Western Corps Connection 2016

Western Corps Connection (2016)userpic=drumcorpsAs you are probably aware by now, I write up every live performance that I go to (and even some filmed performances). Our Sunday evening experience is no exception: we drove out to Riverside for the Western Corps Connection (FB), our annual drum corps show. For those unfamiliar with drum corps — think of it as a musical competition. Here’s a summary of the history from Wikipedia:

Beginning after World War I through the 1970s, corps and competitions were often sponsored by the VFW, Scout troops, churches, the Royal Canadian Legion, and the American Legion. Owing to many of these groups’ roots, corps were traditionally militaristic. By the late 1960s, many corps wanted more creative freedom and better financial compensation than was offered by their sponsoring organizations. Some felt the prize-money structures, based on competitive placement, were not fairly compensating all corps for their appearances. Additionally, some felt the current judging rules were stifling musical and theatrical possibilities. At the peak of North American drum corps participation (with perhaps a thousand active corps in the U.S. and nearly as many in Canada), several corps decided to “unionize”, as stated by Don Warren (founder of the Cavaliers). They formed their own organizations, which ultimately led to the formation of DCA in 1965 and DCI in 1972. By this time, many corps had already lost their church or community sponsors.

For the corps that remained, longer travel times were necessary to attend the shrinking numbers of contests, further adding to the financial and time demands on the organizations and their individual members. At the same time costs for the increasingly complex field shows mounted and creative and instructional demands rose leading many competitive corps to falter and become inactive. By the late 1990s only a fraction of the corps that existed in the 60s and 70s remained, although several new corps, some of which have become very successful, did start up along the way.

Non-competitive classic-style corps (often and sometimes inaccurately known as “alumni corps”) saw a renaissance beginning in the mid-1980s and they continue to organize in the 21st Century; members often remain vigilant about the traditions and virtues of the drum corps activity before the advent of electronic technology, band instruments, dancing and singing.

Freed from the traditional and more-restrictive judging rules of the late 1960s, corps began making innovative changes such as the use of Bb brass instruments, wide-ranging tempos, intricate asymmetric drill formations, elaborate guard costumes and props, and the use of stationary orchestral percussion instruments. A common criticism of drum corps is that it has become too similar to marching band, but although the two activities are very similar they are still clearly distinct. A few corps still utilize the traditional G Bugle which is very rarely found in DCI marching units. The competitive season for drum corps is in the summer rather than fall, with auditions and initial ensemble rehearsals beginning as early as late October of the previous year. The top-tier competitive corps are often very complex and more professional than the average marching band, as members in full-time touring units have no distractions outside of their organization during the season and membership is achieved only through highly competitive auditions.

My interest in Drum Corps comes from my wife, just has her tolerance interest in theatre comes from me. She marched in a youth band in the early 1970s (Royal Cavaliers (FB) out of Van Nuys), and was in competitions with some of the classic corps of the era — Anaheim Kingsman (FB),  the Troopers (FB), Madison Scouts (FB), Santa Clara Vanguard (FB), Concord Blue Devils (FB). The sport (and, yes, it is a competitive sport) has changed quite a bit since the 1970s, but it still emphasizes musical excellence, precision, and art. You can learn more at the Drum Corps International (DCI) (FB) website.

I like to describe the competitions as follows: take approximately 120 young adults aged up to 21. Divide them roughly into thirds: brass, percussion, and guard, with a small number in a front pit. The brass primarily march with trumpets and similar horns; the percussion have various drums, and the guard is for visual effects using all sorts of props, but usually including sabres, marching rifles, tall flags, and other things that can be tossed. A small group will be in a pit in front with larger drums, xylophone type percussion, and more recently, keyboards, sound boards, and even a bass guitar. Heresy! Now have these kids develop a 15 minute show and put them in competition. Judging is based on general effect, visual, and music. DCI uses the scoring:

Total possible score: 100
General Effect 40 Visual 30 Music 30
General Effect 1 20 Proficiency 20 Brass 20
General Effect 2 20 Analysis 10 Analysis 10
Color guard 10 Percussion 10
Total ÷ 2 Total ÷ 2

The general effect score includes an assessment of precision.

Now that you know what corps is, on to the show. The Western Corps Connection is one of the oldest shows on the west coast, and is hosted by the Riverside Community College band. It is typically one of the last shows in California, so it gets the most mature program within driving distance of L.A.  There is typically a large number of open class (i.e., not full contingent) corps, and some of the top western World Class corps, including some visiting from outside the west.

Neither my wife nor I are corps experts, especially in the new style. She tends to view corps based on her experiences in the early days; she’s not that enamored of some of the new changes. I tend to judge corps based on my theatre experience: the quality of the music, the accessibility of the music, the effect on the crowd, and (to me, most importantly) are they able to tell a story, or are they just performing a jazz concert. Neither of us tend to be attuned to the tricks and techniques that might wow the judges, but go over the heads of the audience.

