New Classical Tracks: Canadian Brass, American Classics

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
June 28, 2010

On their latest recording, "Stars and Stripes," the Canadian Brass salutes their southern neighbor, the United States, with their own unique take on several American patriotic classics.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Canadian Brass was formed in 1970 and are known for their witty on-stage antics and musical imaginations. For the past 40 years this brilliant brass quintet has made a name for itself performing and recording classical repertoire. On their latest recording however, they turn many familiar patriotic tunes into exciting concert pieces. Members of the premiere percussion ensemble Nexus help them out by adding thrilling authentic historical drumming to the core sound of brass.

"Stars and Stripes Forever," which opens this new release, is probably the most famous of the 136 marches written by John Philip Sousa. It was inspired by Sousa's first sight of the American flag after a long tour overseas. While aboard his ship, he said, he began to sense the rhythmic beat of a band playing in his head. As soon as he reached land, he wrote down the notes and his most famous march was born. With the added percussion, the Canadian Brass takes on the spirit of a full-fledged marching band in this performance.

The development of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is tracked on this new release thanks to the Canadian Brass. The melody was borrowed from an old Scottish drinking song before the well-known words of Francis Scott Key were added in 1814. Key was a Baltimore lawyer who saw the bombardment of Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. When the shelling ended, he was overcome and amazed to see that "our flag was still there." This recording includes two versions of the song: the traditional version, and a version created from manuscripts dating from 1814. The traditional version has a familiar rich, lush sound. The original version of 1814 is brighter as the trumpets take center stage. Historical drumming offers an earthy quality to the national anthem.

One of the most popular tunes of the Revolutionary Era was "Chester." It's contained in one of the songbooks of William Billings, the father of American choral music. It's named for the western Massachusetts town, and was later used by William Schuman in his "New England Triptych" of 1944. There's something quietly majestic about this hymn.

The wittier side of the Canadian Brass comes through in the civil war song, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." A muted trumpet opens this battle hymn, with the trombones sliding their way through the melody. The trumpet then returns sounding more like a toy than a bugle making a battle cry. The rhythm percolates with the percussion and brass building before the melody returns in grandiose fashion.

On "Stars and Stripes," the Canadian Brass salutes America with 15 patriotic classics in exciting, fun arrangements. They close out this recording with a special gift to Americans, a powerful rendition of their country's national anthem, "O Canada."

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