Last month, you may recall, the Canadian Band Association, Ontario had just held its first "Community Brass Band" weekend, which got me going in this space, on the subject of the characteristics of the brass band, the British Brass Band Style, Company Bands and Brass Band Contests.
There’s a whole other story to tell about how brass bands in the British tradition, sometimes sponsored by employers, began to be established on this side of the Atlantic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But first let’s look at an upcoming event which encapsulates not only what the brass band community is all about but also how far the brass band genre has come.
Hannaford Street Silver Band’s Festival of Brass: Just as there are few, if any, professional concert bands in Canada there are few professional brass bands. The notable exception is the Hannaford Street Silver Band, established some 30 years ago by a group of Toronto professional musicians who wanted to give the full virtuosic range of brass band idiom a voice and showcase in Toronto. Their concerts have consequently explored a much wider range of music than would usually have been considered part of the brass band repertoire. A recent example: with guest artist Fergus McWilliam, they presented the Strauss Horn Concerto No.1 this past February 21. Here was a top musician from the Berlin Philharmonic performing with a brass band on the only major brass instrument that is not part of the usual brass band instrumentation. Also note, the HSSB commitment to broadening the repertoire has gone beyond rearranging standard repertoire into a vigorous commitment to commissioning new Canadian works.
Another important outgrowth of the HSSB’s activities has been their youth program. In 1999 they launched the Hannaford Street Youth Band under the direction of Anita McAlister. In 2005, another youth band was created for beginning brass players known as the Hannaford Junior Band. Soon a third, intermediate, band known as the Hannaford Community Youth Band was also formed. All three bands, under the same director, provide musical growth opportunities for young musicians ranging in age from 11 to the early 20s.
So, for devotees of the Hannafords and brass band fans in general, the HSSB’s annual Festival of Brass (this year on the weekend of April 15 to 17) is a must. This festival will be packed with almost every form of brass music. Friday evening will feature “Rising Stars” where the finalists of the Hannaford Youth Solo Competition will be judged on their performances by Alain Trudel and Stéphane Beaulac. The winner will perform with the Hannaford Band in the Sunday afternoon concert. Saturday will be devoted to a master class in the morning followed by a series of performances by “Festival of Brass” participating bands. On Sunday there will be an open dress rehearsal in the morning and the “Entre Amis” concert in the afternoon. This year, Stéphane Beaulac, formerly principal trumpet with Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, now with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will be the featured soloist. He will perform Canadian composer Johnny Cowell’s Concerto in E Minor with the band, under the direction of another Hannaford distinguished visitor, Alain Trudel.
Crossing the Atlantic: Now back to our previous topic. Certainly the geography of Canada, with large distances between communities, made some aspects of the British Brass Band tradition, such as regular contests, impractical. On the other hand, relative isolation and lack of other recreational opportunity may have assisted with other aspects, such as the company band. Certainly, into the 20th century there were still a few distinguished company bands around, including the Taylor Safe Works Band, the Heintzman Piano Company Band, where the famous Herbert L. Clarke was featured, and the Anglo-Canadian Leather Company Band in Huntsville, Ontario where Clarke was the conductor from 1918 to 1923. Originally trained on the viola, Clarke was smitten by the cornet and began practising on his brother’s instrument. He then joined the band of the Queen’s Own Rifles in 1882 at age 14, in order to obtain his own government-issue cornet on which to practise.
Few, if any, company bands are still operating in Canada. There are still a number of Salvation Army bands, but the total number of British-style brass bands probably does not exceed 30. Most of these are in Ontario, operate as recreational or “community” bands and have long histories going back over a century in some cases. The most well-known include the Oshawa Civic Band, the Whitby Brass Band, the Weston Silver Band and the Metropolitan Silver Band of Toronto. Professor Henry Meredith’s Plumbing Factory Brass Band in London is one which has risen in stature in recent years.
South of the border: About the same time brass bands were springing up in Canada similar bands were forming in the US, principally in the New England States. It wasn’t long, though, before brass bands caught the attention of one John Sullivan Dwight in Boston. Ordained as a minister in 1840, Dwight had abandoned the ministry and developed a deep interest in music, in particular that of Beethoven. By the 1850s music was becoming a big business in America and Dwight was soon to become the country’s first music critic, launching frequent tirades against the popular music of the day, particularly the brass band. In one memorable instance he wrote: “All at once the idea of a Brass Band shot forth: and from this prolific germ sprang up a multitude of its kind in every part of the land, like the crop of iron men from the infernal seed of the dragon’s teeth.”
