Before I start my review, it's important you know my qualifications so as to give credence to my opinions.
Excellent. Let's begin.
So I left work on Friday and started the drive to Indianapolis... forgetting that, out here in the Midwest, overnight is when they do major road construction projects. So I check into my hotel around midnight, and pull up Music for All's website to see when the Grand National Semifinals will start.
6:30 AM !?!
Sorry, but no way. Maybe 20 years ago I could have done it. But even catching two-thirds of semifinals was a butt-aching and bladder-busting feat of endurance. I have NO IDEA how Alan Irons manages to watch EVERY performance on both days of Prelims followed by Semifinals and Finals. So, I apologize to the following bands, because you are not in my review:
Adair County H.S., KY (6:30 AM performance slot and they still won Class A)
Jenison H.S., MI
DeSoto Central H.S., MS
Central Hardin H.S., KY
Norton H.S., OH
Beechwood H.S., KY
Archbishop Alter H.S., OH
Franklin H.S., TN
Prosper H.S., TX
James F. Byrnes H.S., SC
Bassett H.S., VA
Union H.S., OK (only band from morning block to make Finals)
I arrived in time to see...
BROKEN ARROW H.S., OK - "The Age of Discovery: Return to Xeno"
Repertoire: Not in program
Talk about starting the experience off with a bang! Broken Arrow's show based on the exploration of the strange planet "Xeno". Repertoire was not announced, but I caught several selections from "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff. Guard wore bright yellow costumes, canteloupe orange face masks, and purple hair. It definitely went well with the alien theme. Band wore kaleidoscopic digitally printed tops and no shakos. Can't say it really matched the theme of the show, though. Broken Arrow's show was just pure, raw power. The kids have a ton of talent and the design staff makes sure they utilize all of it. Visually and musically impeccable, although the percussion as a whole and battery specifically sounded very under-powered and got completely overwhelmed in many parts by their OVER 9000-rated brass section. An obvious contender for the title right from the get-go.
MY SCORE: 96.0
MY PLACEMENT: 1st of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 96.300
ACTUAL PLACEMENT IN BANDS I SAW: 2nd of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT OVERALL: 2nd of 37
MARIAN CATHOLIC H.S., IL
Repertoire: Dance Panels (Aaron Copland), Four Factories (Carter Pann), Liminal (John Mackey), Greyed Rainbow (Eva Cassidy), Panambi (Alberto Ginastera)
Oh, a private school with a ton of money, people think. Not true. Chicago Heights is NOT a wealthy neighborhood, and Marian Catholic does an AMAZING job making sure plenty of underprivileged children can attend their school. It is one of the most diverse bands you will ever see, and Greg Bimm deserves his reputation as one of the great band directors of all time. BUT... and obviously the judges disagreed with me, but I didn't think they were very good. I sat up high for Semifinals, and the top tier bands had a clear sound that carried distinctly. Marian (and many other good-but-not-great bands, IMO) had a sound that got all muddled and mashed together by the time it reached the back of the stands. Their show design (industry destroying nature, nature rejuvenating and overwhelming industry) was pretty bare bones and (sorry!) actually kind of boring. They looked visual pretty clean, but I didn't see nearly the level of demand that I saw from other bands. I didn't even have them CLOSE to Finals, but the judges saw and heard things I did not.
MY SCORE: 88.3
MY PLACEMENT: 18th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 90.200
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 10th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 10th out of 37
THE WOODLANDS H.S., TX - "In the Garden of Cosmic Speculation"
Repertoire: Not in program
I did not take many notes for this band. They didn't have any real weaknesses. They sounded terrific and they looked great. Really, only a little ensemble fuzziness separated them from the medalists, but with competition this fierce that made all the difference.
MY SCORE: 94.5
MY PLACEMENT: 6th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 93.625
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 6th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 6th out of 37
OWASSO H.S., OK - "Radium"
Repertoire: Not in program, but included "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons
A show loosely inspired by the research of Marie Curie, Owasso had a lot of energy and effect, and the first truly rockin' drumline of the day. But they were a pretty noticeable step down from the contenders. I thought they might have been good enough for Finals, but wasn't surprised when they missed out.
MY SCORE: 91.8
MY PLACEMENT: 11th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 88.050
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 14th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 15th out of 37
ROUND ROCK H.S., TX - "Errand into the Maze"
Repertoire: Sensemaya (Silvestre Revueltas)
The classic story of the minotaur in the labyrinth, only this time with a female protagonist. The music, interestingly, was all either direct excerpts from Sensemaya or original variations on Sensemaya. Musically they were solid--c'mon, it's a Texas band after all--but visually I thought they were a bit dirty. I was actually pretty surprised they made Finals over O'Fallon and Homestead.
