Brassed Off

The up-and-coming St. Louis Brass Band gives some lip to more established groups

May 21, 2003 at 4:00 am
When was the last time you laid your ears on the swell sounds of the euphonium? Or the mellifluous melodies of the flügelhorn? Those are just two of the more obscure instruments that make up a traditional British-style brass band -- which also includes cornets, tenor horns, English baritones, trombones and tubas -- and one of the best British brass bands in the world resides, believe it or not, right here at home.

The 30-member St. Louis Brass Band has only been in existence since 1998 and has already snagged the brass ring (ha-ha) at the North American Brass Band Association Honors Championship twice -- once in the band's first year. At this year's championship, held last month in Little Rock, the band placed third; first place was taken by a Norwegian outfit whose members had memorized all their parts and whipped up choreography for the event (in brass-band competitions, groups traditionally don't march but sit). What the heck was a European band doing at a North American competition anyway? Says Gary Lipsutz, the St. Louis Brass Band's bass-trombone player, its administrative vice president and a lawyer when he finds the time, "That's what we've been asking, too." Still, judges at the competition commended the STLBB as "brilliant, impressive technically and musically," with an "overall excellent performance."

All this excellence can be heard once more this month at the band's season-finale concert, taking place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 24, at Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church, located in Creve Coeur at 12928 Ladue Road. Tickets are $12 general admission and $7 for students, seniors and children ages 18 and under; you can order them by calling 314-995-4955 or by visiting the band's Web site, www. stlbb. org. The concert will present a wide variety of booming masterpieces, including Rossini's "William Tell Overture" (a.k.a. the theme from The Lone Ranger), a couple of John Philip Sousa marches, "Danny Boy" and an original composition by Dave Brubeck.

Slated to perform solos at the concert are band president Jeff Binns, who holds a doctorate in physics but is also considered one of the world's best euphonium players, and principal cornet player John Korak, music-department chair at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, who will lend his lips to the intense Rimsky-Korsakov workout "Flight of the Bumblebee." (Should you miss the concert -- or should the concert whet your appetite for more brass now, more brass now! -- the band recently released its first CD, appropriately titled Strike Up the Band and featuring works from Les Misérables and Madame Butterfly and songs by George Gershwin.)

If the makeup of the St. Louis Brass Band sounds particularly quirky and a little bit ragtag -- perhaps even fertile ground for Christopher Guest's next mockumentary? -- that's because it is. "This is the greatest bunch of folks you'd ever want to meet," gushes Lipsutz. "We have trombonists who are lawyers, retired St. Louis Symphony musicians, teachers, professors. Our music director [Colin Holman, a native Brit who picked up his Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Kansas] edits Brass Band Bridge, a magazine of North American brass bands. We love this stuff. It's more fun than most people could ever imagine."