By Christina Mavroudis-Dempsey Weekend of Champions shows found the Blue Devils' "Summer Train Blues Mix" on the right track with the Santa Clara Vanguard's "Scheherazade," while newcomers The Academy and Renegades dominated their divisions. A blazing hot University of Pacific was the setting for drum corps' premier on the West Coast this past Saturday in Stockton, Calif. The Moonlight Classic (celebrating its silver anniversary with sponsors S.O.M.E. (Sponsors of Musical Enrichment)) has been the launching pad for many corps, and Saturday was no exception. The contest saw the premier of The Academy, a brand new corps from Arizona, who went on to win Division II both nights by a full four points.

The Academy's Danny Orrantia.
Also new on the scene, the amplification ruling appears at present to have also made a subtle but positive debut. Both top Division I corps have their respective pits amplified -- SCV from on top of the keyboards and BD from below. Many skeptical with the ruling were either unaware of the corps' amplification or felt its presence helped musically. Soft pit passages, rarely heard in the higher seats, could easily be distinguished. Sunday's event was a first-ever combination of the Blue Devils and Vanguard home shows -- Precision West and Pacific Procession -- in the neutral location of Cal State Hayward. Situated on a hill overlooking the Bay Area, the field provided magnificent vistas and a change in weather to bitter cold. The temp drops affected nearly every corps, but even weather couldn't keep the fans from enjoying energy and passion emanating from the performers. The BD/SCV race looks like it will be hotly contested all season. On Saturday, SCV won all music and visual captions, but slightly under in GE. At Hayward, Blue Devils gained ground and took all captions, with SCV holding on to percussion and visual performance subcaptions. Something not heard of in recent memory also took place: Santa Clara's color guard won their caption on Saturday, over the Scott Chandler/Blue Devils dynasty. However, it was short-lived, with BD's guard coming back on Sunday to reclaim their title. As the productions are augmented and cleaned, its clear these two corps will make a run for the gold. The Blue Devils powered through their show, creating a Southern world filled with haunting train motifs in bluesy sounds. The female guard wore aprons and long gloves, possibly a nod to the dual roles of Southern women in earlier days, while the rifles wore all black, their costumes forthcoming. The musicians' new uniforms have the same feel as its predecessor, but with a more "tuxedo" jacket look with black lapels. The show starts percussively with the battery in the back left, hooking up like boxcars in the opening drill as they rip through locomotive pulses. Other highlights include megaphones creating a Doppler effect, and snares and tenors performing on tonal crotales in rotating sequence. Introduced during the "Summertime" ballad, it beautifully fills what would normally be a tacit moment for the battery. Percussion caption head Scott Johnson related that the jar-like instrument nestled among the timpani is an "udu drum." The finale had the brass line race to the end zone, while the battery pulls into the "station," all sounds replicating a train engine coming to a stop. It's probably the first time in recollection that the corps actually exits quietly to a tap. From the inside, age-out Andrea Carroll is ending her junior corps career in a show she calls "fun and loud." One of only two female trumpets with Blue Devils, Andrea has an amazing 15 years of drum corps under her belt -- 11 with the Edmonton Strutters and four with BD. "Our show is so crazy this year. I explain it to people as Madision Scouts meets Blue Devils," Carroll said. "It's so different, though some jazz licks are familiar." When asked about the most challenging part, she explains, "There is a part at the end -- we call it the Zipper -- when we're in four lines and bail out of one line and start running around it. It flows and looks like a waterfall. We're running and splitting up. It's pretty hard to play and run." She added, "This is the first layer -- the skeleton of what are show is going to be. [When the guard vocalizes] is probably the second hardest part of our drill. It's an accellerondo and we're jazz running two and a half to fives to the front of the field into a company front." BD has soloists dubbed "The Two Scotts." Andrea is quick to give praise. "Scott Dean is the lead trumpet who plays two double 'C's and double 'G's for days. It's good to bring those talents out. You can't just let those talents stand there, and he's fantastic." With "Attraction: The Music of Scheherazade," the Santa Clara Vanguard returns to storytelling and familiar classics much to the delight of fans. The female guard dress in harem attire, sabers in one style, flags in another, both with a long braid. The gentlemen rifles don "Aladdin"-style costumes. Their dance and moves tell the story of a Sultan and his latest bride, Scheherazade. Commencing quietly, the first impact is gale force. Various soloist are woven throughout, including a melodic baritone passage. At the end, part of a huge drill move with a inward folding triangle finds two guard members, representing the loving couple, holding hands while racing as the point of triangle for final impact. Sticking to Division I with just more than 80 members, the Mandarins prove year after year that talent, not numbers, can be the key to success. Encapsulating their best signature moves (tummy crunching 'V' form by the guard), the show "Samurai" uses music from "The Last Samurai" and warrior-themed visuals. "Bullet" returns as a favorite percussion feature, utilizing one large and six small taiko drums. Their show is full of unique moments including a fish kite, warrior banners, a full-corps choir with blended male/female voices, and the guard on double rifles. This eight-time Division II & III champion packs their program with exciting sounds and breathtaking drill -- it's not a show to miss. A few corps have chosen not to begin with a brass warm-up, but Pacific Crest creates a warm setting with Chanticleer's "Ave Maria" before launching into the murder and intrigue of their Bernard Hermann show. Sprawled in corpse-like fashion, one guard member is the victim, while another plays the part of criminal. From piece to piece, we see the body quickly surrounded by the horns and the perpetrator running from the scene. The highlight is music from "Baghdad," which has the