2004 British Open - World of Brass Gala Concert


World of Brass Gala Concert
Yorkshire Building Society and Stavanger Brass Bands
Professor David King
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 18th September 2004

4BR sent its two concert reviewers to witness what turned out to be one of the truely great pieces of musical theatre in decades at the World of Brass Gala Concert. These are their thoughts.

'Seeing is believing' as the saying goes, and having seen this concert, it is still hard to believe that what was seen (and heard) actually happened.  In three words, this concert was 'simply magnificent stuff'; not just part of it, but of all it.  The production of the Open DVD is an absolute must for anyone who wasn't present, and for those that were, the chance to relive something extraordinary.

On show of course was the band of the past decade; Yorkshire Building Society, and the simply magnificent, Stavanger Band from Norway.  The man, who is streets ahead of anybody else in the world of banding, Professor David King conducted both. The programmes had been released in advance so the audience had a good idea what to expect, but Stavanger's second half performance was quite unbelievable and without question was something that everybody present will not forget in a long, long time.

The audience was still contemplating the events of the daytime contest and seemed very subdued as YBS got things underway with the march, 'Keighley Moor' by Australian, Joseph Cook.  The bands tremendously vibrant sound was evident from the start and showed why they have set the standard for others to follow in recent years.

The European Champion's contribution had a traditional feel to it, and the overture was six minutes of class in the form of Oliver Waespi's 'Festive Impressions'.  It was typical YBS in this lively, contemporary piece; great sounds from all parts of the band, the odd liberty taken with tempos perhaps, but vastly enjoyable stuff.

The first soloist of the night was Tenor Horn virtuoso, Sheona White, who chose Bellstedt's, 'Capriccio Brilliante'.  It was the sort of performance that demonstrated why the Scot is referred to as the 'Voice of the tenor horn'; impeccable playing, with the sound of the instrument filling the hall.

A complete change in mood and an old favourite from yesteryear, in the symphonic fox trot 'Samum'.  The feel and understanding of the piece certainly had a perky quality in 4/4 time, and you could visualise the dancers smoothly moving along in the 'slow-slow-quick-quick' demeanour required.

No YBS concert would be complete without a solo slot from Peter Roberts, and the Symphony Hall audience were not to be denied; but the question was what would the 'legend' play?  The answer was one of his of signature pieces in Lloyd Webber's 'Memory' from 'Cats' - it was pure musical theatre from the great man (he perhaps knew he wouldn't be playing again here in the YBS colours, but the audience didn't, so he may have given it just a bit more bravura than even he usually manages). Thank you maestro.

David King spoke of how YBS have won the Open in 'the odd years' in recent times - the first being in 1997, but how many actually remember that it was actually in January 1998?  The change in date of course was due to the event that shook the world with the death of Princess Diana.  Joseph Turrin put his thoughts about Diana into music and YBS performed his 'Hymn for Diana' as their next offering.  It was so sensitive, so surreal and beautiful playing, and a truly magical moment.

To conclude the first half of the concert, YBS gave the 'English premiere' of 'Music of the Spheres'.  Away from Stavanger's performance that was yet to come, this was the most eagerly awaited item on the YBS programme. Those in Glasgow at the European, and those that have heard it on CD (and since this weekend watched it on DVD) knew exactly what to expect. Commissioned by Professor King for the own-choice section at the European's, the music customises the stars and planets of the firmament, and gives the chance for the players of YBS to shine as brightly as super novas.

It is a fantastic piece of composition, and what a performance this was.  It had every ingredient within it that demonstrated why the YBS/King partnership has become what it is down the years. The haunting sound of Sheona White on horn commenced the proceedings and come the end of it, the audience must of felt as though they'd been on a roller-coaster ride that refuses to stop, and that leaves them pumping with adrenaline.

All the players were on the top of their game in a truly memorable musical experience.  The final quarter of the piece was electrifying stuff and everybody was left in no doubt they had just heard something extremely special.  The band will have been absolutely gutted to have finished where they did in the Open, but without doubt, they were determined to put on a show - and put on a show they did.

Stavanger's contribution to this concert, was not just class, it was 'World Class'.  It had been suggested that those assembled would witness something a little different, but nobody could really anticipate just what would be seen.  The quality of the music making was one thing, but the level of professionalism knocked everybody sideways through the band's choreographed performance.  Entertainment of the highest order, and a case of don't take your eyes off the stage for one minute, or you will miss something special.

The opening selection came from Hymn of the Highlands with players in varying parts of the stage, with others coming on as required.  The first thing to notice was all the music was from memory and from where everybody was standing, the tone and sound of the band was very precise in 'Ardross Castle' and 'Dundonnell' . It was a stunning opener and you appreciated the fact the Professor King had taken time to ensure that the choreography never robbed the music of it's compactness.

Pål Magne Austnes on bass then came to the front of the stage to perform 'Blackbird' by Lennon/McCartney whilst behind him, the chairs were removed to backstage and all instruments were laid down in position as Espen Westbye sat on the front of the stage to perform 'Cool T' by Lester Bowie, arranged by Jan Magne Førde in a slight change of programme from the advertised 'Summer Isles'.