I’ll note that this year, I also wasn’t in the most receptive mood going in. Before we left I had, shall we say, a disagreement, with my daughter (who has moved back into our house after graduating UC Berkeley… and developing her own housing style). She had been doing her usual passive-aggressive approach to cleaning up our house (i.e., guilting us, and then just moving our stuff where she thought it should be), which had resulted in my yelling and tripping over stuff (leaving me bruised). A late lunch from Smashburger — specifically the fries — was also making itself known through massive indigestion. I was also dealing with an allergy attack from her fostering two dogs over the Fourth of July weekend. This meant that during some of the early open class corps I was less attentive on the program.

The following Open Class corps (nee Division B) were in competition ([final placement: score]):

  1. Impulse (FB) (Buena Park, CA) [4 : 46.95]
  2. Incognito (FB) (Garden Grove, CA) [5 : 39.5]
  3. The Watchmen (FB) (Riverside, CA) [3: 47.5]
  4. Golden Empire (FB) (Bakersfield, CA) [2: 52.95]
  5. Gold (FB) (San Diego, CA) [1 : 54.45]

I recall that there was much more use of vocal sound effects than I had seen before, and that I liked both Impulse’s program and Golden Empire’s program. However, none had music or a show that stuck with me.

During the intermission, there was performance from the Edmonton Sabres Marching Band (FB), a marching band for children aged 6 to 14. from Edmonton, Alberta. Here is there performance from their FB live feed.

The following World Class corps (nee Division A) were in competition:

  1. Pacific Crest (FB) (Diamond Bar, CA) [6 : 60.25]
  2. Mandarins (FB) (Sacramento, CA) [5: 62.65]
  3. The Academy (FB) (Tempe, AZ) [4: 66.4]
  4. Blue Knights (FB) (Denver, CO) [3 :67.05]
  5. Madison Scouts (FB) (Madison, WI) [2 : 69.85]
  6. Concord Blue Devils (FB) (Concord, CA) [1 : 77.55]

We didn’t have Santa Clara Vanguard (FB) this year ( 😡 ), and neither Blue Devils nor Vanguard appear to be marching their B or C corps anymore (at least in Southern California).

In this division, the shows were more memorable.

  • Pacific Crest (FB) had an interesting show with a train theme — they ended up building railroad tracks. Although I enjoyed the visual effects, the music itself didn’t stick in my head.
  • The Mandarins (FB) show was visually nice, but the music didn’t connect.
  • The Academy (FB) did a real interesting show called “Drum Corpse Bride” that told the story of a marriage, using a lot of accessible music and really neat visual effects. I liked their show quite a bit.
  • Blue Knights (FB) had a technically proficient show, but the music just didn’t connect and the visuals told no story.
  • Madison Scouts (FB) had an excellent show, building upon the music of Jesus Christ Superstar to tell the story of Judas. Powerful sound, powerful performance. One of our favorites; we think they were robbed in the scoring.
  • Blue Devils (FB) did what Devils do best: excellent musicianship and a performance that hits what the judges are looking for, but that doesn’t connect with a story for the audience.

Overall, I noticed much more use of the marching musicians for visual effect and guard effects. There was also much more use of pre-recorded vocals and keyboard effects. The days when there was the emphasis on basic brass and drums is gone. I also noticed how the guard marches people of all sizes, and how the corps are increasingly more diverse.

* * *

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and I plan to renew my mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:  July brings us back to conventional theatre and performance. Next weekend brings Grey Gardens at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The weekend of July 15 may bring a Fringe encore performance of Thirteen’s Spring, as well as The Little Mermaid at  Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The end of July gets busy, with Weird Al Yankovic at the Hollywood Bowl (FB) on July 23, Operaworks (FB) Opera Re-Constructed at CSUN on July 24 (pending ticketing), and a mid-week Hollywood Bowl (FB) concert of Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Copeland on July 28, and … currently nothing for the weekend. August is a bit more open in terms of theatre. The first weekend just has a Jethawks game on Sunday; the second weekend has a hold for a Bar Mitzvah.  The third weekend brings another event from the wonderful counter-cultural orchestra, Muse/ique (FB) — American/Rhapsody — a celebration of George Gershwin. Late August sees us looking at shows down San Diego/Escondido for one weekend. The best of the shows available — or at least the most interesting — is Titanic from Moonlight Stages. September returns to conventional theatre. The first weekend has a HOLD for Calendar Girls at The Group Rep (FB). The second weekend may be another Muse/ique (FB) event — Summer/Time, a reimagined retelling of Porgy and Bess. The third weekend has a HOLD for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Mark Taper Forum (FB). The last weekend is yet another HOLD; this time, for The Hunchback of Notre Dame at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB).

Continuing the look ahead: October is a bit more booked. The first weekend has a HOLD for Dear World at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) and Our Town at Actors Co-op (FB), as well as the start of the High Holy Days. The second weekend has another Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) HOLD: this time for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. The third weekend has yet another VPAC HOLD for An Evening with Kelli O’Hara on Friday, as well as tickets for Evita at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The following weekend brings Turn of the Screw at Actors Co-op (FB) on October 22 and the new Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on October 23. The last weekend of October brings Linden Waddell’s Hello Again, The Songs of Allen Sherman at Temple Ahavat Shalom (a joint fundraiser for MoTAS and Sisterhood). Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, October is also the North Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). November is still in the planning stages, but we know it will include Hedwig and the Angry Inch at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB); a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) [excuse me, “Southern California Railway Museum”]; the Nottingham Festival (FB); and possibly Little Women at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.