DCW On-Line: West Des Moines

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Phantom flexes defending champs’ muscle in drum corps return to Central Iowa

June 25, 2009 — Des Moines, IA . . . Drums corps made a successful return to Central Iowa after a two-year absence as just under 3,000 fans were thrilled by performances of seven corps on a warm night at Valley High School Stadium. The Colts organization successfully pulled off the show — designed to fill the void left by the demise of Ankeny’s “Celebration in Brass,” which ended two years ago after a successful 25-year run — in just six weeks.

And Phantom Regiment may be able to pull off a successful defense of its first outright DCI World Championship by season’s end. The corps easily bested the five World Class groups in this contest, beating the second-place Blue Stars, and then captivated the audience with an encore.

Revolution also made a successful debut to its tenth anniversary season in Open Class, topping the undermanned Colt Cadets.

Phantom Regiment (80B-30P-36CG-3DM = 149) largely returns to its serious classical roots with “The Red Violin,” a program based on the story of a perfect violin — known for its rich red color — and the trials and tribulations of romance and stardom for one young, poor musician and his new bride, when they come upon the violin. The young musician, who might represent the great Italian violinist and composer, Nicolo Paganini, based on all the Paganini titles among the musical selections — and his violin are featured prominently before the show starts in the middle of the field.

The haunting music of John Congliano’s title track, The Red Violin, opens the show in the mid-range as it slowly builds into a powerful impact, punctuated with the musical ensemble forming the large outline in the shape of the half violin used by the musician. The form is then filled by the color guard spinning bright red silks as the music reaches its full climax.

From there, the corps displays its musical and visual mastery of the fast-paced opener, which moves rapidly from one side of the field to the other. Of special note is the musical accuracy shown by the 16-member tuba section during a feature in the middle of the program.

After the opener, the corps showcases its musical diversity in the jazzy Benny Goodman selection, which kicks in with a swinging percussion feature. Phantom has captured the high percussion trophy in two of the last three years and Paul Rennick’s group should be in the hunt again this year, based on the accuracy and interpretation exhibited in this selection.

The dance number introduces the audience for the first time to a love triangle in the story, as a guard member in a bright red dress emerges to dance with the young musician and away from his young bride, who is dressed in light costuming matching his.

All of Phantom’s hallmark beauty and majesty are displayed in the ballad, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, beginning with a mellophone soloist who is sure to be one of the most memorable this season. The music warmly swells to an emotional peak as the same half-violin appears again visually, this time in a diagonal position that dissects the field.

Phantom Regiment – Rockford, IL
Photo by Harry Heidelmark
Courtesy of Drum Corps World

The tempo and intensity quicken as the love triangle conflict builds in the closer, Paganini Variations. Visually, one of the highlights finds four brass boxes appearing, separating and then rotating into circles that eventually connect into a curvilinear, follow-the-leader form. The rest of the number moves quickly through more traditional symmetrical drill as the young musician and his bride are happily reunited amid the expected musical climax.

The show is already very good, but Program Director Dan Farrell reports that changes are on the way to turn that good into great.

“The show’s coming together, but we’ve already got a whole lot of changes planned and we’ve got them scheduled for the times they’ll happen throughout the season,” said Farrell. “And like always, the show that is on the field right now won’t have all that much to do with the show that we’ll be doing by the end. I mean, obviously it’s the same basic material, but we’ve already rewritten the opener and taught the music part of it. We’ll be teaching the visual part next Monday and then we’ll work our way through the show, based on our priority list. ”

The Blue Stars (70B-31P-38CG-2DM = 141) were one of the Cinderella stories last year in their return to World Class finals for the first time since 1979, climbing all the way to eighth. While the corps won’t surprise anyone this season, the creative team has used the momentum from that breakthrough season to literally build “The Factory,” a program that has a similar feel, but greater depth and complexity.

The corps’ prop builders seem to have mastered a factory’s assembly line precision in order to fill the field full of props to set the proper visual mood, including 36 large tables with simulated sewing machines, clotheslines in the backfield and a large, silver-colored sideline screen.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of stuff. It’s sewing machines. It’s steam irons. It’s clotheslines. It’s everything,” said Blue Stars Director Howard Weinstein. “But what we’re doing is a full-blown production on the field and we want to create an atmosphere that everyone in that audience feels like they’re going in and out of that factory with us.”

