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The Famous Five and the Longest Day: The Best of British Brass, Sunday 16 September, 2001


Sunday saw five of Britain’s most famous bands take the stage at the Birmingham Symphony Hall to give a series of mini concerts entitled “Best of British Brass” – a great example of an oxymoron as there ever was.

Black Dyke, Grimethorpe, Fodens, Fairey’s and Cory were the chosen “Best Of” and Murphy’s Law of course decreed that none of them would be taking the stage as “British Open Champions”. This didn’t undervalue the fare on offer, but did make you wonder about Bram Gay’s (the Artistic Director) meaningless epithet.

Before we give our impressions on each bands offering, there are a couple of points we at 4BarsRest would like to make. First is a small point concerning the programme issued by the organisers. Great value as it was for two pounds, it did however contain a confusing series of old photographs of each of the bands that meant Black Dyke’s photo featured James Watson, Matt Baker et all, Fodens had Nicholas Childs at the helm, Fairey’s had James Gourlay and Grimey were in a shot taken so long ago they were still in their purple shirts! Only BAYV Cory were given an up to date photo, but they then had to suffer the indignity of being wrongly named by Bram Gay in his introductory notes and having the centre piece of their programme wrongly titled. We are no angels, but this was sloppy, lazy stuff.

Our second point however is so much more difficult. Saturday had seen the audience at Symphony Hall unite in their grief at the atrocities that befell the U.S.A. The playing of the American National Anthem and the observance of a two-minute silence was a heartfelt and dignified response from the organisers and the public to what had happened under a week ago. Sunday should have seen the same observance.

We do not know what arrangements the organisers had made, but by leaving the bands to perform their own individual tributes was both misplaced and naïve. There is a time for personal as well as communal expressions of compassion and respect and it surely would have been a more fitting response for one band, either at the beginning or as a massed band at the end to perform a meaningful, emotive, responsive tribute that encompassed the feelings and thoughts towards those who had suffered so terribly.

We therefore heard tributes from each band except Williams Fairey’s (who in no way should be criticised) and even if you cannot argue about the honest sentiment behind the bands playing these items, the overall effect of it seemed almost mawkishly naive and inappropriate. It could, and should have been undertaken with perhaps more concentrated thought.

As for the performances – well they ranged from the brilliant to the “seat of your pants” variety.

Black Dyke took the stage at 1.00pm sharp and fairly blasted away any slightly thick heads and tired lips with Peter Graham’s arrangement of the “Olympic Fanfare”. It took a few bars to get things in working order, but the effect was good.

Dyke then undertook the main meat of their offering by a pretty fine performance of Arthur Butterworth’s arrangement (or should that now read transcription) of Brahm’s “Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel. This was delightful music – the type really good bands can play well when they really put their minds to it. Dyke had woken up and made the piece sound a treat from start to finish. It was rumoured that the piece was in line for the Open, and it would be a damn hard test - but someone else got there first.

Brett Baker was the featured soloist. He was however laden with a solo that was for us, bleeding awful. “Brazilia” by Robin Dewhurst was the type of music you heard in the background to those 1970’s mini series such as “Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island” and it never ever came off. His talents deserve so much better a showcase.

For their finale, Nicholas Childs chose “Shine As A Light” by Peter Graham, and this was a light and bubbly ending that rounded off some classy playing. They must have all been a little disappointed from the day before (although they certainly didn’t show it on Saturday night!) but this was a slick and well-rehearsed mini concert that got things off to a great start. The band also played two verses of “Deep Harmony” as a tribute at the end of their official programme.

Grimethorpe Colliery UK Coal took the stage (nowadays with white rather than the well loved purple shirts) and conducted by Elgar Howarth.

Howarth has the air of mild academic eccentricity about him at times, but he remains a superlative musician and conductor. As with Dyke, Grimethorpe had changed their programme as a tribute and so their proposed mini concert of Eric Ball compositions started with “Tournament for Brass” which was given a good sharp run out. It sounds more than a bit dated today, but still has some lovely moments (especially Sandy Smith’s horn playing) and was a welcome offering even if the audience did clap between each of the three movements.

You got the feeling that Eric Ball didn’t really know much about the more “risqué” aspects of life, and his cornet solo “Conchita” confirmed the fact. It was like one of those moments when you see a vicar casting a sneaky eye over a shapely young woman in the street – quaint and misplaced, as if he was conscious that he already sinned too much. The quasi tango solo was much the same and never became a full-blown gawp of licentiousness that it really wanted to be. A pity! Richard Marshall will surely get the chance to get to grips with more exciting musical women in his career.

Howarth was on form both with baton and with his introductions to the items, and he brought some fine playing out of Grimey in “Resurgam”, which although sounded a little undercooked in places, was perhaps the most appropriate of the musical tributes given on the day. Howarth then gave us a little gem to end with “StarLake II” the least known of Eric Ball’s two marches that share the same name. It was an odd little piece that had more than a hint of wit about it.

