The Eastern Iowa Brass Band performs on Memorial Day 2017

A Brass Salute: The Eastern Iowa Brass Band’s Memorial Day Concert

The sun shone brightly and strong prairie winds whipped the edges of the stage bunting on Memorial Day, May 29, 2017, as the Eastern Iowa Brass Band (EIBB) performed a free concert on the grounds of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, only 10 miles from Iowa City. The crowd, a varied mixture of families and older couples, sat in lawn chairs facing the stage, which ingeniously pulled out from a large trailer.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum, West Branch, Iowa

The EIBB, which bills itself as “Iowa’s only British-styled brass band”, is a 35-member all volunteer ensemble. In order to get that mellow “British-styled” sound, the musicians play cornets and flugelhorns instead of trumpets, tenor horns instead of French horns, and euphoniums,baritones, trombones, and tubas instead of woodwinds.

The concert opened with the Star Spangled Banner. I especially enjoyed the low brass section’s strong execution of the moving section near the end of the piece. Listen to this clip and see if you agree:

Next up was American Overture (1953) by Joseph Wilcox Jenkins, featuring a lively melody which contained frontier and Western themes.

The next piece was William Himes’ arrangement of the hymn Amazing Grace, which featured a cornet/flugelhorn duet.

The band changed musical directions from slow to march tempo for the first of several marches composed by John Philip Sousa. Sousa composed Hail to the Spirit of Liberty (arranged by Roy Newsome) in 1900 to commemorate the American-French relationship and Sousa’s own band traveled to Paris to perform this march at the unveiling of a statue of General Lafayette, who assisted the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.  Sousa’s marches are usually quite challenging to play, and the band, which rehearses only once a week, rose to the occasion with a rousing performance ending with the confident two-note”stinger.”

Marching through Georgia by Henry Clay Work and arranged by Nigel Home, slowed the usual march tempo to a slower pace aptly fitting the devastation and loss of life marking the American Civil War. The cornet and trombone soloists turned in lyrical performances even as the gusting wind threatened to drown out the music.

National Emblem, written by E.E. Bagley and arranged by Edrich Siebert, is a stately and familiar march written in 1902. This type of music has few rests or breaks for the musicians, so I’m sure their lips were beginning to feel a bit numb by the end of the piece!

The band’s master of ceremonies introduced the next piece as one used at presidential funerals and other weighty events. The Navy Hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save (arranged by Jacob de Haan) sets to music a poem written in 1860 by William Whiting dedicated to “those in peril on the sea.” It has since been used widely in the United Kingdom and the United States both within the armed forces and in civilian maritime context such as by ship’s chaplains.  The band’s rendition captured the hymn’s slowly-paced but pleasant harmonies.

Another Sousa march followed to shake up the audience after the lovely but languid Navy Hymn. The Thunderer was written in 1889 and supposedly was Mrs. Sousa’s favorite march. The cornets and E-flat horns were required to play the high passages that are usually played by flutes and clarinets in a wind ensemble.

American Civil War Fantasy (1961) by Jerry Bilik contains a medley of songs contemporary with the years surrounding the Civil War (1861-65), such as “Dixie”, “Camptown Races”, “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  The piece featured an interesting drum effect which mimicked the sound of cannons.

Next the band played one of my favorite medleys, the Armed Forces Salute by Stephen Bolla which included excerpts from the service anthems of the Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army. The master of ceremonies invited veterans and active duty military to stand when their branch of service’s hymn was played. I didn’t see anyone stand during the Coast Guard theme, but each of the other branches had several persons stand while the audience applauded them for their service.

Veterans stand during the playing of their military branch's anthem during "Armed Forces Salute"
Veterans stand during the playing of their military branch’s anthems during “Armed Forces Salute”

(Note: I did not record the EIBB’s performance of this song and couldn’t find the band’s official version but this orchestral rendition of the piece captures the spirit felt at the concert).

Stars and Stripes Forever, written by John Philip Sousa in 1896, provided a fitting close to the afternoon’s patriotic concert. It was quite different to hear the traditional piccolo part played on a brass instrument!

Attending this concert every year would be a great Memorial Day tradition! Thanks to the musicians, volunteers, and National Park Service staff who made the concert possible. The band has recorded a number of CDs over the years, and I purchased two of them so I can enjoy their brassy performances on the road. For more information about the non-profit band and its schedule, visit the website at http://easterniowabrassband.com/ or their Facebook page.

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