Friday evening, February 3, six members of the Kansas State University Music faculty, assisted by the KSU Brass Ensemble and a guest graduate student artist, entertained a sold-out audience in the KSU library’s Hemisphere Room with a program titled “The Music of Sousa’s Soloists,” celebrating the life and career of the American composer and world-renowned bandmaster.
It was clearly a labor of love for Professor Craig Parker, organizer-in-chief of the event, who not only lent it his cornetist’s skills but also wrote the extensive printed program notes and presided over what turned out being almost more of a lecture-demonstration than a conventional recital.
Most of the pieces performed were in fact written by composers other than Sousa, yet the inclusion of each (with a single exception) was justified by its having been played in one version or other by Sousa’s own concert band.
Thus, the opening number, “The Bells of Moscow,” was a transcription for band of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 3, No. 2 Prelude in C-sharp minor for piano. Our “band” for the evening, KSU emeritus professor Robert Edwards, gave it a treatment stirring enough to suggest the sweep of Sousa’s large ensemble.
In recognition of the significant part played by “the Caruso of the Cornet,” Herbert L. Clarke, in the success of Sousa’s band from 1893 to 1917, Drs. Parker and Edwards collaborated on three of Clarke’s own compositions, “Sounds from the Hudson,” “My Love for You,” and “From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific.” Historically interesting as these technically demanding display pieces were, I must say that unless Parker and Edwards didn’t do them justice (I’m pretty sure they did), their melodic figurations and busy episodic extensions/variations far outran the strength of their inventiveness.
Sousa himself wrote a number of operettas, some of which are still performed on occasion. Judging from two of their ditties (“The Goose-Girl’s Song” and “Maid of the Meadow”), sung with grace and charm by voice professor Amy Rosine, the March King’s lyrical gifts were certainly respectable, if not on a par with Gilbert and Sullivan, whose successes he sought, unsuccessfully, to emulate.
Professor Rosine’s non-Sousa set, comprising the Puccini aria “Vissi d’arte” (or “Prayer La Tosca” as titled on Sousa concert programs) and the Scottish ballad “Annie Laurie,” served to illustrate the broad diversity of vocal music adapted for presentation during the Band’s tour schedule.
Sousa concerts included many vocal-to-instrumental operatic transcriptions. Dr. Paul Hunt showed us what “O, evening star” from Wagner’s Tannhauser sounded like when “sung” by trombone. He also, together with Parker (cornet), Dr. Gary Mortenson (trumpet), Jodi Herbert (euphonium) and Edwards (piano/orchestra), gave us a brassy “Quartet” from Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Sousa often featured arrangements for violin and band. String soloist Kristin Mortenson went one better, performing pieces for both viola (Bruch’s Romanze, Op. 83) and violin (“Largo” from Handel’s Xerxes). Sensitively played, and with gracious collaborative support from pianist Edwards, this pairing conveyed some of the evening’s richest musical satisfaction.
All available instrumentalists being on board, the program closed with a spirited reading of Sousa’s Federal March, a real foot-tapping finale.