Alive with the sound of Sousa

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Keith Brion does not want to be known as a John Philip Sousa imitator. Although he does try to bear something of a resemblance to the famous composer during performances, it is Sousa's music that Brion wants to bring to life.

Friday, Brion and the Southeast Missouri State University's wind ensemble, acting in place of Brion's New Sousa Band, performed some of the famous conductor's music in front of about 900 students from schools in Cape Girardeau County, a school from Ste. Genevieve and some members of retirement communities.

Today's concert will be similar to the matinee, but longer. It will feature a blend of classical pieces, solos and Sousa marches; similar, Brion said, to what Sousa might have played at his show when he visited Cape Girardeau 75 years ago. It was Sept. 14, 1929, three years before his death and well into his international celebrity status.

University music professor Dr. Robert Gifford said Sousa's appearance here would have been comparable to the Beatles coming to Cape Girardeau in the 1960s.

"His music was popular culture at that time," Gifford said.

During his visit, Sousa was presented with a key to city by Mayor James Barke.

An attempt to recreate that moment was made Tuesday, with Brion receiving the key to the city from Mayor Jay Knudtson and Knudtson declaring this John Philip Sousa Week.

Unfortunately, the day was rainy and cold and few people ventured outside. It was quite unlike the weather the day Sousa performed in front of between 7,500 and 10,000 school children on the terraces of Academic Hall.

"I'm staying across the street from where Sousa played and wondering what it must have looked like," said Brion, who is at the Johnson Faculty Center this week.

His interest in the music of Sousa goes back to his childhood, when his parents had a few albums of Sousa's marches. The move from mere interest to a career was a slower development.

While Brion was a music professor at Yale, several events set the Sousa performances into motion. There was research he collected that pointed to Sousa's music being one of the things that brought an audience to college band concerts, experimentation with concert forms and learning about British theater music performances. They came together and inspired Brion to resurrect Sousa through musical performances.

When he left Yale in the early 1980s, Brion started the New Sousa Band in an attempt to keep the memory of this important musical figure alive.

March man

Sousa started his musical career with the United States Marine Band. His father was a member of the band and from the time he was 13 until the age of 20, Sousa played in the band himself. In 1880 he became the band's conductor. It was during this time he composed "Semper Fidelis," which became known as the official march of the Marine Corps, and the "The Washington Post," a march that made him a recognizable name in America and Europe.

After retiring from as the Marine Corps' conductor in 1892 he started the Sousa Band and during this time composed his best known work, "The Stars and Stripes Forever." The tune was designated the national march of the United States in 1987.

Although Sousa wrote hundreds of other pieces of music, he is best known for the 135 marches he composed.

"Nobody did it better, that's a fact," Brion said.

What makes his marches great, Brion said, is great melody, interesting rhythms and a lot of energy.

"A march should make a man with a wooden leg want to get up and dance," Sousa is quoted as saying.

After playing Sousa's music for over 20 years, Brion aims to repeat the lightness and elegance of the Sousa march. For the university's wind ensemble, however, becoming the Sousa Band has been a little more difficult.

Brion has rehearsed with the band since Sunday.

While the band members have played Sousa's works before, the "Stars, Stripes and Sousa!" performances are demanding. The wind ensemble has had to learn and rehearse 18 pieces.

"I think the most challenging thing is that there is just so much music. It's just one right after another," said junior Carrie Womack, who plays bassoon.

Despite the hard work, Womak said she recognizes the importance of performing this music.

"It's part of musical history," Womak said.

It's musical history that is receding by the day.

"I rarely run into people who have seen a Sousa concert," Brion said. "When I started it was more common, it's not so common any more."

One of the people who saw the original Sousa perform and will be attending tonight's performance is Joyce Peerman of Jackson.

When she was 9 years old, Peerman attended a performance in Cairo, Ill., about a year after Sousa played in Cape Girardeau.

"I still have a mental picture of Sousa directing," she said. "They were all decked out in their uniforms," she said of the Sousa Band. "It made quite an impression on me."

Ray Vogel was 13 years old when he attended the 1929 concert in Cape Girardeau.

"We had a nice, big parade first," Vogel said. Then it was onto the terraces with what "seemed like a real big group" of people gathered for the outdoor matinee performance.

"It was the most enjoyable time," said Vogel, who will attend tonight's concert with his son and 15-year-old grandson, who are visiting from North Carolina.

Even though he is not sure if his grandson has heard of John Philip Sousa, Vogel thinks he will enjoy the performance.

According to Brion, that would not be surprising.

"It's astonishing," he said. "At these programs -- I'm guessing I've done 5,000 --there's never been a bad reaction."

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