2009 National Championships of Great Britain - Test Piece Review

12-Oct-2009

4BR takes a look at Peter Graham's test piece 'The Torchbearer'.


GrahamThere is a very fine musical line between loving pastiche and cynical plagiarism, a line that can only be drawn by a composer with a gifted mind and  rock solid hands.

Without them, all we get is pap.  Thankfully, Peter Graham has both.

Sympathetic

The current trend for sypathetic musical biography however does the banding world no favours – however finely crafted the portrait that is drawn.  

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone had to try their own take on Eric Ball (below right) -  the most iconic of brass band composers. However, like the author Sebastian Faulkes' attempt to produce a 21st centruy James Bond novel in the style of Ian Fleming (which the composer readily admits the parallel), all you are reminded of is just how good the originals were – and originality is what brass band repertoire needs more than anything else.

Iconic

Peter Graham is one heck of a talented composer for brass – with the ability to write startlingly original works for the medium.  Like Faulkes his major works are substantive, engrossing and genuinely moving.  However, like Faulkes, not even his immense skill can render improvement on iconic originals. 

For instance, ’The Torchbearer – Symphonic Variations on a Theme by Eric Ball’ is long and slightly misleading title.

The theme on which the subsequent variations is based is clear enough – the trio section of Eric Ball’s march ‘Torchbearers!’ It is what the composer has done elsewhere that raises the odd Roger Moore inspired eyebrow or two.

BallVariations?

Can extended sections of clear pastiche, really be termed ‘variations’? Some are more clear than others, but there is little doubt where they draw their inspiration from – and it isn’t that trio section from ‘Torchbearers’.

Even the casual fan of Eric Ball will immediatley recognise ‘High Peak’, ‘Resurgam’, ‘The Wayfarer’, ‘Journey into Freedom’, ‘Kensington Concerto’, ‘Song of Courage’, ‘The Eternal Presence’, as well as a touch of Elgar here and there.

Populist

‘Torchbearers’ is unashamedly populist, technically astute, musically adroit. Peter Graham has chosen the real highlights of Ball’s brass band output – and it must be remembered that he wrote his fair share of very mediocre stuff too. It would have been a brave man to have delved into the delights of ‘The English Maiden’, ‘Oasis’ or in these more politically correct times we live in, ‘Third Rhapsody of Negro Spirituals’, or ‘Indian Summer’.

Perhaps ‘variants’  would be more acurate term to describe the way in which he neatly and sincerely blends these classics together.

It is hard to find fault with what he has done, except wonder whether his innate affection for Ball has perhaps constrained him too much – there is perhaps a touch too much Ball and too little Graham in places where the ratio would have been better served in reverse. 

Reluctant

Perhaps that is what he intended all along though – reading a recent interview he gave in British Bandsman you sensed that it was almost as if there was a reluctance on his behalf to do no more than undertake a sympathetic restoration job on the excerpts rather than a full blown reconstruction.

The exploration of the source material is therefore at times disappointingly superficial, as if wishing not to cause offence – some of the linking passages appear almost untouched from their original form.

Transformation

The composer talks of ‘transformation’ in his own notes to the work, but transformed from what to what?

It therefore makes for a work that is highly enjoyable and pleasing to the ear, but lacking in originality, and a touch of caustic bite – a bit like rewriting the first chapter of ‘Casino Royale’ for a James Bond without the fags, booze and the louche eye for the easy girl.

Eric Ball would have approved of that no doubt – and with ‘The Torchbearer’ so will his legion of fans, both old and new at the Royal Albert Hall.

Iwan Fox 

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