Sunday, February 12, 2012

Saxophones and tubas and euphoniums, oh my!

Contributed by R. Kelly Wagner

The annual Navy Band Saxophone Symposium was held this year on January 20 and 21st at George Mason University in Fairfax; I have tried to attend this every year since we moved to Maryland, although in January 2011 I missed it. So it was good to get back to atttending this year. The Symposium follows a similar format each year, with the events starting on Friday afternoon, a big concert by the full Navy Band on Friday night, more events all day Saturday including master classes and lectures, and a big concert by the Navy Commodores (jazz band) on Saturday night. The big evening concerts have lots of guest soloists, who usually are also presenters of master classes and/or solo recitals during the daytime events.

One of the regular features of the Symposium is a track of college saxophone quartet recitals, one every half hour from 3 p.m. till 6 p.m. on Friday and all day on Saturday. The quartets come from universities all across the country to play at this, and some of them can blow your socks off! (There's always some quartet that decides to do William Albright's Fantasy Etudes for Saxophone, a set of pieces that inspires in me the thought that not everything that CAN be done, SHOULD be done, but that's just me.)

One thing to point out is that the Symposium is not just for saxophone players. There is information of value to any band musician, and of course the evening concerts are for anyone who likes band music. In past years, some of the classes and talks have included sessions on how to audition for the military bands and how to do jazz arranging - those are of value to any band musician - and this year the sessions included ne on how to set up a private music studio.

The following week, the Army Band held its Tuba-Euphonium Workshop (formerly the Tuba-Euphonium Conference; no one is quite clear on why the name change) from Wednesday, the 25th, through Saturday the 28th, at Fort Myer in Arlington. People come to this conference from all over the country, indeed from all over the world; although there were fewer performers from other continents this year than in some previous years, there were a few people from one of the German military bands in attendance.

Tuba players are quite a gregarious bunch, and this event has many of the same people coming year after year - sometimes picking up conversations right where they left off the previous year. There are also vendors from all over the country. The vendor hall is referred to as the Elephant Room - I'm sure you can figure out why, but it's not just the size of the instruments in question, it's also the fact that there's often 30 people in various parts of the room trying out 30 different horns, no two of them playing the same thing in the same key. Elephants bellowing have nothing on it. The variety of horns available for sale is amazing - Dillon Music always brings at least one ophicleide, for example (and Dillon also usually brings at least one bass sax to the Saxophone Symposium, too, and the resemblance between a bass sax and an ophicleide is all the more striking for seeing them on back to back weekends.) Once again, this is not just for tuba and euphonium players; most of the instrument vendors bring a few trombones and trumpets along for the heck of it, and the sheet music vendors seem to figure that as long as they're bringing tuba and euphonium music, they might as well bring trombone music, and as long as they're bringing trombone music they might as well bring some bassoon music, and there's sheet music for all sorts of mixed ensembles. There are also books for sale on composing and arranging, among other things. It's a rewarding, if extremely noisy, place to browse for any band musician.

And of course, the recitals all day and the big concerts each evening are wonderful. There are tuba-euphonium quartets, larger ensembles, college groups, professionals, a bit of everything. One recital I particularly enjoyed on Thursday was the Army Band Tuba-Euphonium Quartet playing with the Army Band Saxophone Quartet; there were some in the audience who scoffed at saxophones being present but you know I set them straight on having some respect for the big saxophones! I only attended two of the evening concerts, Thursday's by the Army Blues (jazz band) and Saturday's by the Army Band - which always includes all the military and professional euphoniums who have given master classes or recitals playing Melody Shop, and all the military and pro tubas doing Them Basses, at the end.

And did I mention that all of this is free? These conferences are some of the greatest opportunities to enjoy your tax dollars at work. Each one a little different - there's more of a jazz and college-age emphasis in the saxophone symposium, more of a concert-band emphasis in the tuba-euphonium workshop - and, coming up in March as it has for more than a quarter of a century, the Army Band sponsors the Eastern Trombone Workshop, which sometimes has a bit more of an orchestral emphasis, for another change of pace. This year, it's March 21-24, 2012, also at Fort Myer in Arlington, also 100% free. You can find out more about that at (By the way, several years in the past decade, noted composer Johan de Meij has been at the Trombone Workshop!)