The National Youth Band of Wales


Conductor: Ray Farr
Soloist: Gareth Small
Brangwyn Hall
Sunday 31st July

This was a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon: No real sport on the television, the weekly exercise regime out of the way and no need to undertake any unnecessary housework, DIY or impromptu family visits. Just ideal in fact for a quick drive down to the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea to listen to the next generation of talented young Welsh brass performers and a top line trumpet player who hails not far from the venue itself.

As always with these types of events, the audience is the usual mix of proud parents, over excited grandparents and somewhat bored siblings, but for a Sunday afternoon here there was also a fair sprinkling of other interested parties, with conductors, former players, current bandsmen and women and even the odd adjudicator and member of the press making up a decent sized crowd in the large hall.

Ray Farr was the Musical Director for the 2005 course, and was on his best eloquent and elegant form with the baton and the microphone throughout. The 58 player strong band itself had just completed a week's rehearsal under his direction and had undertaken a short tour of South Wales that had included two performances at the impressive Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay as well as evening concerts as Newport's new Riverfront Theatre and the Parc and Dare Hall in Treorchy.  Reports from staff had indicated an enjoyable atmosphere, a good rapport between conductor and band and some scintillating playing from Gareth Small which had wowed the young players.

You know when you start to feel old though; when youngsters sport haircuts that used to be the height of fashion when you were their age, and it appears that the 1982 mullett is now top of the list of any wannabe male player, although thankfully the girls tend to stick either to scrunched buns or flowing golden locks. Some of the boys barnets wouldn't have been out of place in the Willy Wonka's Chocolate factory film.

Still it didn't deter from their playing (although in 10 years time they will surely look back at some of the mobile phone photos with more than touch of angst) and the concert got off to a fine start with a  up tempo 'Millennium Fanfare' leading into the National Anthem.

Ray Farr had chosen a user friendly programme for the 2005 Course, but had taken the step of stretching the players with the inclusion of two popular test pieces that formed the main part of their contribution to the first half of the concert.

Philip Sparke's ‘Tallis Variations' remains a fine short piece that could and should have been a great long piece for brass band and although it has proved immensely popular with players and audiences ever since, you do feel that it deserves to be subject to a ‘Composers Cut' and revealed in all its glory.

Ray Farr brought a lyrical reading from the score, whilst his players excelled themselves both as an ensemble and as individuals. Nicholas Mead on Principal Cornet, who has been taught by Tony Small and who is currently playing with the BAYV Band was on fine form, as were Helen Kinder on euphonium and Graham Bushell on soprano. Meanwhile there was some fine back row cornet playing and a well balanced horn section, and although enthusiasm on the percussion tended to obliterate things towards the end it was still a very enjoyable and thoroughly compact performance.

Gareth Small, a former Principal Cornet of the Band and currently Co- Principal Trumpet at the Halle (and the lead trumpet on the Willy Wonka film – all with sensible hair as well) was the featured soloist in the first half with two movements of the Alun Hoddinott ‘Trumpet Concerto'. He was on quite vibrant form, displaying a superbly crafted technique and wonderful warm full tone, but as he was only asked to played two movements (the ‘Andante' and ‘Vivo') of a piece specially written for him (and with the eminent composer in the hall to listen) it was rather like watching Ricky Ponting flay the English bowling attack only playing the front foot drive and the hook shot: brilliant though he was, it only served to highlight a small portion of a player with a complete repertoire of skills.

The austere ‘Andante' brought a dark sombre richness from his flugel playing, whilst the ‘Vivo' was handled with a facile aplomb, only players of the highest rank can manage. It was over though before it really began, and left you deeply impressed by the performer, but deeply disappointed by the thought process behind the cut.

The first half finished with a breezy run through Philip Wilby's classic ‘Paganini Variations'. Ray Farr allowed time for the soloists to display their wares, but otherwise kept a rather strict leash on the tempos, resulting in a homogenous speed throughout. It therefore never really had the sense of drama it required in places or the brilliance in some of the more technical sections, whilst the despairing funeral section was a touch prosaic.

Still, plenty of fine individual playing to report with an outstanding flugel player, David James. Here is a young man with a bright future ahead of him (he currently plays Principal Cornet at the Burry Port Band), and with a pedigree from his father and late grandfather (Alun and Eric James) he will surely go far if he decides to make a musical career for himself. The performance also contained some equally fine trombone work from Paul Jenkins from the BAYV Band, Dewi Marc Storer on horn and a solid bit of bass work too from Robert Graham-White and Steffan Jones.  

The second half was much lighter in character and started with a neat account of Edward Gregson's ‘Laudate Dominum' before the band let their hair down with Pat Methany's ‘Minuano' – a Brazilian inspired bit of jazz fusion that worked because the players really got into the Samba feel with some wicked choreography and the right approach to the style of the music.

A word of warning though to older bands thinking they can make this type of music come off in the same way – do not try it. First, only young players with open minds and an appreciation of different rhythms will capture the feel of the music (those over 30 and brought up on Phil Collins or the mush of prog rock will have atrophied), whilst fat blokes in badly fitting uniforms, sweating like navvies in a coal mine just look plain stupid when trying to wriggle and gyrate like Rio carnival girls. Leave this stuff to the young – they do it rather well.  

This was followed by the one low point of the concert for this reviewer; Frank Zappa's ‘Dog Breath Variations' which although very skilfully arranged by Ray Farr, sounded more like a dogs dinner variations rather than something from the surreally parody Bach inspired pen of the ‘Mothers of Invention'. Zappa for all his talents was also famous for putting two fingers up (he wrote one piece entitled ‘The Voice of Cheese') at what he perceived were the Nixon inspired neurotics running the country in the late 1960's and early 1970' and ‘Dog Breath Variations' is something of a ‘V sign' and urine take towards them.  

On this evidence of the canine inspired title, only 8 out of 10 listeners said they preferred it to something else. Zappa really is an acquired taste even at the best of times.

Gareth Small returned to deliver a cracking ‘Jubilance' on trumpet (which was premiered here some 20 years ago), which once more left you wanting more, before the band rounded off their 2005 Course with two works from the pen of John Williams.

His ‘Schindler's List' music was very nicely performed with some delicate ensemble and solo playing, whilst it all ended with a bit of a romp through the Saturday morning picture inspired ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' which allowed plenty of chances for the percussion team to excel and the band to blow away to their hearts content.

A quick encore and that was that for 2005.

The National Youth Band of Wales is now approaching it's 25th year, and since its inception in 1982 it has produced a conveyer belt of talent that has only been matched by Max Boyce's famous fly half factory: young Welsh talent has been exported from the Principality far and wide (and far too many to the Northern bands in rugby league territories in Yorkshire and Lancashire), and many of the players on show here will surely have fine musical careers ahead of them.

Once more Wales has shown that it has talented players who have the ability, the skills and the enthusiasm to enjoy playing in a brass band. Long may it continue.  

Iwan Fox.