In 2006, the DCI World Championships went to Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium for the seventh time. As the stadium had been recently expanded and modernized, so was the DCI Tour, with the very first edition of the DCI Southeastern Championship staged at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in July.  

The Cavaliers’ loveable “Machine” won Brass, Visual and General Effect caption awards, but still barely edged Phantom Regiment’s “Faust” and Blue Devils’ “Godfather” productions for the title. After introducing a male color guard member as a featured guest in its 2005 “Rhapsody” show, Regiment went with a fully coed guard for the first time in the corps’ history. Bluecoats finished in fourth place for the corps’ highest placement yet, narrowly edging the Cadets by just a tenth of a point.

Blue Knights finished in seventh place in 2006 with “Dark Knights,” named for the intense darkness of Samuel Barber’s “Piano Concerto Op. 38.” Angry and introspective, bombastic and even more introspective, it was a show fans either loved or hated, and it certainly wasn’t for the squeamish. 

2006 Blue Knights
2006 Blue Knights

No other corps jumped, rolled on the ground, or flew through the air while presenting such a wide variety of body movement techniques. But for all the dramatic visuals, the show was all about the music and had no storyline. And while it wasn’t easy on the ears, it had to be healthy for its unrepentant stimulation of brain cells.

The show thoroughly embraced the rich romantic melodies, aggressive rhythmic textures,  and dark harmonic canvas of the work that in 1963 won Barber his second Pulitzer Prize in music, as well as earning him the 1964 Music Critics Circle Award. The concerto was commissioned by publishing company G. Schirmer in 1959 to celebrate the company’s centenary of its 1861 founding and was premiered in 1962 as part of the opening festivities of Philharmonic Hall, the first building in New York’s brand new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf premiered the work, with pianist John Browning performing the solo part. Barber wrote the concerto specifically with Browning in mind, impressed with hearing the 22-year-old pianist in 1956 on the same concert as the premiere of the composer’s “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance.”

2006 Blue Knights
2006 Blue Knights

Blue Knights’ show started with seven notes from chimes in the front ensemble percussion section, outlining the basic notes upon which the concerto was based. A brief mallet interlude led into the brass section quietly playing to the backfield the beginning of “Canzone: Moderato,” the second movement. This was a nostalgic tune based on a bittersweet melody Barber expanded from his prior “Elegy for Flute and Piano” of 1959.

The horns then turned around and played a much louder version of the melody, a segment that was not in the original source material. This led into the opening of the brutal “Allegro molto,” the third movement of the concerto, introducing hand-painted flags of several strata of color, much like layers of rock exposed on a cliff. Baritone players who were not playing at the time bounced up and down from a squatting position, adding to the visual angst of the diabolical passage.

Barber didn’t finish the third movement of the concerto until just 15 days prior to its world premiere. Pianist Browning told the composer that the movement was unplayable at the tempo indicated, but Barber wasn’t motivated to rework the movement until famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who had performed the world premiere of his 1949 “Piano Sonata,” concurred.

2006 Blue Knights
2006 Blue Knights

This was easily one of the most abstract segments ever put on the football field by a drum corps—music and visuals solely for the sake of music and visuals. It served as the main impetus throughout the opener, relentless and unforgiving, not caring whether one comprehended the rising and falling brash brass tone clusters that mirrored the arpeggios of the piano part.

The next segment continued the “Allegro molto” movement with an ominous melody in a 5/8 time signature, started by the percussion mallets and picked up by the tubas. Individual percussion and brass soloists provided a variety of interruptions along the way. Things quickly boiled down at the start of the reprise of the beginning of the “Canzone” melody, this time played solemnly to the front and in a much-expanded form, accompanied by the color guard members dancing sans equipment.

Next, for the first time in the production, the corps dug into the concerto’s opening “Allegro appassionato” movement, with the brass section greatly emphasizing the seemingly random clashing piano chords. Upon the climax of that segment, the marimba players spelled out the notes of the main theme, alternating each note between instruments as the tempo sped up.

2006 Blue Knights
2006 Blue Knights

It was here that things started to get wondrously weird. The mallets duplicated the piano cadenza as the color guard performers gathered up front around the 50-yard line. The horns knelt down to watch in the form of a giant inverted “V,” with the percussionists standing over them.

As the mallets sped up the passage, the horns started moving away, doing various knee bends and other abstract body sculpturing as they repositioned themselves, swirling into a tight circle on the 50 surrounded by two larger arcs that almost formed circles. It was as if a swirling mass of gases was forming a star in the outer reaches of the solar system.

The three circular forms opened wide as the horns started playing, pulling the drapes open on a day greeting us with a massive electrical storm in the heavens. The conclusion of the “Allegro molto” movement was underway, and after everything prior, the corps was not about to start trying to play nice with the audience.

The brass section continued to outline many of the percussive piano arpeggios in a most unforgiving manner. The last two and a half minutes of the show kept pushing the earth-shattering nature of the finale to the limit: Nothing too cataclysmic; just a little drum corps with a side order of upheaval and calamity.

For this week only, you can save on the DVD set that contains this Blue Knights performance.

Buy the 2006 DCI World Championship DVD set.

(Available this week only for 20% off.)

Discount ends Monday, December 12, 2016.

Michael Boo was a member of the Cavaliers from 1975-1977. He has written about the drum corps activity for more than 35 years and serves as a staff writer for various Drum Corps International projects. Boo has written for numerous other publications and has published an honors-winning book on the history of figure skating.

As an accomplished composer, Boo holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in music theory and composition. He resides in Chesterton, Indiana.