On a half-dozen Sundays between now and April 9, the National Academy of Sciences will offer one of the best musical bargains in the Washington area--or, for that matter, anywhere in the world: free chamber music concerts by the highly skilled members of the U.S. Marine Band.
Founded in 1798, the Marine Band is the oldest professional music organization in the United States and one of the oldest--and best--in the world. Its repertoire goes far beyond the kind of music usually associated with marching bands--though it does plenty of that, too, in outdoor concerts, on ceremonial occasions (every presidential inauguration since Thomas Jefferson in 1801, for example) and on its national and international tours.
Those who attend White House receptions, where the Marine Band regularly welcomes arriving guests with baroque music in the foyer, may have observed that it is probably the only military band in the world that includes a resident harpsichord player. It also includes plenty of string players and a harp--like cellos and double basses, not useful in a marching band but great for chamber music.
Both harp and double bass played vital roles in last Sunday's concert at the National Academy, though wind instruments--band instruments, both brass and woodwinds--are still the mainstay of this band. The sound of a wind ensemble playing chamber music is one of the most beautiful sonic textures available to a composer, and it was gloriously used in a variety of styles in Sunday's concert.
The program opened and closed with dance music--stylized 18th-century French dances (menuet and rigaudon) in Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" and 1920s tango, Charleston and ragtime in Bohuslav Martinu's "La Revue de Cuisine."
Ravel's tribute to Francois Couperin, an 18th-century predecessor, was originally composed for piano and later published by Ravel in an orchestral version. What the Marine Band members played on Sunday was an arrangement by Mason Jones for the classic woodwind quintet lineup--flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon.
I would hesitate to say that an arranger, even one as expert as Jones, could improve on Ravel, who was a master of both piano textures and orchestration, but this arrangement had a lot more color than the piano original, and in the hands of five Marines whose military precision was shaped by deep musical sensitivity and tempered by the warmth of wind instrument sound (a sound generated by the breath of life), it was a unique experience.
Martinu, one of the 20th century's most productive,imaginative, and versatile composers, is still not fully appreciated by the average American music-lover, but more performances of his jazz-styled pieces (one of his many styles) with the kind of bounce and high spirits heard in this concert could quickly correct that situation.
At the other extreme from these pop-styled pieces, the program featured two cutting-edge modern works for unaccompanied wind instruments, both brilliantly played: Shulamit Ran's eloquent "For an Actor: Monologue for Clarinet" and Luciano Berio's virtuoso "Sequenza VIIb" for saxophone, a radical work that extends the instrument's performing techniques and sketches the possibilities of a new musical language.
One work, "Divertimento" was composed by Mordechai Scheinkman, a composer previously unknown to me but one who used the harp with great skill to accent and contrast the sounds of clarinet, trumpet and trombone.
Two other works featured composers well-known for their chamber music--Carl Nielsen's "Serenata in Vano" and Paul Hindemith's classic Septet--in superb performances. The whole program was wonderfully balanced and memorably performed.
The series will continue with free concerts at the National Academy at 2 p.m. on Jan. 23, Feb. 6, March 5, 19 and 26 and April 9.