Maple Leaf Brass Band

10-Jun-2007

Conductor: David Druce
St Matthias Anglican Church
Ottawa
Saturday 2nd June


On Saturday, June 2nd, the Maple Leaf Brass Band conducted by David Druce, MMM, CD from Ottawa, Ontario hosted a concert entitled "Connections", featuring two fabulous world class soloists:  Nick Hudson from England and Karen Donnelly, principal trumpet of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. 

The concert was performed to an almost full house in a very hot and humid St. Matthias Anglican Church, on a night when almost everyone in Ottawa was preoccupied with the local hockey team's endeavours in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The crowd was a real tribute to the promotions team for the band, as well as the faithful MLBB followers.

The evening opened with the Steven Gellman composition "Fanfare for the New Millennium", as arranged by one of the several composers and arrangers who are members of the band, Gabriel Major-Marothy.  The first few bars of this arrangement seemed to show some nervousness on the part of the band, but by the end of bar 4, they were off and running – literally, with all sections of the band taking turns at running up and down the scale and the overall performance of this piece of music was well done.

Initial jitters out of the way, the band's next item was the William Rimmer classic "Slaidburn", the march that the band played at the 2007 Hannaford Street Silver Band Festival of Brass that earned them the Hannaford Cup for best march.  The band made their way through this march with all the confidence a recent win would give. 

The quiet passages of the march were nicely played and the dynamic was well performed, despite the fact that there were 13 cornets playing at the time.  Equally impressive was the bass melody section where the sound was big and full, with the unison sound belying the 8 tubas, 4 trombones, 3 Euphoniums and 2 baritones that were contributing.

"The Wells of Marah", based on Exodus 15:23 by James McDonald Gayfer, father of the band's solo baritone player is a challenging yet pleasing piece of music.  The contextual passage speaks of the Israelites' journey out of Egypt and the composer draws a parallel to the Scottish pilgrims from Selkirk who settled in Manitoba, near the Assiniboine River before being moved by the government of the day all the way to Penataguishene, Ontario. 

The music, as arranged by Lloyd Hiscock, solo horn and another of several arrangers in the band, takes you through the emotional and physical trials that the Israelites and Selkirk Pilgrims would have experienced.  Despite many tempo and time changes, the success of this piece was never in doubt, with the band beautifully following the very capable leadership of the MD.

The time had now come for the first appearance by one of the two featured soloists.  Karen Donnelly mounted the stage and from the first unaccompanied note of "Smaoinich ormsa, ‘s mi gad shireadh air an Ian", it was clear that this was a special player.  A beautiful depiction of a Gaelic warrior longing for home, the sweet tones of the Flugel Horn left you sitting in complete relaxation.  The band provided a very sensitive accompaniment to Karen, although the cornet section was overpowering in a couple of the tutti sections.

Following a rousing round of applause for Karen, the band moved on with a total change of style and pace.  David Mills composition "Western Fantasy – Garments of Praise" starts with a muted soprano cornet playing the strains of "Home on the Range" and uses a number of "western" favourites, including "Here we sit like bumps on a cedar log" and features the contemporary worship song by Jamie Harvill ‘Put on the garments of praise for the spirit of heaviness'.  This work is not for the faint of heart, as it features many intricate rhythm sections and the band proved up to the challenge.

The next item on the program was the first appearance of the second soloist for the evening.  One of the premier trombone virtuosi in the brass band movement, Nick Hudson is no stranger to anyone who follows brass bands at all.  This was Nick's 3rd visit to Canada and 4th to North America.  The first time, in the spring of 2002, Nick was a featured soloist with MLBB at the Montclair Brass Band Festival in Montclair, New Jersey. 

The band was thrilled to have Nick return to play with them again.  The first solo item for Nick on the evening was "Rhapsody for Trombone" by Gordon Langford, originally written for the late Don Lusher and premiered at the Royal Albert Hall in 1975. 

While taking notes for this review, I simply wrote one word beside this number – "WOW!".  Nick's technique, sound and style are certainly second to none.  This solo is one of my favourites and this performance reinforced that preference.  The cadenzas, including the reverse glissandos, were breathtaking (especially to those of us who have played trombone).  I have heard Nick perform live on many occasions and the one thing that every accompanying band has struggled with is getting soft enough when he plays softly.  The soloist is able to play so beautifully at such a low volume that you wonder where his volume dial is.

To complete the first half of the concert, Karen Donnelly returned to the stage with her cornet to join Nick as they played T. Kenny's "Just Good Friends".  This novel piece of music saw both soloists play off each other and interact as if they had known each other for years.  The band stepped up to the plate as well and finished the half in style.

Following a short interval, the band returned to the stage sans jackets in deference to the high temperature, and kicked off the second half with a beautiful performance of "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", written by Howard Shore and arranged by Philip Harper.  As a Tolkien Trilogy fan myself, I found myself sitting and picturing parts of the story as the band played.

The band welcomed Karen Donnelly back to the stage to play the well-travelled cornet solo "Zelda" by Percy Code.  The band did a very nice job of accompaniment on this item, and the soloist showed off her versatility and technique to a very appreciative audience.

Nick Hudson then returned to the spotlight to premiere "Fantasy for Trombone" as written by Canadian Elizabeth Raum and arranged by Dorothy Gates.  The solo itself was not my favourite item of the evening, as I found that it lacked any real substance musically.  I was not alone, because I noticed the audience around me fidgeting and getting restless. 

Perhaps this was partly due to the heat and humidity, I am not sure.  All that aside and with no disrespect to the band, Nick's playing was once again top-notch and in my opinion was the only reason that this item could be performed.

The next item on the program calmed and soothed the audience again, as Nick took a wonderful solo, "Stardust" by Hoagy Carmichael (Geldard) and made it his own.  Aside from the dropped mute in the cornet section, you hardly knew the band was playing.  It was a very sensitive accompaniment for a beautifully played solo.

J.N. Audoire's famous "Montreal Citadel" was the next item on the evening.  The band took the march at a very reserved march tempo and it lacked the life that, having played this march myself in many a brass band on several different instruments, I know is there.  The melody in the middle sections from the horns was buried under the counter melody of the cornets and the Fortissimo low brass melody line seemed to defy my knowledge that there were 17 excellent players playing it.  All in all, I was disappointed in the interpretation of this march.

The finale of the program saw both Karen and Nick return to the stage one last time to perform with the band the Stephen Roberts arrangement of "Pastime with Good Company", the composition of which has been attributed to Henry VIII.  The soloists took the respective section lead parts and played along with the band and to hear the combined fanfare sections with players of this calibre facing directly at you was enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. 

Well played all around and the audience appreciated the performance with a standing ovation that forced the band to come up with an encore performance.  "Malaguena" was the choice, with Nick and Karen participating fully therein.  Again, the musicians, while they were certainly knackered after such a performance in the given environment were up to the task and everyone was able to go home on a high note.

This concert, "Connections", was a wonderful evening of music, featuring musicians from several different walks of life and connected two continents for an evening.  The virtuosity of Nick and Karen would have been great to hear individually, but combined, it made for an evening worthy of an 8 hour drive on a couple's wedding anniversary.  I look forward to hearing more from all of the participants in the near future.

Ian Cooper


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