enjoy it.

The full house in the Convention Hall seemed generally pleased throughout the evening -- though one concert-goer was overheard wishing the orchestra would play more Sousa marches.

As it was, they were performed as encores after the major songs on the program -- the "Washington Post," "Semper Fidelis," the "U.S. Field Artillery" march. Brion had the audience sing, clap and whistle along, turning to face the audience and conducting it as much as the orchestra. A big hand was reserved for the march "Kansas Wildcats."

A couple of instrumental soloists were featured on solo numbers -- Judith Saxton played cornet on "Southern Cross" and Jerry Scholl the xylophone on "Nola."

Soprano Ayers was wonderful throughout the evening, but was best singing "Bill" in the "Showboat" medley, in which her sweet smile and luxurious sound conveyed all the excitement and joy of being in love.

Brion in the "Sousa at the Symphony" performance was able to mix the silly and the sublime and not miss a beat. The balance in the orchestra was sometimes a bit off. (Amplification must be used in the Convention Hall, and it took a couple of numbers for the sound engineers to dial it in.) And the violins sometimes sounded lost at sea.

But the concert's concept was a great one. John Philip Sousa had it right -- he gave the people what they wanted, but he never played down to them.

Though he was a star a century ago, his ideas are still good ones for orchestras today.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- July 1, 2004
Conductor embodies Sousa's elegance
by Tom Strini, Journal Sentinel music critic

John Philip Sousa's ghost was not on the podium at the Milwaukee Symphony Pops Thursday afternoon, but almost. Keith Brion, clad in a reproduction of Sousa's custom U.S. Navy uniform, led a program modeled on Sousa's own.

Beneath that costume is a good conductor. Brion's economical baton technique drew lively, neatly articulated readings of the Overture of Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla" and E. Strauss' "Clear Track Polka." He could be lyrical, too, as he was in shaping the rounded phrases of Grieg's nostalgic "The Last Spring." He managed the complicated traffic in Percy Grainger's "Clog Dance: Handel in the Strand" and Sousa's "Variations on George Gershwin's 'Swanee' " nicely. (Sousa had a sense of humor, most evident in the "Swanee" variations. They include a startling evocation of a crying baby getting a swat on the bottom.)

Sousa's bandsmen were legendary virtuosos, so it was natural for Dennis Najoom to step out of the ranks to play a cornet solo, "Willow Echoes." Frank Simon, Sousa's principal cornetist, composed it; Najoom's lush tone, generous phrasing and etched rhythm did Simon justice. Linda Raymond Siegel played two deeply wacky xylophone solos, "Xylophonia" and "Log Cabin Blues." She was laughing so hard at the end that she almost forgot to take a bow.

Sousa balanced hijinks with a high-toned elegance, and Brion followed suit. Soprano Lee Merrill was fetching in her black-and-white gowns. With a boost from amplification, she sang Doretta's Aria from R. Strauss' "La Rondine" and "My dear Marquis" from J. Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus" prettily, but her two Gershwin songs were too operatic for my taste.

There were marches aplenty: "Washington Post," "Semper Fidelis," "Invincible Eagle," "Daughters of Texas" and more. In Brion's hands, they were not crude. Trios glided by elegantly, and marches stepped with a tread that was powerful and determined, but light. The bright buoyancy of this music would put a spring in anyone's step.

E-mail Tom Strini at tstrini@journalsentinel.com.

The Scranton Times -- April 15, 2000
Philharmonic marches onward with Sousa show
The performance featured a wide array of the legendary bandmaster's standards.
by Don Thompson / Music Critic

In this day and time of expensive but fortunately not scarce fuel, guest conductor Keith Brion and the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic supplied their own version of great octane output.

At the Scranton Cultural Center on Friday evening, Bandmaster John Philip Sousa's marches reigned supreme. Their brand of energy offered an alternative firing that reflected an overall major system efficiency.

The stimulation at this concert was not the soothing rolling and splashing of the old-fashioned energy mill wheels, so often sung about, but rather like a high-velocity turbine's swirl converting water flow into very fast motion--mostly in 4/4 time.

This was a varied program, liberally sprinkled with Sousa works. There was something for everyone, from solo instrumentalists and a singalong to a second guest conductor and a soprano named Charleen Ayers, who electrified an already turn-on audience. This full house stayed put for the entire program.

And what sheer pleasure it was to have the evening's program narrated by the mellifluous, well-modulated voice of that airwaves icon, Lisa Mazzarrella. Has Lloyd's of London heard hear?

Marches included: "Hands Across the Sea", a preliminary to a European tour of 100, "Washington Post" and that masterpiece, "Stars and Stripes Forever." Some say that it is the best military and patriotic march every written. It follows Sousa's favorite form; an arresting introduction, a light skipping rhythm for the first melody, a broader tune and then the immortal strain.

There was a mesmerizing arrangement of "Danny Boy" and some very melodic works of Jerome Kern and George M. Cohan.

The vitality displayed by the audience at times approached an optimum temperature. The precise attacks and releases of the marches were reminiscent of a Pershing Rifles drill team. And so much of the other music suggested the accurate, flowing dance experience brought to fruition by regional grand dames Helen Graus and Joanne Arduino.

Was it Sara Teasdale who said, "Spend all you have for loveliness?" This was one of those not-to-be-missed concerts!

East-Iowa Gazette -- April 10, 2000
C.R. Symphony serves up splendid salute to Sousa
By George C. Ford, Gazette staff writer

CEDAR RAPIDS--The Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra's star-spangled salute to America's "March King," John Philip Sousa, was a joy to experience Saturday evening at the Paramount Theatre.

Guest conductor Keith Brion, the CRSO and guest soprano soloist Virginia Croskery delivered a two-hour pops concert that set toes to tapping and involved the audience in the celebration of an American music giant.

Brion, who assumed the persona of Sousa, from his physical appearance to the composer's distinctive conducting style, put the CRSO through its paces with a concert of familiar compositions.

Such well-known marches as "Washington Post," "U.S. Field Artillery" and Semper Fidelis" were performed along with the "Merry Wives of Windsor" by Nicolai, "Morning Journals" by Johann Strauss Jr. and "Variations of Gershwin's 'Swanee.' "

Croskery, artist in residence at Simpson College in Indianola, showed her versatility with selections ranging from Dvorak's "Song to the Moon from Rusalka" to "All the Things You Are," by Hammerstein and Kern.

The evening also brought bravura performances by several members of the symphony orchestra.

Trumpeters Randy Grabowski and Bryan Bennett were right on the mark with their performance of the "Side Partner" trumpet duet by J.L. Clarke.

Kim Helton drew thunderous applause for her piccolo solo "Through the Air" by Damm and her delightful performance of "Whistler and His Dog," by Arthur Pryor.

The latter song prompted audience members to whistle, followed by the musicians barking at the conclusion of the selections. it was typical of the shenanigans that Sousa and his band were noted for in their heyday.

Should Keith Brion return to Cedar Rapids or Eastern Iowa in the near future, you would be well advised to attend one of his Sousa concerts.

It will prove to be a most enjoyable evening.



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