Concert bands bring us back to old American tradition

Arts / Article

The Greater Miami Symphonic Band.

Independence Day is a splendid occasion for a good old-fashioned cookout, with hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, and all the usual patriotic gustatory suspects.

But it might be that at some point during the day, you find yourself pretty much done with the eating part of the festivities until it’s time for fireworks, even though you’re still feeling plenty patriotic despite the full stomach. That’ll be the time for a run over to the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables for a concert of patriotic music by the Greater Miami Symphonic Band (followed by fireworks).

It’s always worth noting that the symphony orchestra, with the exception of Uriah Hill’s founding in 1842 of the New York Philharmonic, is a relative latecomer to the American concert scene, most of the major ensembles being founded in the 1880s and thereafter. It was the concert band that was the staple of American concert life before orchestras took hold, and even after they were eclipsed, entertainers such as John Philip Sousa were appearing with his band all over the country up until the 1930s.

Today there are many community concert bands like the Greater Miami Symphonic all over the country, and they bring us back to a time when every little town had a gazebo in the square where bands would play on special occasions. There is a large and distinct literature of music that has been written for such bands, and the Fourth is when we get to hear some of it.

Friday night’s concert is almost entirely red, white and blue, as you would expect. Even the playing of the national anthem has special significance this year, since the poem was written 200 years ago during the War of 1812. The program, which will be conducted by Robert Longfield, includes such ceremonial pieces as John Williams’s Liberty Fanfare, Stephen Bulla’s Armed Forces Salute and the finale from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (which has nothing whatever to do with the United States, but has established itself in our national tradition since Arthur Fiedler began conducting it with his Boston Pops for the Fourth in the early 1970s).

The band will be joined by the North Star Singers from Miami-Dade College’s North Campus for tunes including Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” There also will be a medley called Ol’ Blue Eyes of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, selections from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (set in the U.S. of 1912, a good time for concert bands), and a specially commissioned medley of movie themes called Hollywood!, arranged by Warren Barker.

And since you can’t have a band concert without marches, there are a bunch of them, including four by Henry Fillmore, one of the country’s best march writers, and a legendary teacher for nearly 20 years at the University of Miami (he died in 1956).

Fillmore’s “Americans We,” “Miami March,” “His Honor,” and “America Exultant” are on the program along with E.E. Bagley’s “National Emblem,” and there are two marches by Sousa: “Washington Post,” written in honor of the newspaper 125 years ago, and the 1896 composition that became the official march of the U.S: “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which really is a terrific piece of march writing even though its familiarity leads us to overlook that. [Here’s the band playing “His Honor” last February at Pinecrest Gardens.]

That’s a substantial selection of concert band favorites for the holiday, and it should be a nice evening of traditionally oriented fun. The concert begins at 7 p.m. and is free; fireworks follow at 9 p.m. Patrons are urged to bring food, drinks, folding chairs and whatever else you might need to make your Fourth night a memorable one. For more information, visit