The show begins with the musical ensemble in a 40-yard block over the left side of the field, framing the color guard which is positioned behind the sewing machine tables. Just like last year’s popular program, the color guard “workers” stretch as they prepare themselves for the work day ahead. And also like last year, the program opens with a quick tempo from among the pit percussion — this year making use of industrial metallic enhancements – and split parts within the snares as the battery moves smoothly around the tables.

Meanwhile, the brass members move quickly to the right side of the field to build a large block for the first full impact in Alan Menkin’s Theme from Hardin County. It gradually compresses down to a company front along the front sideline and then flexes back into an arc for the powerful resolution of the show’s opening statement.

After the rousing opener, the corps moves into two facing ranks 30 yards apart as the program’s underlying military theme is introduced through a classic news report on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As the sound clip plays, a guard member wearing a military uniform moves to the center with a single snare drummer, playing a slow battle cadence. That’s followed by air raid sirens from among the pit as the battle is joined with more guard emerging in military uniforms. The conflict grows to its tragic conclusion as the music segues into Taps against the backfield, while guard members — now wearing 1940s period dresses — express grief through their dance.

But just like the factory workers of that era, these workers overcome their losses to show their patriotic spirit, symbolized as royal blue silks with big white stars that emerge from among the factory tables. They slowly move to frame the full ensemble in three concentric circles moving in opposite directions during the mournful ballad from the show’s original title track. The song climaxes with one of the soldiers returning home to the waiting arms of his love in what should be one of the more emotional moments of the summer.

The soldier’s safe return brings about celebration in the form of Leonard Bernstein’s swinging Fancy Free, which allows the corps to showcase its musical diversity. Visually, the closer is reminiscent of the Cavaliers’ 2005 “My Kind of Town” ending as the corps rapidly moves in and out of the factory table props as the music intensifies and builds to a big, yet abrupt, finish. But that ending is apparently going to change soon.

“Yeah, we’ve got another ending up our sleeves that will be coming out, probably in a couple of more weeks, as we develop that. It’s already been written, as we speak,” Weinstein said.

“We’ve got a lot more equipment that’s got to go in and a little bit more costume changes within the color guard,” he said. “There are just things sprinkled in throughout — a lot more movement in the horns. There are a lot more things that are going to happen. We’re just adding it piece, by piece, by piece.”

While Spirit (60B-40P-32CG-2DM = 134) still trains at Jacksonville State University, the corps dropped the reference in its name last summer and is no longer the summer marching ensemble for the school. And since the school’s out for Spirit’s summer, the design team apparently decided to create a more fun, accessible program, too. It has done just that with an electronically-enhanced “Live . . . in Concert!” show that simulates a concert by the classic rock band Kansas.

In reality, this program probably showcases more of what’s believed to be the largest percussion section in DCI history (10S-6T-5B-6C-13PP = 40) than it does the music of Kansas. That unit literally gets the call to “Run the drum solo” as it opens to the pit melody of Carry On My Wayward Son and Song for America. The rest of the musical ensemble joins the percussion after the extended feature, playing backfield accompaniment before turning around as the announcer says “Live . . . in Concert! Spirit!” for its first brassy statement.

The opener has more of those impacts, largely from standstill, yet effectively staged positions. It also introduces heavy use of new electronic instrumentation through synthesizers and an electric bass. While the electronic effects are sure to be controversial with drum corps purists, Spirit’s design team made sure they’re within the new rules.

“Yes, we definitely checked the rules first and with the idiom that we’re playing — the rock music and everything — we definitely wanted to bring out the real instrumentation of using the electric bass,” said Spirit Percussion Coordinator/Battery Arranger Shane Gwaltney. “With that [the electric bass], we’re doing some slow stuff and we wanted some really cool colors with the upright bass, so we can bow and get out some sustained sound to also help support the horn line.”

That sustained bass sound is particularly effective in harmony with an amplified steel drum groove and keyboard work in the ballad, Dust in the Wind, which also provides some of the program’s most interesting visual design. The number begins within the pit as the ensemble forms several circles, one of them being the eight tubas that accompany a small brass ensemble along the front. The rest of the brass members move backfield in a triangular form and kneel to provide interpretive body movements. The music slowly swells to a powerful a cappella performance of the main melody by the brass in an arc, surrounded visually by the color guard spinning bright orange silks.

