FORMIDABLE FODEN'S - Full coverage from the 2021 National Brass Band Championships

Issue 6112

HOW TO IMPRESS - Amos Miller on flourishing in a conservatoire audition

COMPOSER CAST - Liz Lane on her fascinating early musical life

DEPARTURE - Cornet star Kirsty Abbotts leaves Carlton Main

Review: Banding giants unite

Saturday 18 September, 2021

There may have been no British Open Championship recently, with the 2021 event set to be carried over to next year, but audiences still descended on Birmingham's Symphony Hall for a Sunday afternoon packed with brass band music making. Steven Mead reports on a brass gala concert featuring two of the finest bands around, Cory and Black Dyke, as they took to the stage in the impressive auditorium.

 

Brass Gala Concert
Cory Band and Black Dyke Band Conductors: Philip Harper and Nicholas Childs Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday, September 12

 

There was a palpable sense of relief, bordering on excitement, to hear the world’s two top-ranked brass bands perform together on the same stage in the beautiful acoustic of Symphony Hall, Birmingham. As the start time arrived, there was a sense of disappointment that the hall wasn’t more full, though it was understandable given the fact that the previous day’s entertainment had been postponed. Outside, in the coffee bars in the recently revamped Symphony Hall complex, there was great camaraderie between musicians, friends and associates who hadn’t met within this ‘brass band’ environment for way too long.

And so it was the theme ‘good to be back’ that permeated the afternoon, and mentioned frequently by both conductors in the introductions to the music – but what of the music? A Sunday afternoon band concert doesn’t need to be cutting edge and I’m sure to the relief of the vast majority of those in attendance, it wasn’t. We must also bear in mind that the bands haven’t had a vast amount of time to learn new repertoire, and both bands must have their minds on events at the Royal Albert Hall in a couple of weeks. Although various websites had announced the music to be played in advance it was slightly disappointing that there was no printed programme for the souvenir hunters.

Cory Band began the afternoon’s entertainment and did not disappoint. From the opening number, Mark Taylor’s Brass Machine to final piece, La Suerte de los Tontos, the audience was treated to a masterclass of outstanding band playing. Textures and balances always clear, technique in abundance, but everything controlled and shaped by Maestro Harper. For this listener, the musical climax came early with a thoroughbred and thoroughly imaginative performance of Elgar’s Severn Suite. The musical line was beautifully maintained throughout each movement, and in particular the toccata showed there was absolutely no signs of rust or neglect with the technique of this formidable band. Equally impressive were the gentle colours in the slower sections of this work. Elgarian rubato, perhaps risky in a contest situation, could be enjoyed to the full in this concert performance. Perhaps only a sense of finality was missing at the conclusion, leading to some seconds of silence before the applause. Or was it a moment of respect? The seriousness and beauty of this work allowed the audience to enjoy the lighter items that followed even more, given some very slick presentation with Elephant Patrol and La Suerte de Los Tontos, being the bookends to a delightfully crafted Trust in Me, played with great sensitivity by solo trombone Chris Thomas.

I have two lingering thoughts from this outstanding Cory Band set. The set-up band and audience photo for the Facebook page, a feature of their concerts, makes me a little uncomfortable, especially when the audience is told they need to be more active, and to repeat the photo. When people have paid good money to hear a concert, I’m not sure we should really be doing this. Also, when we have soloists delivering jazz style, stand-up solos with full band accompaniment, it might be an idea to think about adding a microphone for the soloist. A couple of times the stand-up solos didn’t project around the hall. Minor quibbles in a brilliant opening set.

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Issue 6109 digital September 16, 2021

With the smallest of intervals, the famous Black Dyke Band took to the stage. The opening number, Home of Legends by Paul Lovatt-Cooper, demonstrated the rich, full sound and virtuosity of the band, with a first-class solo introduction from Richard Marshall. Dan Thomas then ensured that the Thomas family would dominate the solo items for the afternoon, with a dazzling rendition of Pablo de Sarasate’s violin showpiece Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs). Dan’s high notes seemed to be in sparkling form, including a rather astonishing super A to finish. For me a little more space in the opening cadenzas and expressive lento section would’ve provided the perfect contrast to the Vivace that ensued.

There was nothing as weighty as the Severn Suite in this programme, and the band chose to present the Black Dyke Big Band Set that has delighted the audience for the past few years, consisting of a medley of Sweet George Brown, L’il Darlin’, Ol’ Man River and Stardust. The latter work was very skilfully presented by trombone soloist Brett Baker. Refraining from joining the debate about brass bands playing big band and swing music, it must be said the Symphony Hall audience really enjoyed these pieces and there was undoubtedly great drive and precision shown by the ladies in gentlemen of the band. Great thought was also given to the presentation, making for an enjoyable segment of the programme. The band also turned to Paul Lovatt-Cooper for the finale, Fire in the Blood, written for the ISB. There were a couple of exquisite soft moments in this performance, as well as some tremendous full playing that almost lifted the roof. There were, however, also a couple of very uncomfortable moments of tuning and ensemble precision in the final section of the work.

We heard less clarity and inner detail here than with Cory’s performances, but make no mistake, it would be in no way surprising to see these two bands heading the prizes in the National final in London. After a 20-minute intermission, it was a real joy to see both bands sitting together, and clearly enjoying each other’s company. They know each other well and the long-standing friendships that exist between the players were also highlighted by Nick Childs as he introduced the final item.

This final segment of the concert had some very tasty playing, with a high level of dynamic discipline that you don’t often hear with massed bands. Philip Harper guided the bands through the Liberty Bell March and Goff Richards’ brilliant arrangement of Let’s Face the Music and Dance, which has to be one of the very best arrangements of its type in the whole of the brass band repertoire.

So to one of the most trusted finales in brass band concerts, since the 1980s. I was privileged to be playing with Desford when Howard Snell first introduced his arrangement of Procession to the Minster. As with all the great music and arrangements, this has lost none of its vitality, and it was given a well-controlled and quite stunning performance, directed by Nicholas Childs, the highlight of which for me was the beautiful flugelhorn playing of Black Dyke’s Stephanie Wilkins. As if the audience wasn't satisfied enough, a well-shaped and sonorous performance of Sullivan’s The Lost Chord concluded a first-class afternoon of brass band music making. It is very good to be back.