Friday night the Harvard University Band pulled up its Soldiers' Field stakes and rolled into Sanders Theatre for its first formal concert since 1962.
The program was in Harvard's best "radical intellectual" tradition. Of the eight compositions listed only one, the Vadres March of Johannes Hanssen, dated from the nineteenth century. The remaining seven ranged from Ralph Vaughn William's Folk Song Suite, written about 1920, to the just-completed Emblems of Aaron Copland.
The opening Celebration Overture of Paul Creston was a truly "joyful noise," but it was also a controlled noise. With large numbers of its football-season members weeded out, the band sounded less like a band than an expanded wind section of an orchestra.
There were some superb performances by the solo flute and obe. Their ensemble work with the solo clarinet in the trio of Gustav Holst's Hammersmith Prelude and Scherze was perhaps the most musically sensitive part of the concert.
The trumpets in general were very precise and clear, although they tended to get sloppy in the second half of the program. The clarinets, at first sounding like orchestral woodwinds, grew less clear and careful with their tone, and gradually approached that "sick" sound that only a score or two of clarinets in unison can produce.
Only the percussion section was consistently attentive and spirited throughout the concert, especially the timpanist and the snare drummer, who managed to make the most pedestrian rhythmic punctuation sound fresh and vigorous.
James Walker deserves much of the credit for the precision of the Band's performance. Throughout the concert, his conducting was energetic and exact. Even in the most rhythmically aberrant sections of the Creston, Copland, or Hindemith works, he was able not simply to keep the Band together, but to present the various crossrhythms and syncopations with the utmost clarity.
But Walker was more than a metronome; his conducting was sensitive as well as precise. He had an uncanny feel for what was most important in the music. His attention to dynamics was meticulous, and he had the Band produce some fantastic effects by dropping down suddenly where any hack might have let it go blaring on.
Still, for a formal concert, the Band was annoyingly informal and casual. When they weren't themselves involved, the Band members' attentiveness to the music was rather poor. In the Copland work, many of them were obviously bored.
The Band may, as it claims, have two faces, but it has not yet learned to be confidently schizophrenic.