MY SCORE: 90.7
MY PLACEMENT: 14th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 89.800
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 11th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 12th out of 37
MARCUS H.S., TX - "PrODDigy"
Repertoire: Not in program, but I heard a lot of Paganini Variations, both Barnes and Wilby versions
Similar to The Woodlands, I didn't take a lot of notes. When a band sounds this good, you're a fool to not just stop and listen. That said, there were a couple of visual flubs and the group didn't really feel "locked in" in Semifinals.
MY SCORE: 93.1
MY PLACEMENT: 8th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 94.225
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 5th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 5th out of 37
AVON H.S., IN - "Test4ment"
Repertoire: Symphony No. 4 (David Maslanka)
Jay Webb is retiring this year after 25 years at the helm of Avon H.S. What will happen to the Marching Black & Gold? Will they be like Carmel H.S. after Richard Saucedo and maintain their level of excellence? Or will they follow the path of Lassiter H.S. post Alfred Watkins and gradually fall apart? I think the kids were so eager to win one more title for Mr. Webb they were a little tight in Semifinals. Their visual book involved a lot of panels and made for a bit of a cluttered look that I think hurt them (1st in Music GE, 2nd in Music Perf, 4th in Visual Perf, 5th in Visual GE). Still, this is obviously one of the best bands in the country.
MY SCORE: 95.3
MY PLACEMENT: 4th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 95.950
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 3rd out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 3rd out of 37
CASTLE H.S., IN - "Fly to Paradise"
Repertoire: Not in program
In 2016, Castle H.S. made Grand National Finals for the first time, led by an outstanding vocalist by the name of Sophie Rinehart. Hours after Finals, on the way back home to southern Indiana, the car Sophie was riding in was slammed into by a drunk driver. Sophie (17 years old), her father, and her grandmother were all killed. In 2017, Castle H.S. performed a show about angels, quite obviously inspired by and dedicated to Sophie Rinehart. It may sound trite, but it most definitely was not. It was, quite simply, one of the most passionate, emotional, BEAUTIFUL field shows I have ever seen. Maybe it wasn't National Champion worthy, but it was a lot better than the judges scored it, and that's saying something.
MY SCORE: 94.8
MY PLACEMENT: 5th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 92.625
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 7th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 7th out of 37
O'FALLON TOWNSHIP H.S., IL - "The White Canvas"
Repertoire: 1000 Airplanes on the Roof (Philip Glass), Night on Fire (John Mackey), Black Hole Sun (Chris Cornell)
O'Fallon covered the entire field. Literally. White tarps were unrolled until there was no green left. No yard lines. No hashmarks. Just an endless white field. This was just the start of what was easily the most original show of the entire weekend, for me. O'Fallon had a big sound for a group that looked to be only about 140 or so, and their visual book had everything but the kitchen sink. Army-style belly-crawls from spot to spot. Marching on their knees while playing. Barrel-rolls into playing positions. I really thought they earned a Finals spot, but the white canvas was an unforgiving exposure machine, and no mistake went unnoticed by the judges.
MY SCORE: 92.0
MY PLACEMENT: 10th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 89.050
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 13th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 14th out of 37
PLYMOUTH-CANTON E.P., MI - "arOund"
Repertoire: Symphony No. 1 (Gustav Mahler), Concerto for Violin (Philip Glass), Second Military Suite in F (Gustav Holst), Stormworks (Stephen Melillo), You Spin Me Round (Percy/Burns/Coy/Lever)
No notes, sorry. Nothing about this show stood out or impressed me. They were pretty obviously good enough to be in Semifinals, and pretty obviously a long way from making Finals.
MY SCORE: 86.4
MY PLACEMENT: 19th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 85.050
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 21st out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 24th out of 37
BLUE SPRINGS H.S., MO - "Burtonized"
Repertoire: Danny Elfman music from Tim Burton movies
Obviously I'm a better Effect judge than technical judge. I thought Blue Springs was surprisingly weak musically (they ended up 7th in Music Performance) but had an excellent visual performance (9th in Visual Performance). Well, they were 14th in Music Effect and 6th in Visual Effect, so I at least had part of a clue. Blue Springs was right around my Finals cut-line, but the judges had them in the clear by several points.
