by Fred Mbesi
The Chicago Staff Band’s (CSB) annual Sounds of the Seasons concert has been a long-standing tradition for many. In its 101st installment, the “Band with a Sacred Message” continued to showcase musical excellence with spiritual vitality as its mission.
The annual concert was a landmark event as the first with newly appointed Bandmaster Brett Tolcher at the helm. He skillfully took the CSB through Steven Ponsford’s scintillating opener Let There be Light which aptly set the tone for what was in store and why the audience gathered—worship!
Following a rousing welcome from Territorial Commander Commissioner Brad Bailey, Andrew Wainwright’s My Soul, Rejoice introduced the first soloist of the night, Principal Cornet Beth Malovance. Featuring a delay pedal, the piece did a wonderful job of displaying Beth’s virtuosity, range and breath control. The band followed with “Christ is All,” the first of two items by Martin Cordner. With a refreshing setting on the eponymous hymn in a style reminiscent of John Williams, it was well-received by the audience. The three opening items showed the band to be in good form.
Emmy Award-winning artist and “The Voice” winner Jordan Smith was the guest for the evening and brought a high level of musicality to the event. He opened his first set with an original song, “Only Love,” which reflected on the power love can offer in dark and difficult times. From the onset, the audience was captivated by Smith’s vocal aptitude. A precious time of corporate worship followed; the succulent voices of Smith and the congregation singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” filled the halls of Edman Chapel. What a wonderful moment! For the close of his first set, Smith wowed the audience with his dexterity in “Great You Are.” As an added bonus, the CSB accompanied him on an emotionally stirring rendition of Rick Vale’s “Artist of My Soul.” It was amazing how naturally Smith’s voice created a beautiful blend with the band and piano played elegantly by Caroline Wajda. A preview of coming attractions in the latter half of the program, this collaboration was a highlight for many in attendance.
The territorial commander, who emceed the program, shared reflections on God’s faithfulness, which was the perfect tie-in to the CSB’s next offering: Martin Cordner’s Semper Fidelis. This extended work was well-handled by the band, complete with cascading triplet figures, carefully crafted phrasing and great solo work from Beth Malovance and Principal Euphonium Tom Hanton. The piece featured two contemporary worship songs: “Everlasting God” by Brenton Brown/Ken Riley and “This I Believe (The Creed)” by Ben Fielding/Matt Crocker, with references to the aforementioned “Great is Thy Faithfulness” sprinkled throughout.
The first half of the program was brought to a rousing conclusion with 23 young brass players and percussionists from Champaign County, Moline and Decatur, Ill. They were met with enthusiastic applause as they presented William Himes’ “Classics in Brass,” accompanied by the CSB. Special thanks to North and Central Illinois Divisional Music Director Peter Kim and his leadership team for their investment in the lives of these young people. Bandmaster Tolcher expressed the growing need for music and arts programs and leaders across the territory as a great avenue to win souls for Christ.
The program’s second half opened with Paul Sharman’s Star of Wonder, a new, bright and driving arrangement featuring the carols “The First Noel” and “We Three Kings.” This was followed by music of such beauty—“O Magnum Mysterium” (“O Great Mystery”). Control was the name of the game here, and the CSB rose to the occasion in this deceptively difficult piece.
Jordan Smith then returned for a second set featuring two songs of contrasting styles. The first was a big-band setting of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” which again showcased Smith’s wide vocal range and tasteful scatting. Shifting to a more reflective ballad, Smith presented David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner’s “Grown-Up Christmas List” which expressed hope for a better world communicated gracefully by the vocalist.
Commissioner Bailey approached the podium to announce the next CSB soloist, A/Captain Paul Bowyer on the Eb Bass! Donning a white tunic and jet-black top hat, he presented Sandy Smith’s solo and variations on the Christmas classic, “Frosty the Snowman,” dedicating his impressive rendition to his wife, A/Captain Jennifer Bowyer, in honor of their 33rd anniversary. His extended cadenza highlighted his technical prowess and creativity, throwing in quotes of songs including “You are my sunshine” and “Hail to the victors!” An honorable mention goes to percussionist Sam Leka, whose lively and measured approach to the trap set guided both band and listeners alike through the different styles the piece had to offer.
Kevin Norbury’s Gaudete! was the most technically demanding item of the evening. This overture brought together the Christmas carols “Coventry Carol,” “Gaudete” and “Unto us a Boy is Born” in a somewhat-unconventional style. High-octane technical passages from every section were on display, resulting in a thrilling and focused performance.
Jordan Smith returned to the stage once more, this time joined by a 43-piece community choir formed of Salvationists from the neighboring areas. Under the skillful direction of Wheaton College’s own Assistant Professor Donte Ford, Smith and the chorus joined in presenting a new setting of “All is Well” and leading the congregation in “Joy to the World.”
The evening came to a close as CSB alumni came to the stage and joined in singing the “Choral Benediction” under the direction of former CSB Bandmaster William Himes. Congratulations to Bandmaster Tolcher and the CSB on a spectacular evening of quality music-making and worshipping the Lord.