Rippling cascades of silvered tones erupt with tumultuous force. The thunderous echoes fade to reveal a single shimmering voice — a brass voice — with the same quality as an operatic tenor.
This is Kansas City’s Fountain City Brass Band, a 30-piece ensemble of passionate brass players and percussionists.
Last month they won their fifth championship title in the North American Brass Band Association Championships and this past November earned their seventh championship title at the U.S. Open Brass Band Championships.
They are positioned 32nd in this month’s world rankings, making them the top U.S. band — right here in Kansas City.
Founder and artistic director Lee Harrelson, assistant professor at Missouri Western State University, is understandably proud.
“Brass playing, right now, in Kansas City, is as high as it is just about anywhere,” he said. “There’s nothing on the level that the Fountain City Brass Band is putting out as a brass ensemble anywhere in the country. I can say that quite confidently. It is a unique thing that we have here and something the city can be proud of.”
In 2007, they were the first American group ever invited to the All England International Masters Competition. They returned in 2011 and Harrelson was named best soloist, the first time an American had ever taken that title.
They won the Scottish Open in 2009, the first win for an American group in the history of the event.
Kansas City’s next opportunity to hear this award-winning ensemble is Saturday, performing the “New World Sketches” program, described as Americana-themed without the patriotic flair, at the Bell Cultural Events Center of MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe.
They will also have performances June 25 in St. Joseph and June 26 in Joplin, Mo., before heading south — way south. This July, they’ll tour New Zealand and Australia, competing in the New Zealand National Brass Band Championship.
Roger Oyster, principal trombonist with the Kansas City Symphony, will serve as guest conductor for the tour, as he did for their recent win at the North American Brass Band Association.
“He’s such a great musician and so passionate when he conducts,” said Harrelson.
Oyster, in an email, was equally enthusiastic: “It’s been my great honor to conduct the FCBB … (the ensemble) is one of Kansas City’s best musical assets. I anticipate they will be champions on both hemispheres in the same year.”
A decade of music
Harrelson started the group in spring 2002, with no prior experience in the genre.
While a graduate student studying euphonium at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, he accompanied a friend to the North American Brass Band Association Championships in Cincinnati and was inspired.
He returned to Kansas City, walked into his professor’s office and declared: “I no longer have use for woodwinds.” Within a week he had formulated a plan to start the ensemble, with the inaugural concert that September.
The British-style brass band is a relative newcomer in the American brass world, more familiar with marching band and brass choirs. In the early 19th century, village brass bands in industrial England were a primary source for community entertainment. The genre has become a highly competitive and demanding art form, requiring all-round virtuosic playing.
Though many works are written specifically for the genre, playing orchestral transcriptions is traditional, with the brass players serving the roles of strings and woodwinds. Therefore, they develop a highly nuanced sound concept, more technically and lyrically demanding than typical performance requirements, with a wider dynamic range, a deeper color palette, more variety of articulations and vibrato, and greater demands for solo playing.
As an American band “we’ve added some things to the (British) brass band genre,” explained Harrelson, citing a growing catalog of compositions and arrangements as well as the inclusion of a Kansas City tradition: jazz.
“We can actually turn the band into sounding like a big band.”
Harrelson credits the jazz expertise of music director Joe Parisi: “He’s been able to fuse those two traditions.”
Fountain City’s all-volunteer membership includes college faculty, professional performers and graduate students. The group also includes an authentic link to the British-style lineage.
Harrelson’s wife, Helen Tyler Harrelson, was born in Yorkshire, England. Brought up in the culture, she earned a performance degree in baritone horn from the Royal Northern College of Music and performed with groups such as the Black Dyke Mills Band and Foden’s Band (currently ranked second and fourth in the world), before joining Fountain City.
With her expertise, she founded the Fountain City Youth Band Academy in 2008, an integral part of the organization’s growth. Members of three youth bands, aged 12 to 21, come from all over the metro area and surrounding cities. Their season finale concert is April 26 at the Bell Center.
Brass bands have a tradition of intergenerational education. Members of the adult band direct the ensembles and coach the students in sectionals and one-on-one.
“Kids want to learn and teachers want to help them. It’s a labor of love and a whole lot of fun,” said Helen Tyler Harrelson.
The youth bands also travel and compete, but she stressed that it was about the learning experience and teamwork, not trophies (though they’ve earned those, too).
“(Their first) trip gave them a real sense of unity. Up until that point, we had the most excited and inspired brass players and percussion players in the area, but they hadn’t really bonded because they were from a lot of different schools. The trip… cemented their friendship. They weren’t just playing for themselves, they were playing for each other.”
Fountain City Brass Band continues to improve.
“The idea is just to keep the band progressing as an ensemble and to grow an audience here in Kansas City. I think that’s crucial,” said Lee Harrelson. “The city has one of the finest brass ensembles in the world right here.”
While the genre and the ensemble are relatively unknown locally, they are establishing a legacy: “We want to contribute to the over-all brass experience.”
Saturday and Sunday
Fountain City Brass Band presents “New World Sketches” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at Bell Cultural Events Center at MidAmerica Nazarene University, 2030 E. College Way, Olathe. Tickets are $5-$20 through Bell Center (box office: 913-971-3636).
On Sunday, April 26, Fountain City Youth Brass Academy presents its “Finale Concert” at 3 p.m. at the Bell Center at MidAmerica Nazarene University. The performance is free and open to the public.