This was fun all the way as Espen was in sparkling form and his colleagues behind him with would remind him from time-to-time that he wasn't the only player on the stage, by adding plenty to the fun and games.  Stavanger had the audience completely spellbound.

The music continued as the Norwegians went straight into 'Three Dance Episodes' from Bernstein's 'On the Town' - 'The Great Lover', 'Lonely Town: Pas de deux' and 'Times Square: 1944'. Each was each performed in such a breathtaking manner, that it left people shaking their heads in astonishment.

In complete contrast, flugel player, Margrethe Tønnesen, demonstrated what a fine exponent of the instrument she is in 'Over the Rainbow' before the big finale, 'Symphonic Dances' from West Side Story'. The players were in a crouched position to create the right ambience, and from here, the performance grew.  The music is difficult enough in itself, but all of this was recalled from memory, and was truly astonishing.  The choreography will certainly give any band food for thought how about imaginative they can be in their concert programmes in the future. 

Without question, Stavanger demonstrated why they are held in such regard for their stagecraft.  The whole performance was done without a single word from Professor David King, and at the end of a marvellous demonstration of music and stage presence, large numbers of the audience gave the band a standing ovation. It was the least they deserved for it was a truly memorable piece of musical theatre.

Excerpts of the concert will be broadcast on Radio Two's 'Listen to the Band' on Friday 24th September, and the following two Fridays (www.bbc.co.uk/radio2), but this really is a case of 'Seeing is Believing'.  Whatever you do, purchase yourself a copy of the Open DVD that all being well should be a Christmas stocking filler. 

Congratulations and thank you to Stavanger, Yorkshire Building Society and Professor David King, (not forgetting Trevor Caffull and World of Brass for promoting it) for a concert that was exceptional beyond belief.

Malcolm Wood

The audience gathered at Symphony Hall waited with interest to see how the Yorkshire Building Society Band and their conductor David King would react, following their unexpected 14th place in the earlier British Open Contest.  Trevor Caffull, the Managing Director of World of Brass, providing the
introductions, spoke of the "irresistible line-up" - why so many empty seats, then? - describing YBS as "an outstanding contesting band".  He pointed out that, whilst Stavanger may not be so well known, they would certainly not disappoint (of which more later!), and spoke of the unifying factor, Professor David King, and his work with both bands.

From the opening notes of Joseph Cook's march "Keighley Moor" any doubts as to the band's readiness or commitment were dispelled, as they got off to a fiery start, with very crisp playing from the solo cornet, clear basses and effective answering phrases moving down the band from top to bottom.  The somewhat unusual cornet duet section was particularly well balanced, and the restrained playing throughout the band was a delight to hear.  It seemed particularly fitting that this march, written by an Australian, should take its title from the heart of English banding.

Coming to the microphone, Professor King very quickly began to develop a rapport with the audience, asking them how the band was sounding, pointing out the presence of the band's sponsors in the Hall and thanking them for their support over a very successful 11-year period.  He explained that he had deliberately chosen a very traditional format for YBS's contribution to the evening, with an overture to follow on from the opening march.  Switzerland's Oliver Waespi's "Festive Impressions" bears the subtitle "A  Cinematographic Overture" and, with its soaring cornets, strong figures in the trombones and basses, and active percussion writing, it would not have seemed at all out of place in an MGM title sequence.  At times in the more lyrical sequences there seemed to be some Waltonian influence, and euphoniums, soprano, horn and trombone all had solo features, with an effective section for basses in octaves, reminiscent of an underwater scene.   Rep and soprano joined in a beautifully understated duet, before attractive bell effects, from both percussion and brass, led the music to a powerful climax.

The first soloist of the evening was Sheona White, playing Herman Bellstedt's "Capriccio Brillante".  The soloist, so central to YBS's recent successes, demonstrated clearly why she is held in such high regard, as her clear sound carried well over the accompaniment, with effective use of rubato, especially leaning slightly on the top notes of phrases, and generally giving the music room to breathe.  She was also able to play very quietly, confident that band and conductor would respond.  The occasional pedal note at this point - from the basses, not the soloist - did seem a little out of place, but can probably be forgiven!  Following the seemingly effortless facility with which she dispatched the final variation, she received a well-deserved ovation.

Keeping with the traditional format came Carl Robrecht's symphonic fox trot "Samum".  An old time favourite with many, this again produced some very restrained and controlled playing, with the soprano and bass melody keeping nicely together.  The performance was notable for its elegance, and it was illuminating watching Professor King as he controlled the band, telegraphing the abrupt changes of volume and making the audience listen expectantly as the band kept the dynamic down.

Having had a solo and obbligato in "Samum" it was Peter Robert's turn to take centre stage with what has almost become his signature tune: "Memory" from "Cats".  He showed his customary clear tone and ability to make a simple melody into something special.  The accompaniment was particularly delicate, with effective swells in the tutti sections, and the band supported him well.

