From English marches to cartoon mouse chases, the Tacoma Concert Band had a fun program Sunday in the Pantages Theater, featuring the fluid virtuosity of alto sax soloist Erik Steighner and quite a bit of the band’s own sax section.
I don’t usually review amateur ensembles, and this band is a good example of why — despite many professional individuals, it is often held back by uneven intonation (clarinets, mid-brass) and rhythmic unpredictability in more difficult sections. Yet it’s a popular group, and Sunday’s concert was a great example of that, with fun, unusual pieces that ran the gamut from straight-up classical to jazz, folk and pop, all held together with an engaging podium commentary from director Bob Musser.
The show opened with “Army of the Nile,” a classic march from British composer Kenneth J. Alford honoring English victories in Egypt during World War II. With plenty of snare rolls and cymbal clashes, piccolo trills and clarinet flourishes, it was a fun warmup, showcasing the band’s across-the-board skills.
Alfred Reed’s “Armenian Dances” (just the first movement) brought a little more musical depth: a rhapsody of five Armenian folk songs that started with moody bassoon and alto sax, continued through brief but pleasant trumpet and oboe solos to a lilting 5/8, a stately ¾ and a spirited 2/4 to a fiery finish. Some percussion timing problems were offset by tight dynamics and energy.
Then it was Steighner’s turn. A University of Puget Sound alumni who, after graduate studies in Texas, came back as sax lecturer at Pacific Lutheran University, Steighner has a smooth tone and fluid virtuosity. From the fast, scale-based opening through the mournful inner section and back again via an impressive, octave-jumping cadenza, Steighner showed his absolute control of the sax, offering super-high notes and immaculate double-tonguing with equal poise — though not a lot of drama. His dynamic range could have been greater had the band been a little less overwhelming. Yet there were some breathtaking moments, including a tiptoe section with perfect sax choir chords.
After intermission and David Gillingham’s quirky “Internal Combustion” — an ode to the American car with trombone glissandi, air blows and vocal hisses, horn blasts and a cinematic score going from rural Copland to swing and ’50s rock ’n’ roll — Steighner was back with the Demersseman “Fantaisie” from 1860, written soon after the instrument was invented. Despite a rather clunky band and a weird hi-hat combo that stuck out of the early-Romantic soundscape like a sore thumb, Steighner again showed his chops with effortless lyricism and rapid runs. “Saxophobia,” his ragtime encore, could have been even jazzier, but was fun nevertheless.
After that, the closer was a no-brainer: Peter Graham’s “Cartoon Music,” a delightful quasi-overture using every trick in the sound-effects book to replicate a Tom and Jerry cartoon in music. Bells, whistles, zooming piccolo, jaunty xylophone, wah-wah trumpet, frantic chase scenes, a pink mouse squeaker (yes) and quotes from Brahms’ “Lullaby” to Beethoven’s 6th — Musser and his band dove into them all with glee. An encore of Julius Fucik’s “Entry of the Gladiators” (a.k.a that famous circus music) put the icing on the concert band cake.