2004 US Open Brass Band Championships - Retrospective

9-Nov-2004

4BR looks back at the 2nd US Open - an event that has made steady start and that seems to have a very bright future ahead of it - although not as bright as the smile of the winning MD from Florida!


Audio interviews

Audio Interview with US Open President - Clark Niermeyer  [WAV 1.41Mb]
Audio Interview with Winning MD - Michael J. Garasi  [WAV 1.52Mb]
Audio Interview with the Adjudicators  [WAV 1.44Mb]
Audio Interview with Frank 'The Voice' Renton  [WAV 780kb]


Brass Band of Central Florida: 'Bolero' - MD Michael J. Garasi [right]
Brass Band of Central Florida: 'Bolero' - MD Michael J. Garasi [right]

If the Americans really get the brass band bug big style - then look out. At present the movement in the US is certainly at its fledging state (or States you may say), but on the evidence of what we experienced at the 2nd US Open in Arlington Heights, Chicago, Illinois, if they can match that undoubted enthusiasm and professionalism to commercial interest from US business, then brass banding could be the biggest thing to hit our colonial friends since the Beatles last played Shay Stadium.

The US Open was a fine event; excellently organised by Clark Niermeyer and his committee, involving the local community of Arlington (a "village" of around 77,000 people which is located around the famous race track of the same name) and which after talking at length to interested individuals from both sides of the Atlantic, seems to have ambitious, yet realistic aims and objectives to help promote and develop itself both in the short and long term.

Its strengths are therefore many and admirable, but the whole future of the event is dependent on one major factor: travel costs. The geography of the US is such that it was actually cheaper for the Dearham Band from the Lake District in the UK to fly and stay in Chicago for close on a week than it was for the eventual winners, the Brass Band of Central Florida to make the trip up from Orlando on a "red eye" flight to O'Hare Airport and stay in the mid range Sheraton Hotel for two nights.  Therefore, if the organisers can get more substantial financial interest from American companies, that major hurdle could be overcome with the ease that Renaldo Niermeyer (no relation to the organisations President it seems) used to jump them in the Olympics.

The good news is that there does seem to be interest already (although on a small scale) from companies involved in the brass music scene here. Mouthpiece manufacturers and specialists in the print music and instrument manufacture were all on display, and there was the presence of John Rogers, the Managing Director from Besson Musical Instruments - a sure indication that they believe that there is a market here to be explored and developed.  Marching bands are big business here (just look at the displays at American football matches) and it is hoped that the organisers can tap into that potential market, selling the brass band as an entertainment product on a smaller scale. The seeds it seems are being sown - carefully and responsibly.

There is however a slight black cloud on the horizon, and that is the relationship that this event has (or hasn't) with the more established North American Brass Band Association, which holds the US "National" Championships. There seems to be "differences" between both parties, and although these may take a little more time to overcome than the air costs, the good news is that there is surely enough room for both events to flourish - the US Open in particular has so much to offer.

The silver lining in the banding circulus nimbus is the improving standard of the bands, and the evidence was there for all to hear (and see) on the weekend in the form of the eventual commanding winners of the contest, the Brass Band of Central Florida. This was top notch brass band playing, and coupled with an entertainment factor that would put even the best UK bands in the shade, it seems that the future in terms of performance is as bright as the smile of the MD, the very charismatic, Michael J. Garasi.

The three adjudicators for the event were seasoned old pros in the very best sense of the word: Alan Morrison, Nick Hudson and Alan Wycherley, and for three of our best ever players to be bowled over by the playing and choreography of a brass band in a 25 minute entertainment programme is something indeed. These blokes are world class performers, who have enough t-shirts from their exploits to fill one of the massive "walk in" wardrobes the Americans seem so fond of, and despite all this, they were still talking of the winners performance in terms usually reserved for the very best efforts to have been put on show at "Spennymoor Brass in Concert".   Florida were that good.

This was wonderful stuff. Right from the moment when a lone drummer took to the stage at the beginning of the MD's brilliant arrangement of Ravel's "Bolero", they held the attention of the listener both with their musicianship and stage presentation. As the music reached the old "Torvill and Dean" climax, even the MD took to the drums and it ended with more guns blazing than the last stand at the Alamo.