MY SCORE: 91.6
MY PLACEMENT: 12th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 91.375
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 8th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 8th out of 37
CENTER GROVE H.S., IN - "Light Motifs"
Repertoire: Summer from "The Four Seasons" (Antonio Vivaldi), Lento for Brass from "Dance Movements" (Philip Sparke), Red Drum (Josh Torres), Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (Benjamin Britten)
There were a whole bunch of ideas here that probably looked great on paper but just didn't quite gel in the finished product. For starters, to mask their relatively small size (~125), the entire show took place on a black, semi-circular tarp that stretched only from 30 to 30. The woodwinds all wore green jackets, the brass all in blue, the percussion all in red, and the guard all in white. Then, each section of the show featured ONLY those colors/instruments. After a brief intro, Summer was all woodwinds, Lento all brass, Red Drum all battery, and then Young Person's Guide finally brought the whole ensemble together (the front ensemble accompanied every section of the show). A neat concept, but didn't quite work. Each wind player was playing for basically only about four minutes of the show, and the visual vocabulary was extremely limited by the confined space.
MY SCORE: 84.0
MY PLACEMENT: 21st out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 87.125
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 16th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 17th out of 37
CARMEL H.S., IN - "Serenity"
Repertoire: Spiegel im Spiegel (Arvo Part), Meditation from "Thais" (Jules Massenet), original music by Richard Saucedo and Michael MacIntosh
Part and Massenet on the field? This isn't your standard marching band show. True to its name, "Serenity" is a broad, luscious musical portrait. There are no stabbing brass chords or aggressive marcato passages. The music ebbs and flows, growing and receding. While other bands go for power, Carmel puts on a clinic of absolute control. Their intonation and tone quality was just godly, the best I've ever heard from a high school marching band. Even the body movements were fluid and always leading into the next point, never stopping abruptly. The band flowed across the field like liquid. I don't know if I absorbed the full effect in the first sitting. There's just so much to digest here. But as soon as Carmel performed I knew it was a two-horse race between them and Broken Arrow.
MY SCORE: 95.8
MY PLACEMENT: 2nd out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 96.950
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 1st out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 1st out of 37
CENTERVILLE H.S., OH - "Beyond"
Repertoire: original music by Andrew Markworth, Giant Steps (John Coltrane), Hello (Adele Adkins), Beyond (Daft Punk)
This was the only note I wrote down for Centerville: "What?" They had some sort of space exploration theme to their field show, which was jarring mashed up with jazzy music. Look, we get it: you're the Centerville Jazz Band. But at some point you're going to have to realize the thematic limitations of the jazz idiom and stop trying to shoe-horn it into every possible field show concept. Anyway, their performance level was simultaneously both excellent (compared to an average band) and mediocre (compared to the top bands at this show), and the concept just didn't work for me. They were pretty obviously not going to be in contention for a Finals spot.
MY SCORE: 88.5
MY PLACEMENT: 17th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 86.700
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 17th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 18th out of 37
FLOWER MOUND H.S., TX - "Fractured Moments"
Repertoire: Facades (Philip Glass), Orient Express (Philip Sparke), On the Shoulders of Giants (Peter Graham), I Need Thee Every Hour (Annie Hawks/Robert Lowrey), Antipanico (Stephen Melillo)
An avalanche of white and gray hits the field. White pants. White/Silver/Gray jackets in a stained-glass motif. White shakos and plumes. White props. The show starts completely devoid of color. And then, midway through, they add color. And more color. AND MORE. First the jackets come off, revealing dazzling bold colors in that stained glass motif, by section. Saxes were yellow and gold. Trumpets red. Percussion green. Etc. Then the shakos are replaced by secondary shakos (hidden until this point) that have large, jagged blocks of color attached to the top, matching each sections jacket color. By the show's end there is every color of the rainbow on the field in an eye-dazzling display. This was by far my favorite visual program of the entire event. They play pretty darn good, too. Flower Mound had the best soloists, IMO. Both their sax soloist and trumpet soloist were obscenely good.
MY SCORE: 95.6
MY PLACEMENT: 3rd out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 95.800
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 4th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 4th out of 37
NORTH HARDIN H.S., KY - "From Darkness"
Repertoire: From a Dark Millennium (Joseph Schwantner), Symphony in One Movement (Samuel Barber), Escape from "The Little Prince" (Hans Zimmer), original music by Ben Lee
I took no notes and don't remember this show at all. I guess that's insulting, but... well, there it is. Sorry.