NABBA: Dwight notwithstanding, by 1983 the desire for some form of umbrella organization to coordinate the activities of bands and to further the brass band movement had resulted in the establishment of the North American Brass Band Association (NABBA) with stated aims to “Foster, promote and otherwise encourage the establishment, growth and development of amateur and professional British-type brass bands throughout the United States and Canada.”
Cautionary note: if you decide to ask Mr. Google for information on this organization, type in the full name, not NABBA, or you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about the National Amateur Body-Builders’ Association. (Unless of course you are a tuba player and need some muscle toning.)
While some Canadian bands have participated in NABBA competitions over the years, the most recent highlight was in the summer of 2014 when the North American Brass Band Summer School (NABBSS) was first held in Halifax as an integral component of the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. We were participants in that first school and in the tattoo. We would not have missed it for the world. The 2015 event was equally successful and enrollments are well on the way for this coming summer.
Other Brass Band news from the GTA: I was very surprised and pleased recently to receive a copy of a new history of the Metropolitan Silver Band. As the title says, it covers “80 Years of Music-Making at Metropolitan United Church.” This history was written by the band’s longest-serving member, Ken Allen, who has been in the band for 71 of those 80 years, 43 of them as its manager. He was fortunate in having access to meticulously maintained records over the years by a fellow band member.
Elsewhere I have mentioned, on various occasions, those revolutionary times when a female musician was “permitted” to join a band. For the MSB, this occurred in January 1981, when Bill Martyn, a member of the cornet section and a high school English teacher, invited one of his students to join the band. Now, 35 years later, Michele McCall is still in the band and has been the band’s manager since 2005, when she took over from Ken Allen. Another milestone was in 2002 when the band appointed its first woman conductor. Fran Harvey is still the conductor after 14 years at the helm. The history includes a good selection of pictures, all with dates and identification of all band members. As I scanned these pictures, lo and behold, there I was during those years when I was a band member in the 1970s and 1980s. Late last year the band released a new CD to celebrate its 80-year association with Metropolitan United Church. Titled Amazing Grace-A Gospel Celebration, it is a compilation of traditional hymns including one selection, My Lord What a Morning, featuring a solo by none other than 71-year veteran Ken Allen.
Salvation Army bands have long been a mainstay of the brass band movement, so it was good to hear of an SA concert coming up later in the month. Featured will be the Ontario Central East Divisional Singing Company (Junior Choir) conducted by Elizabeth Colley, Divisional Young Peoples’ Band – Blood and Fire Brass under bandleader Bob Gray, and Divisional Reservists’ Band – Heritage Brass also led by bandmaster Gray. The concert will take place Saturday, April 23 at 7pm, in the Agincourt Community Church of The Salvation Army, 3080 Birchmount Rd, Toronto. A freewill offering will be received during the concert.
Startups are always a good sign of the resurgence of interest in brass band music, and here’s another one. They are inviting other brass players to join them. They rehearse Wednesday evenings in Newmarket and would particularly welcome cornet and tuba players. If you play a brass instrument, and are interested in exploring that genre, contact Peter Hussey by email at email@example.com.
New Horizons: From time to time I have reported on the activities of the many New Horizons groups since their introduction into Canada about six years ago. The number of groups in Toronto alone has grown to the extent that the original conductor, Dan Kapp, has relinquished his duties at the Long & McQuade main store to channel all of his energies into the many New Horizons groups. With the title of creative director, Dan will oversee the operations of all Toronto bands, as well as conduct two or more. While on the subject of New Horizons, a few days ago I learned of a New Horizons group now thriving in Sudbury. Where will the next NH group spring up?
Obituary: Unfortunately I must report on the passing of Alex MacDonald a long-serving member of the Metropolitan Silver Band. I first met Alex when he and I were living in the same residence at university many years ago. We played together in the U of T Varsity band. On one occasion Alex startled us all. We were rehearsing Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, but we didn’t have anyone to play the piccolo part. Alex tucked his euphonium under his arm and pulled a slide whistle from his inner pocket. Suddenly we had a piccolo.
Jack MacQuarrie plays several brass instruments and has performed in many community ensembles. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.