Brass Band of Central Florida: 'Birdland'
Brass Band of Central Florida: 'Birdland'

If this was good, then there was something even better to follow as the players seamlessly positioned themselves into a "Big Band" front-on formation and gave "Birdland" a real authentic whip through with some brilliant jazz riff soprano cornet and trombone playing. "Birdland" has been used by many a UK band before and it has hung around their necks like a dead albatross by the end of their stiff run through, but this was something else.

The real test for the band came with Derek Broadbent's "Centaur" march, which was the real litmus test to see whether such a band could play in authentic "British" style. The answer was a definite "yes" as they had the ability to change the very nature of their tonal quality from their opening items to produce a warm, full bodied and balanced sound that they allied to impressive detail and control. The MD's conducting style was also something to behold as well; superbly composed and as stylish as the 3000 buck suit he seemed to be wearing. All this and he was a delight to talk to - modest and inquisitive about the British banding scene, a million dollar smile and a beautiful intelligent girlfriend on his arm as well. Some guys really do have all the luck.  

They ended their programme with three movements from Peter Graham's "Call of the Cossacks" - all delivered with panache from the soloists and a commanding ensemble sound. It ended 25 minutes of entertainment US style for sure, but with more than a nod and a wink to its British roots and was as good as we have seen or heard for a long while. If they carry on with this rate of improvement (they were runners up last year to Fodens Richardson) they will not only dominate the banding scene here, but could well, if invited, be strong competitors at the British Open.

Fountain City Brass Band: 'Tallis Prelude' - Cornet section
Fountain City Brass Band: 'Tallis Prelude' - Cornet section

After the winners, the standard did fall away somewhat, although second placed Fountain City Brass Band from Kansas City were good value both musically and entertainment wise. They were also a surprise package, formed as they were only in 2002 by their euphonium player Lee Harrelson, and making their contesting debut, but they showed enough quality in terms of sound and technique to show that they have a fine future ahead of them.

Lee HarrelsonLee himself won the "Best Soloist" award with a fine rendition of "Brillante", but it was the sensible programme which started with "Tallis Prelude" and included "Florentiner March", the ubiquitous "Irish Blessing" (played on original parts and not the photocopies that just about every band in the UK has) a cracking jazz version of the "Song of the Volga Boatman" and finishing with a controlled "Dundonnell" that was equally impressive. MD Jason Reinhart (complete with tails) was a commanding presence with the baton and there was a real effort made to keep the dynamics under control and maintain a warm broad sound. It lacked the quality of the winners, but there was still a great deal to admire.

The great joy of this event though was the Dearham Band, conducted with real heart on sleeve purpose by Mark Condron. Not only did they do themselves proud with their playing (especially Eb tuba David Gallagher), but they did everyone on the UK banding movement proud with the way in which they used the trip to promote friendship and understanding through music and more than a few pints in the "sports bar" of the hotel. They were excellent company, great ambassadors for their town and country and performed out of their skins.

John McLaughlinIt cost the band over 25,000 to get here on this trip of a lifetime and they made the most of it for sure. If there is any other band out there in the UK thinking of doing the same (and we are sure Dearham would thoroughly recommend it) then contact them immediately, because they did it brilliantly, and that included a tremendous "Laurel and Hardy" inspired double act from the euphonium players John McLaughlin and Gary Williams in "Another Fine Mess". 

The way in which the contest was structured meant that Alan Morrison and Nick Hudson judged the music and Alan Wycherley added his marks in addition to them both for the entertainment to give a final score. This meant that points differences between the bands was large, but in reality it was still a accurate assessment.  All three of the lads were also excellent ambassadors for the movement as well - friendly and courteous in fielding the 1001 questions they were invariably asked by players (and fans) alike; thoughtful, judicious and supportive judges of the performances and cracking company all weekend. All this and they still took time to put on a slick and genuinely funny short demonstration of their talents prior to the results. If we are looking for a new breed of informed and professional adjudicators for the movement in the UK, then contest organisers should try and find their telephone numbers immediately - these are three guys who know what they are doing.  