MY SCORE: 84.9
MY PLACEMENT: 20th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 85.375
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 20th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 22nd out of 37
HOMESTEAD H.S., IN - "Of Fire and Ice"
Repertoire: The Divine Comedy (Robert W. Smith), original music by Kent Klee
The highlight of this show was the ice-skating rink. Yes, you read that right. On the front sideline to the left of the pit, Homestead had a little soloists bandstand that was front by a small (10-yd diameter max) ice skating rink. And yes, they had an ice skater soloist from the guard. That might be a first. I thought they played really well, though I did notice some visual problems. Still, I thought they were a safe finalist and was pretty surprised they didn't make Finals.
MY SCORE: 92.7
MY PLACEMENT: 9th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 89.500
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 12th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 13th out of 22
WALTON H.S., GA - "J is for Jack"
Repertoire: Night Steam (Michael Daugherty), The Jazz Police (Gordon Goodwin), Magic Beans (James Pluth), Trittico (Vaclav Nelhybel)
Jack o' Lanterns, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jumping Jacks, Jacks (the game with the caltrops and the bouncy ball)... what thematically connects all of these? No idea! But that was their show!
MY SCORE: 83.2
MY PLACEMENT: 22nd out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 82.900
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 22nd out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 28th out of 37
DOBYNS-BENNETT H.S., TN
Repertoire: Eden (Sarah Brightman), The Pines of Rome (Ottorino Respighi), Merry Mount Suite (Howard Hanson)
DB is another very large, very loud, powerful band. They sounded great and they moved a lot. I liked them, I just thought a few bands were better. They were right on my Finals cut-line, so I wasn't that surprised they advanced to the Finals.
MY SCORE: 90.9
MY PLACEMENT: 13th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 90.525
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 9th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 9th out of 37
WINSTON CHURCHILL H.S., TX - "lOZt"
Repertoire: The Rite of Spring (Igor Stravinsky), Concerto for Orchestra (Bela Bartok), Creep (Radiohead), Wine Dark Sea (John Mackey)
Yet another Wizard of Oz inspired show, Churchill at least had the creativity to make this show about (I think) the WIZARD getting lost and stuck in Oz, and his attempts to get home. Granted, this is an insanely high level to compare them to, but Churchill was the weakest performers of the Texas bands in the competition. The played pretty well, but there were visual issues and the total package wasn't nearly as "tight" as the other top bands. Their performance level was pretty clearly a few spots short of Finals.
MY SCORE: 89.6
MY PLACEMENT: 16th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 87.450
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 15th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 16th out of 37
LAWRENCE TOWNSHIP SCHOOLS, IN - "What's in a Name?"
The Lawrence Township band told the story of Rumplestiltskin with a nice twist: their male vocal soloist played Rumple as sort of a mix of Prince and James Brown. Very extroverted, scenery-chewing showmanship. They needed him, too, to help draw attention away from the band's modest size and talent limitations. This show had the design to make Finals but the execution just wasn't there.
MY SCORE: 90.1
MY PLACEMENT: 15th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 85.550
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 19th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 21st out of 37
WILLIAM MASON H.S., OH - "Graidation: The Music of Percy Grainger"
Repertoire: Harkstow Grange, Molly on the Shore, Irish Tune from County Derry, The Warriors
Here it is. My biggest whiff of the whole event. Mason finished 3rd in 2016, so I was eager to see their show. Perhaps based on that I gave them the benefit of the doubt on all the warning bells that went off when I watched them. The first warning bell: the show just doesn't work. Flower Mound did the "color" theme infinitely better, and the music of Grainger is tough to adapt to the field for an entire show. The second warning bell: their brass was absent. The brass barely played and was not strong when they did. This was a woodwind heavy show. I thought their woodwinds were excellent, but the brass (and to a lesser extent, battery percussion) didn't add a whole lot to the final product. The third warning bell: I thought their visual program was excellent. That's a problem because I *really* don't know what I'm talking about with regards to visual. The judges killed them in the visual caption. In the end, my score is about three points too high, I really should have put them nearer the cut-line for my rankings. When I saw they missed Finals, I still figured they would be 13th or 14th. But man, the judges destroyed them. 20th? Ouch.
MY SCORE: 93.9
MY PLACEMENT: 7th out of 22
ACTUAL SCORE: 85.775
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, SEEN: 18th out of 22
ACTUAL PLACEMENT, OVERALL: 20th out of 37
By this time I had a headache and a bladder ache and a neck cramp and a sore behind from the hard plastic seats. I cut out of Semifinals early to rest up for the evening's Finals. Apologies to Fort Mill H.S., SC; Fishers H.S., IN; and Mililani H.S., HI; I did not see your shows either.
Finals thoughts will be posted tomorrow or this weekend.
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