sopranos using air fresheners (really!) as mutes, creating exotic, mystical melodies. Snares have their feature on world percussion drums, enthusiastically pounding and dancing. Hot off their 2003 Division II title, Esperanza from San Diego is ready for the challenge of Division I. A beautiful opening impact with horns and precision flags in the first movement "Heroes Symphony" by Philip Glass begins the show. "1,000 Airplanes on the Roof," also by Glass, creates brass echoes and spinning forms. The ballad, "October," provides the foundation for quality sabre work. "Song of Aeolus" from Karl Jenkins "Aidamus" pieces finishes the program with a closer still to be incorporated. The buzz all weekend was "Who is The Academy?" Truly a surprise contender, The Academy, one of nearly a dozen musical programs connected with the Arizona Academy of the Performing Arts (AAPA), came on the scene with big membership (114) and a book in league with most Division I shows. Academy director Mark Richardson, a founder with the organization in 2000, says "The last two years we've toured non-competitively around California just to watch the shows, this year is the first time we're competing." While the corps is doing so well, they don't have Denver finals as a final destination. When asked if they might consider finals next year, Mark is optimistic but business-like about the proposition: "We'll see what the finances bring and what membership can do." Conductors for the Academy are Brett Hochhalter, a 17-year-old first year with the organization and drum corps, and age-out Danny Orrantia. About the win the previous night, Danny was visibly moved. "Oh man! It was the most unbelievable thing in the world. I couldn't' believe it. I couldn't see the crowd behind me, but there was this huge wave of energy, pushing. Last night when the corps rotated and hit that first impact, the crowd went crazy." What to look for? "Any of our big hits. It's a full minute before we have our first hit, but as soon as it happens, it goes from there." You can hear early mp3s of the Academy at Santa Clara Vanguard Cadets' show is traditionally nameless at this point in the season, but their show is worth talking about. Scheduled to head into Denver this year, audiences will find their membership mature and talented with a program built to challenge and entertain. Look for the cymbals "viper" move and the traditional "V" at the end. Leah Mamaril, a 16-year-old, second-year member of the SCV Cadets pit, said, "Actually this year is pretty exciting. I'm having a great time. We have a lot to improve on but we're getting there." She finds the musical aspect the most challenging, "Feeling the tempos and internalizing the pulse." Alan Mamaril, Leah's brother and an age-out also in the SCV Cadets pit who has marched four seasons (including the DCI-winning 2000 show), finds the physical aspect of pit life the most challenging. "Loading and unloading. Seems every year gets a little bit harder. Last year we had two marimbas, two vibes and two xylos. This year it's four marimbas, three vibes ... seems to get bigger and bigger." Like his sister, Alan agrees, "We have a show with lots of potential. I see great things in the future." The largest leap from night to night came from second-year corps Fever, who jumped almost five points, passing SCV Cadets to take second place on Sunday. Their program, "Rite of Passage", contains a mix of heavy metal (Tool) pulled from a recording by an abstract underground quartet, a sax concerto, and music by Holsinger -- a little bit of everything. Lewis Wilhelm, founder/director, said, "It was a great weekend for the kids. Exciting. They know they have their work cut out for them. SCV and BDB are well-established corps that will also improve." This year's season is dedicated to the memory of one of their founders, Mike DuFour. Check here for pictures from their day in Stockton. Like the SCV Cadets, the Blue Devils B are gearing up for a long season culminating at DCI World Championships. Asked about the Stockton show, Kendall DeJong, an 18-year-old, tghiurd-year baritone section leader with Blue Devils B, said, "It felt really good. We had a shaky run-through, but last night we came together." "Blue Fusion" contains a mix of Pat Matheny and New York Voices music that fans will find thoroughly entertaining. Competitive under a novice/Division III sheet, Blue Devils C puts to rest that cute alone works. These young performers have the seeds of talent and attitude that make them a vital contender. Even their repertoire appeals to the senses: "Aladdin," "Caravan" and "Copacabana." To open up both nights, the senior corps presented diverse but appealing programs. The San Francisco Renegades, introduced on Saturday as a corps from Palo Alto, threatened eardrums with a stable of talented horns, full battery and a uniquely outfitted pit. Their rep includes a number of familiar tunes, "Channel One Suite", "Open Up Wide", and "Goodbye Blue Skies," but arranged in an edgy contemporary sound. Though the guard, like many others, is awaiting uniforms, their boldly colored flags and high-octane work dazzled. The pit, or "Anti-Pit" as they are nicknamed, sported a large array of "toys," including a wheel-of-fortune, Renecycle, plunger-on-timp, chains-on-metal, rake-on-rack, a wind machine and dozens more. Of note were the marching tubes, harnessed in a six-pack grouping and played by select sopranos. Though still in beta testing, the tubes created quite a stir. Wearing new uniforms of white with a blue-sequined sash, River City Regiment from Sacramento created a memory of songs including the wildly popular "You Are My Sunshine," first heard in the 80's by Freelancers. Not by chance, some of the staff, including John Zimney, are Freelancer alumni. While corps who regularly make the western trek from the east were missed, the itineraries were packed with twelve stellar productions. In the near future we look forward to seeing the remaining western corps absent from the contests including Oregon Crusaders, Fusion, Impulse and Dream.

The weekend ended with a fitting musical tribute to men who had contributed their lives to the activity. The Blue Devils and Vanguard brass lines arced in concert formation and paid their respects to founding directors Jerry Seawright, Gail Royer, long-time SCV fan Tony Pellegrino, and guard judge/instructor Harry Ariza. The Blue Devils began with "Chase the Clouds Away" followed by Vanguard's "Send in the Clowns." Watching two magnificent horn lines playing for men of esteem was a beautiful send-off.