By Lynn Robbins
Before Ewing resident Stephen Arthur Allen, a native of Great Britain, formed the Princeton Brass Band in 2004, he wasn’t sure if Americans would take to the music. He soon discovered he had nothing to worry about.
“People are bowled over by how warm the band sounds. One person told me, ‘You saved me a trip to Carnegie Hall.’ Audiences are elated and inspired,” Allen said.
The PBB is a British style brass band. What gives the sound of this type of band its richness and warmth said Allen, is the conical shape of the instruments, starting narrow and gradually fanning out. Created by the inventor of the saxophone Aldolphe Sax, the instruments include the coronet, the fugal horn, the tenor horn, the baritone euphonium, the e–flat base and the b–flat base. The trombones, being cylindrical in shape, are the exception and provide a harder sound in contrast to the rest of the band.
Allen’s 30-piece band plays a wide variety of musical styles including classical, jazz and pop. Band members hail from towns in and around Mercer County, and some come from Lancaster and Philadelphia; and West Chester, N.Y.
Conducted by Allen, the band is an ensemble-in-residence at Rider University where he teaches several courses as an associate professor. In April, his band won the North American Brass Band Association championship playing against eight bands in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Allen is also a visiting professor at Rutgers University, where he heads a euphonium and chamber music studio. One of Allen’s dreams is that every university will someday have its own brass band.
What most people don’t know, Allen said, is that brass bands were the main form of American music through WWI and to some extent WWII. “Brass bands were the iPod of the day,” Allen said.
Brass bands are a part of the American and English heritage. This is something we need to reclaim and recover, Allen said. The bands evolved in the United Kingdom in the 19th century and became part of working class culture. Many were funded by the industries where the employees worked, and were often funded by the employees as well.
To get a sense of the history and passion behind brass bands, Allen recommends the movie, Brassed Off, starring Ewan McGregor and Pete Postlethwaite.
In reading The Music Men: An Illustrated History of Brass Bands, Allen discovered that Louis Armstrong began his career in a brass band, not a jazz band.
The Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, were influenced by brass band music. Both the album and the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are examples of how rooted this music is in British culture.
McCartney’ grandfather was in a band and played the e–flat tuba. At the same time the Beatles were creating the White Album, McCartney wrote a brass band piece called “Thingumybob.” The PBB played the first North American performance of the piece at a Rider concert.
Allen discovered the benefits of playing music as a child growing up in England. He had developed asthma, and his doctor suggested that his breathing might be improved if he started playing a wind instrument. He took up the euphonium, found that he thoroughly enjoyed it, and became so good that he went on to win competitions and to play with well known brass bands.
Allen’s masters and doctoral studies at Oxford University (2003) centered on the operas of Benjamin Britten for which he is a world authority today. In 2010, Allen published a new verbal musical analysis designed to open up “serious music” to a wider public.
In addition to the Princeton Brass Band, Allen founded two Rutgers bands and conducts a band from Pennsylvania, the Lancaster British Brass Band. In an interview after accepting his position with the band, he was asked to comment on the music.
“It gets to you [in] some way. The word spirit comes from breath, actually using breath, and this might sound a little new-agey, but these bands sort of take your breath away,” Allen said.
Allen, the current president of NABBA, said that winning the association’s championship this April was among the most exciting events of his life.
For the sake of objectivity, the contest was decided upon by six judges who sat behind a screen. They could hear the music but couldn’t see the band. They knew the music they were judging but not the people playing it.
The Princeton Brass Band has several upcoming concerts this year. You can see their summer concert Wednesday, July 24, 7:30 p.m. at the Nicholas Auditorium, Mason Gross School of Music, Douglass Campus, Rutgers University; and their Christmas concert on Sunday, December 22, at 2 p.m. in Princeton’s Richardson auditorium (book early). They will perform a Halloween concert at Rider in late October.