Introducing Joseph Turrin's "Hymn for Diana" Professor King referred to their Open wins occurring in the odd-numbered years, explaining that, although they won a contest in 1998, that was really the 1997 championships, postponed due to the death of Princess Diana.  The performance itself was notable for the smoothness of the playing, the careful placing of the ornamentation, and the warm, full sound throughout the band.  Full-length notes and staggered breathing, with a depth of tone all contributed to the growing intensity, before the work finished with a finely balanced chord.

"Music of the Spheres" was commissioned by the band from Philip Sparke as their Own Choice work for the European Championships.  Originally written for four trombones it has since been revised for normal contesting purposes, although the second flugel has been retained.  It is piece full of atmospheric sounds and ethereal effects, heard right from the start as Sheona White's horn was set against a background set by the percussion section.  Muted cornets led into an energetic episode, with fast scalic passages, shot notes and whooping effects before calm returned with the euphonium and horns.  Much use was made of various mutes, with horns and baritones predominant, before a sustained note from the basses introduced a more lyrical euphonium passage.

Bells and solo and duet phrases across the band led to a faster section, with runs flowing freely across the band, before a more restrained duet from the two flugels, followed by more bell effects and staggered forte-pianos.  A more sustained section enabled the band to make the most of the more extended lines before the music rose to its thunderous climax, the sound of the whip cutting clearly through the texture.  This challenging piece proved a fitting conclusion to the first half of the concert, and left the audience looking forward to the second course of the musical feast.

From the programmes for the concert the uninitiated could have been led to expect more traditional band fare, with the names of Philip Sparke, Ray Farr and Leonard Bernstein prominent.  Entering the hall, however, there were indications that this was to be somewhat different - some chairs around,
percussion in place but not a music stand or copy to be seen!  "Ardross Castle" was introduced by the two baritone players standing in the spotlight, before the basses and trombones processed onto the stage.  The flugel intoned the familiar "Highland Cathedral", the cornets placed antiphonally surrounding the band, with the soprano suitably dominant.  Despite the absence of copies, this was a very musical performance, with all the markings being carefully observed, and this continued through two more movements, "Summer Isles", featuring Sindre Skjold on euphonium, and "Dundonnell", where the percussion really came into their own to drive the music to its triumphant conclusion.

As the warm applause continued, tuba player Pål  Magne Austnes was left on his own on the stage.  Quietly at first, as if for his own amusement, he picked up the Lennon/McCartney tune "Blackbird".  Many in the audience were looking for the band to join him, but instead he proceeded to provide his own accompaniment, amazing the listeners by his agility, jumping registers as if it was the easiest thing in the world, and then introducing some chords and multiphonics into the bargain!

With the audience still applauding his efforts, it fell to the band's soprano player to continue the programme as he came, trumpet in hand, and sat on the front apron of the stage.  With a combination of half-valves, sotto voce playing and singing into the instrument, he produced some hypnotic sounds, often more like a flute or saxophone than a trumpet, before he was suddenly interrupted by a shot chord from the band. Recommencing, it was the band's turn to be caught by surprise by him, before he was joined in duet by the previous tuba soloist.

All of this served as a prelude to Bernstein's "Three Dance Episodes" from "On the Town", as arranged by Ray Farr.  This featured some of the best playing of their set, with a fine trombone solo and crisp playing from the tubas, as well as a suitably "sleazy" duet between muted cornet and flugel, the whole emphasised by the effective choreography, making the most of Bernstein's liking for cross rhythms.

Margrethe Tonnesen on flugel had already been prominently featured, but in Ray Farr's setting of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" she held centre stage very convincingly, with the band accompanying her sympathetically.

The finale consisted of Eric Crees's arrangement of "West Side Story", and this got off to an exciting start, with horns and trombones interweaving in the centre of the ensemble.  The choreography here was at its crispest, and would have done justice to any marching band display or even West End chorus, complete with sections of the band playing whilst kneeling at various stages.  "Mambo" was suitably lively and rhythmical, whereas "Maria" was treated with great delicacy, particularly by the muted cornet trio, who just touched lightly on the notes.  "America" saw additional percussion appear around the band, with fierce trombone glissandi and first class playing from the xylophone. 

Two trios featured at the start of "Somewhere", one of cornets and one consisting of a baritone and two euphoniums, before the whole band, apart from the basses, starting off crouched on the floor of the stage, gradually rose to their feet as the music rose in pitch and intensity.  As the piece drew to a close the whole band moved towards the audience, facing the front and with the cornets flanking the other instruments, ending their offering in a blaze of sound.

The audience burst into rapturous applause, aware that they had been part of a very special presentation. Many listeners rose to their feet, and would have happily stayed for any number of encores but it was not to be - despite hopes being raised when players returned to the stage, only to be dashed when they picked up their mutes and went off once more.  Those who chose not to attend, whether it be through weariness, apathy or financial considerations, had missed a treat - contrasting programmes presented in contrasting styles by two of the best bands around.

Peter Bale