The closer, Journey from Mariabronn, displays more exposed percussion work before the brass transitions into the Latin groove emanating from the pit to play its most demanding portion of the show. The announcer introduces the show’s big finish, saying, “Thank you Des Moines. We’ll see you next year,” as the corps powers to its final push forward.

The show, while less complex and lacking any references to the corps’ southern roots, is drawing the desired approval from the crowd — and that was the whole idea.

“This year is so much fun,” said Spirit Executive Director Joel Vincent. “Our goal when we started planning this year was to be accessible to the audience — go back to something fun. Spirit has always, from its exception, been recognized as a fun, audience-friendly drum corps with the music we’ve played. The last few years, we’ve kind of gone in a different vein with a little more obscure direction and with some things we were doing. But this year, our goal from day one was to be fan-friendly so that everything we did they could access readily.”

Despite falling to Spirit just two nights after scoring a one-point victory, the Madison Scouts (68B-33P-36CG-2DM = 139) appear to have both a stronger corps and program through “Relámpago” than the ones that returned them to finals last season. Yet that strength was diminished tonight by what appeared to be four holes in the brass ranks and two missing snare drummers, who reportedly sat out the day’s earlier run-through with minor injuries.

But while those absences may have hurt the corps tonight, it didn’t hurt the show’s entertainment value. “Relámpago” — a fictional comic book superhero who is the first Mexican-American superhero in the American comic book industry — is portrayed by the guard, which opens shrouded by red-hooded robes as they mysteriously wander among the musical ensembles’ ranks.

Eerie sounds come from the pit as the show begins to move and the music builds to the first big impact in the original composition of The Forces of Nature, accentuated as the guard throws off the robes to appear in masked superhero costumes.

Madison Scouts, Madison, WI
Photo by Harry Heidelmark
Courtesy of Drum Corps World

From there, the Latin-influenced production aggressively moves all over the field and through demanding brass passages, which include an excerpt from a Scouts classic, Malaga. Meanwhile, the guard displays greater skill in its equipment work this year, already executing some high tosses throughout the opener.

The guard removes its masks and spin silks bearing two eyes as they portray Relámpago’s more playful side in Two Left-Footed Mambo. The portrayal may be more playful, but the music is no less demanding, climaxing with a high brass trio that will thrill Madison fans.

Another original song, Love Is in the Air, showcases the corps’ softer side. The ballad is one of the few times the corps stands still.

It quickly returns to aggressive drill in A Turn to the Dark Side — Candela. Relámpago’s flirtation with darkness appears to be his undoing during a powerful moment near the front sideline. In a move reminiscent of Phantom’s “Spartacus” production last year, the fallen superhero is apparently laid to rest by other members of the color guard. But Relámpago makes a triumphant return in the original closer, which features more aggressive music and drill to the end.

It’s a vehicle that works well for the Scouts, who have injected their old brassy sound — and once again wear red sashes — back into a more contemporary program.

“It’s the second year of the design team and a lot of the staff has now taught together for at least two years, sometimes three,” said Dan Ritacco, a member of the Scouts’ brass staff. “So I think it’s just kind of a culmination of that and knowing where we want to be now, as opposed to just building. It’s like we’re more comfortable in ourselves and our own skin. And just the whole superhero concept was a fun thing to start developing.”

Pioneer (39B-33P-16CG-2DM = 90) is another Wisconsin corps that appears to be very comfortable in its own “skin” — probably fair-skinned in its case — as the corps continues to play Irish-themed shows. Fans who have enjoyed past Pioneer productions will no doubt appreciate the latest, “Celtic Trinity.” And just like many of the past Irish programs, this one features the percussion (6S-4T-5B-5C-13PP) early, through an extended feature to open the show, and often, with a later feature that finds the color guard holding Irish hand drums for the snares. The first percussion feature transitions into a brass entry to Celtic Dances from a cloverleaf formation.