Fodens completed the first half under the baton of Bryan Hurdley, who bounded on stage like a small rubber ball.

First up was Thomas Keighley’s “Lorenzo” which was given a very 21st century run through – big, bold and at times quite brilliant. It was miles away from its 1928 origin and all the better for it, as it’s as dated as a Bob Monkhouse joke. It sounds like music written for a silent film, where the heroine is strapped to the railway line before being saved in time for her to make tea for her moustachioed hero. It should return to the vaults immediately.

Helen Fox was the bands featured soloist in Chuck Mangione’s “The Children of Sanchez” which just like Brett Baker’s solo was another that was a whole amount of nothing. You can get a band to stand up, turn out and razz like fury, but you can’t get over the fact that this was a very weak musical vehicle to display the talents of such a fine player. It was like eating authentic Tex–Mex in West Bromwich – not quite as good as the original.

“Harmony Music” however was a very different kettle of fish and Bryan Hurdley must be congratulated for the bravery of the choice, which was a real “seat of your pants” tour de force by the band. Great solo work from Mark Wilkinson and Glyn Williams (who held the top E in his cadenza for what seemed five minutes!) and Martin Armstrong on horn was supplemented by plenty of great sounds in the loud stuff from all around the band. It very nearly came to grief in some places, but Bryan Hurdley held it all together with some excellent direction and the overall picture was colourful and exciting – just as the piece should be.

Fodens tribute was “Amazing Grace” and ended an enjoyable contribution.

The second half featured Wiliams Fairey under Howard Snell and they kicked off with Bram Gay’s arrangement of Verdi’s “Overture to The Sicilian Vespers” which didn’t start too well but recovered to finish in fine style. Interesting piece this, which should be heard more in concert if bands are brave enough to go with it. Bram should be happy with his efforts.

Howard Snell then gave the audience a real treat with “The Old Chalet” which worked superbly for us. This is the type of witty, though provoking music that Howard Snell has produced with such skill over the years. Why does it work when he conducts it, but never when others try?

Nick Hudson was the featured soloist in Langford’s “Rhapsody for Trombone” and this was the high spot of the day in terms of the soloists on offer. His was a faithful reading of a superb showcase piece and his performance was never less than brilliant. He is a supreme exponent of the art of solo playing.

As this was the 100th anniversary of Verdi’s death, Howard Snell gave us a rare old charge through “La Forza del Destino” to end Fairey’s offering, and it was gripping stuff. Kevin Crockford had a field day on sop and the trombone section honked liked geese right at the end. Well done boys! This was the most enjoyable mini concert of the day for us.

Buy As You View Cory took the stage no longer as British Open Champions, but as a band that further enhanced it’s reputation in its defence of the title. Robert Childs seemed to be making a home video of himself from the side of the stage and on this concert performance it should make pretty good viewing.

Theirs was the most interesting fare on offer with John Pickard’s “Fanfare” opening the proceeding with trademark muscularity. It was an odd little piece that caught the audience out a bit and finished with an abruptness that made for an uncomfortable few seconds of silence before the applause set in. Interesting though.

The main part of the menu was the first performance of Havergal Brian’s “Battle Song” (wrongly entitled “Marching Song” in the programme). Robert Childs introduced Dr Pickard onto the stage to give a brief synopsis of the piece, which he proceeded to do in such a lovely insouciant manner that only true academics can manage.

Brian was very much a contemporary of Granville Bantock and his composition sounded very much as if he had taken musical direction from his compositions such as “The Frogs”, “Oriental Rhapsody” and “Land of the Ever Young”. It was curious stuff – a bit odd and certainly listenable, but it sounded very much inferior to Bantock’s banding output.

Chris Thomas was the soloist in “Bluebells of Scotland”, an old nag of a piece which really out to be finally put out to grass the “Sunset Retirement Home for Old and Knackered Trombone Solos”. Chris is a fine player and musician and like Brett Baker, deserves to be showing off his talents with better repertoire.

BAYV Cory finished off with “Aspects of Adiemus” which is the music you hear all over the place, from hairdressers to commercials for Building Societies. Written by Welshman Carl Jenkins and neatly arranged by Peter Graham, it made for a welcome change and ended Cory’s programme on a high note. It would have been even better if this could have been played with the vocal accompaniment that really makes the music sound so sensuous and relaxing, but that was a minor niggle to a well though out programme. BAYV Cory played “A Little Prayer” by Evelyn Glennie as their tribute.

With that it was enough for us and we headed (as did many in a pretty full hall) for our cars and the long journey home. We missed the finale, so we can’t comment on what went on, except it was to be Cory and Fairey’s together under the baton of Hoard Snell playing “Procession to the Minster” and “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla”. It was we are sure, to have been a good finish to a very long day of some fine music making.

© 4BarsRest

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