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Gerard Schwarz takes a turn conducting the United States Marine Band

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed

Last March Naxos released a recording in their Wind Band Classics series of Gerard Schwarz conducting the United States Marine Band (which proudly calls itself “The President’s Own”). This is a concert recording made in Bethesda at The Music Center at Strathmore on March 12, 2012. The Marine Band shows up regularly in the Wind Band Classics catalog; but, as far as I can tell, this was Schwarz’ debut with them.

The most impressive account on this recording is the one given to Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy. Grainger’s biographical trail began in Australia in 1882, moved to England, where Grainger divided his effort between a career as a concert pianist and an ethnomusicologist collecting and studying folk-songs from England and Denmark. With the outbreak of the First World War, Grainger moved to New York in 1914 but then enlisted in the United States Army in 1917 in support of the war effort. He died in White Plains in 1961.

After his death, a collection of works for concert band were discovered; and Frederick Fennell was responsible for editing Lincolnshire Posy for publication in 1987. It is a suite of six folk-songs from Lincolnshire, distinguished by Grainger’s unique approach to adaptation and arrangement. At the melodic level, Grainger the ethnomusicologist knew that, however many verses a song may have, no two verses were ever sung the same way. Thus, one encounters a variety of subtle variations in phrasing and embellishment as each movement progresses. One also encounters an uncannily keen ear for instrumentation. It is hard to imagine any other composer who could get such a rich sound out of a wind ensemble, making the discipline of the Marine Band the perfect vehicle for giving his music the best possible interpretation. Schwarz clearly appreciated all of these virtues in Grainger; and, as P. T. Barnum would have said, listening to this one selection would have been worth the price of admission to that 2012 concert.

Within the wind repertoire, the other impressive account is the one given to Samuel Barber’s 1943 “Commando March,” composed during Barber’s Army service for the Second World War. This was a salute to commando fighters who prevail by not following the rules, perhaps Barber’s subtle reflection on how he, himself, chose to go his own way, regardless of what his contemporaries happened to be doing. Far less substantial are the contributions by Paul Creston (“Celebration Overture”), Aaron Copland (“Emblems”), Bernard Rands (“Ceremonial”), and Schwarz himself (the title track, “Above and Beyond”). The booklet is also kind enough to remind the reader, in conjunction with the “Marines’ Hymn” (“halls of Montezuma”) on the final track, that the music was the melody of the “Gendarmes’ Duet” from the opera Geneviève de Brabant, composed by Jacques Offenbach.

Is that you, John Wayne, in a box at the Bouffes-Parisiens?