The ballad includes a pretty mellophone solo by one of the drum majors that eventually builds into a lush, backfield, full-brass moment. While the seemingly young and inexperienced color guard appears to struggle a bit with its work right now, it performs a well-executed, one-handed saber toss during the ballad.

After the second percussion feature, the closer — Steven Reinecke’s Into the Raging River — is where the corps needs its greatest work. The selection is currently plagued by tentative playing, tempo issues and equipment drops. It’s also unclear how the selection fits the Irish theme show, which Director Roman Blenski says is first and foremost designed to entertain.

“Pioneer continues to do what it does. We like to have a crowd-appealing show, which makes us a little bit unique in the activity,” Blenski said. “The struggle we have is just enlarging our membership. We just seem to be stuck on 95 members. We’ve been at 95 for five years now. And we work hard at recruiting, but getting more students who want to perform at a very high level is difficult.”

Revolution (36B-26P-22CG-3DM = 87) had a few opening night jitters in the corps’ first competitive performance of “ElementALL,” a program that focuses on those “simple gifts” that are frequently overlooked in daily life. According to the summary of the show on the corps’ Web site, the program is supposed to “connect all four elements with the past, the present and the future and stepping off in great new directions.”

Without knowing Revolution’s history, it’s unclear whether the four musical selections — past drum corps favorites that include Pat Methany’s Heat of the Day, Mark Mancina’s August’s Rhapsody, David Holsinger’s To Tame the Perilous Skies and Joseph Brackett’s Simple Gifts — were previously played by the corps and updated for this year’s program.

Right now, the aggressive, layered rhythms of the Methany opener may a bit too “hot” for the brass members, who also have great physical demands throughout the chart until resolving into the corps’ trademark star logo for a big standstill impact. The percussion section (7S-4T-5B-10PP) is a real strength and kicked the opener up in tempo with a strong feature.

A nicely performed baritone solo marks the Mancina ballad, which showed some of the members’ inexperience as their feet phased at the slower tempos.

The final two songs are ambitious, but work well in harmony. The program climaxes to a Simple Gifts company front dissected by a spinning circle within the ensemble.

As young and inexperienced as Revolution appears to be, the Colt Cadets (21B-28P-14CG-2DM) are typically younger. But this year’s edition features the most mature and talented percussion section (7S-4T-5B-3C-9PP) in corps history, which drives the “Lullabye & Good Nightmare” program.

Yet the rest of corps is smaller than some years past and still lacking in its performance quality. But there may be a reason for that.

“We have 30 brass and exactly the number of kids we have spots for,” said Colt Cadets Director Vicki Schaffer. “We’ve just kind of had massive ailments in the last week and all very typical things that happen — accidents and nothing controllable that way, the same way we’ve always rehearsed. But there was one sprained ankle and then one strained ligament and then two kids have been in the sun too long and then a case of the flu and just on and on with things that just all hit at once.

“So we were actually quite impressed, given that we were missing nine of our 30 brass, with the perseverance of the other kids,” she continued. “We could have given up or step up and that’s just what those guys did in terms of their courage. There were a lot of people who are maybe just in inner roles who absolutely laid it on the line that way.”

Given all the illness and injuries, the members may have felt like just staying in bed. One featured guard member gets to do just that in this program as she climbs in a bed near the front sideline and simulates going to sleep during a trumpet solo and pit accompaniment of Billy Joel’s Lullabye. That peaceful sleep is soon disturbed by a Nightmare, an original composition featuring an expressive percussion break.

The guard uses bright red, purple and yellow balls as playful props during the Theme from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which ends with a question mark formation.

James Horner’s The Place Where Dreams Come True from the film “Field of Dreams” is perfect for this corps — which is located just 30 miles from the real field where the movie was shot — and showcases a trumpet duet and mellophone soloist sitting on the corners of the bed.

The closer is the popular In the Hall of the Mountain King, which concludes with a rousing company front forward — right now, showing off all the holes within a single rank. But the program should work well and grow with the return of the missing members for the more competitive Colt Cadets over time.

And that’s also true for the Colts’ sponsorship of this show, which should grow with more marketing time to build the fan base.

You may discuss this review on the DCP Forums. We’d love to hear your feedback.

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Posted by on Sunday, July 5th, 2009. Filed under DCW On-Line.