Also a mention for Frank Renton, who was dubbed "The Voice" of the contest and who was a most entertaining, informative and slick professional compere all weekend. Never short of a word or five even in the dullest moments, he also gave subtle encouragement to all performers and was a top notch "front man" for the event. He also made some acute observations about American life that the people of this very Democratic state enjoyed to a tee. He is as slick as the best "snake oil" salesman in the business.

Prairie Brass Band
The Prairie Brass Band: Euphonium section

The judges were also spot on with their assessments for the three remaining bands on show here. The local Prairie Brass Band from Arlington itself were placed fourth after giving a programme that had a great deal to commend, but was perhaps a touch over ambitious in places. They featured some fine arrangements from the pen of Dallas Niermeyer, the MD (father of the organiser, Clarke, and one of the driving forces behind the contest) and even though the tonal quality of the band was at times a little hard and straight there was evidence of a developing maturity about them (they were only formed in 1997) that bodes well for the future.  

Motor City Brass Band
Motor City Brass Band: Euphonium section

Fifth place went to Motor City Brass directed by Craig Strain who chose a programme that possibly didn't suit them to the full. The old potboiler "Toccata in D Minor" (complete and not with the cut) started things off, but they fell away disappointingly with a rather uninspired "In the Mood" (that was entertaining for the perhaps the wrong reasons) and an overlong and rather monotonously coloured "A Tale of Two Cities". Again, there was lots of glimpses of what could be, but it just needed a bit more thought about playing to the undoubted strengths of the band.

Illinois Brass Band
Illinois Brass Band: Front row

Prior to the contest, lots of people told us to listen out for Illinois, the double hat trick "National" winners. We did, and were very disappointed. Just two years ago this band appeared at the British Open, but instead of moving forward from that experience they have seemed to have regressed.

They have lost some players, but they have also lost their musical direction it seems, with the "Chopinesque" MD, Peter Lipari choosing a programme that was, as they say here, "right out of left field". The opener "Brass Rush" by Augusta Read Thomas was a world premiere from a composer who works extensively with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra no less, but was a "curve ball" that struck out everyone on the hall - judges included. An opener of such a contemporary nature is one thing, but to follow it with "Knight Templar" meant that things went from the sublime to the ridiculous - except in reverse. Things weren't helped by a sombre "Sarabande" by Stephen Roberts from his "Monument for Brass" suite either, so by the time Thomas Runty had dragged back points with a neat "Brillante" on the euphonium they had lost the chance to either entertain or impress.  "Russlan and Ludmilla" never came off and even though the MD gave a performance worthy of the top prize, his band certainly didn't.

It may be hard on them to suggest that Illinois need a rethink, but this wasn't good playing from a band that has such talent in the ranks. They are certainly ambitious, but it needs to be tempered with a touch of reality as well if they are to progress the way in which they should.

That was it for the bands, but the entertainment didn't stop there. In between each band came buskers from each of the competitors who gave wonderful exhibitions of themselves. The winners were "The Hurricane Blues Brothers (and Sister)" who gave a "Blues Brothers" inspired set that featured some great playing from all six members and fully deserved the top hat full of dollar bills (even Frank Renton put a dollar in, although the rumour was that he took out 98 cents as well!).    

4BR was also very fortunate to be asked (with the judges and Frank Renton no less) for a quite splendid Sunday dinner at the house of MD Dallas Niermeyer. 5 hours later we were exceptionally well fed and watered by Mrs Niermeyer (including some splendid port) and had enjoyed ourselves to the full - putting the brass band world to right and enjoying Dallas's reminiscences of the Chicago orchestral world, a world he is a true expert of. It ended our trip in delightful fashion.

The US Open deserves to become a very successful brass band competition. Not only do wonderfully professional people with a realistic ambitions and the drive to make it succeed run it - but those who do are just plain wonderful people as well. They will get over those little hurdles we are sure, get the sponsorship and help with those all important travel costs and will expand the US Open to become an integral part of an ever widening US brass band scene. We wish them well.     

Iwan Fox

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