A Band Plays in Brooklyn

04/07/2010 4:00 AM |

Minutes before The Grand Street Community Band‘s rehearsal begins on a recent evening, Jeff W. Ball, the group’s 28-year-old conductor, literally runs in and out of the Grand Street Campus High School auditorium. Dressed casually in black jeans and polo shirt, he even dives to the floor at one point, to fit a plug into an outlet tucked under the stage. The players, seated on stage, generate the cacophony of warm-up familiar to early-arriving concertgoers; when Ball finally takes his position at the rostrum, he silences them with a wave of his hand. From the surrounding hallways comes a faint screeching of teenage girls.

Tonight’s rehearsal, for a mid-March concert the following week, is being recorded, so the band has something it can submit to music festivals. (As any high-school nerd knows, a “band” features only wind, brass and percussion instruments, in contrast to an orchestra, which uses strings, as well.) Ball tells the musicians he’d like to get a recording of a run-through of each piece. “Actual run-throughs,” he adds for a laugh. They begin with James Curnow’s “Rhapsody for Euphonium” (1978), which opens with a doleful melody, a solo for euphonium—a kid’s-size tuba—before moving into a Holstian adventure theme, becoming the kind of music that plays as you flee monsters on Pandora.

The high school auditorium doesn’t boast the best acoustics, but in action the band sounds smooth, clear and practiced—for the most part—and the musicians’ seating arrangement provides the music with a richly textured stereophonic effect. Ball conducts with his arms, less with his shoulders or body. The piece draws to a close. “You guys are great,” Dan Dicker, the euphonist, tells the group. Ball agrees. The conductor is given to quick and precise direction—”Don’t let it push ahead too much, ok?” He’s brisk, bordering on stern, but never impolite. Clearly, The Band is his passion. And he takes his passions seriously.

A couple of students trickle into the auditorium from a side entrance. “Guys,” the conductor says, “if you could be extremely silent, including doors, ‘cuz we’re recording.” A girl pulls the door closed as delicately as she might lay an infant to sleep. But it’s hard to maintain the quiet: the room’s cheapjack wooden chairs inevitably croak and groan; the radiators start to hiss and Ball shoots them a look, a milder version of the glare he’ll later direct at a slammed door. He stops rehearsal when a custodian comes in, banging garbage cans and rattling keys. When the group finishes one piece, a trickle of applause spills from the scattered few observers. Ball turns to face his approvers, and makes a slashing motion across his throat.