ROBERT-BRUCE SMITH: The Winds, the rain and a surprise

TUPELO – Fourteen species of wind instruments (and 85 players) congregated onstage Saturday at the Civic Auditorium, as the Tupelo Symphony Winds saluted 2004's opening weeks with the brave sounds of brass, woodwinds, percussion – and an amazing surprise.

Called “Trumpeting in the New Year” and directed by David East, the TSO Winds' annual performance drew an impressive crowd, especially on such a rainy winter's night.

It marked the debut of East, who for many years was affiliated with the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra both trombone player and personnel manager, as the ensemble'sguest conductor.

In his daytime career he is director of bands for Itawamba Community College, participates widely in area musical life, and conducts the jazz orchestra for Amory's annual “Stars Over Mississippi” event.

The roots of modern marching bands and wind orchestras go back to the ancient world, when drums and loud, trumpet-like instruments encouraged soldiers in battle and frightened enemies with their wild melodies.

As rival European armies contended during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, their efforts were cheered on by small ensembles of organized musicians, which by 1700 had evolved into regimental military bands

In the 18th century, German ingenuity first systematized the whole business of official music making. They called their bands “Harmoniemusik” (“serenade ensembles”) and created a tradition of military concerts that soon spread across the continent.

By the late 1700s, a standard military band might consist of three oboes, two clarinets, two French horns, two bassoons and one trumpet. At this time, most brass instruments were still too crude for public presentation, but by the 1800s they joined the woodwinds to create an even more brilliant effect.

When not occupied with military matters, regimental bands were much in demand for civilian occasions, giving everyday citizens a taste for fancy uniforms and stirring band music that continues to this day.

It was the French Revolution in 1789 that encouraged formation of the first massed wind ensembles. In a great surge of post-revolution enthusiasm, the French staged elaborate outdoor pageants and hired lots of unemployed musicians to make them solemn and deeply impressive.

Stirred by these events, visitors carried the wind orchestra idea far and wide. Today, almost every major city has one, usually affiliated with the local symphony.

The TSO Winds began not long after our symphony was founded in 1971 by Wade Lagrone

Saturday night's program was a well-chosen mixture of serious and popular showpieces for large wind ensemble. John Philip Sousa, the man who truly popularized wind orchestras, was represented by his stirring “March of the Wolverines” and by a delightfully named slow ragtime, “Willow Blossoms.”

Another mighty wind instrument, the pipe organ, was alluded to in Johann Sebastian Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, originally written for organ and beautifully transcribed for wind orchestra by Donald Hunsberger.

Musical standout of the evening was esteemed Brown University composer Ron Nelson's “Rocky Point Holiday,” a witty, fiendishly difficult, sometimes astonishingly beautiful tribute to musical styles of the 20th century.

The “surprise” hinted by David East to Daily Journal entertainment writer M. Scott Morris in his Dec. 16 story about this concert turned out to be a genuine sonic extravaganza.

After a brief encore of Broadway musical favorites, East led his musicians in the opening bars of “76 Trombones.”

Suddenly the audience was conscious of an exciting increase in sound, coming from all directions.

Positioning themselves precisely down both side aisles and behind the audience came the uniformed symphonic bands of Itawamba Community College and Tupelo High School. – approximately 160 musicians in all – joining with the music onstage.

For a few thrilling minutes TSO patrons enjoyed the rare sonic treat of complete envelopment in a wall of brilliant sound from more than 245 wind instruments and percussion.

When really playing well, good wind ensembles have the amazing ability to communicate their enjoyment directly to an audience. A standing ovation on Saturday confirmed this had indeed taken place once more.

Robert-Bruce Smith is a Tupelo resident who reviews arts performances.