Epic Brass II13-Dec-2008
The World of Brass Concert with Black Dyke and the ISB certainly packed them in at The Sage earlier in the year. Looking back, it seems the audience had plenty to keep them happy too.
Black Dyke Band (Nicholas Childs)
International Staff Band (Stephen Cobb)
World of Brass: WOB 132 DVD
Total playing time: 1 hour 30 mins approx
The Sage, Gateshead, was the venue for Epic Brass II, presented by the Black Dyke Band and the International Staff Band as a follow-up to Epic Brass, which took place at the Royal Albert Hall following the National Finals in 2001. The concert itself was sold out, but now those who were unable to attend can share something of the occasion in this well-filled DVD.
The disc opens with a stop-frame montage running from the setting up of the hall through the concert to the final dismantling of the equipment, but then the concert proper begins with the entry onto the stage of the ISB. Leslie Condon’s “The Call of the Righteous” was included to mark the 25th anniversary of the composer’s untimely promotion to glory whilst carolling with Croydon Citadel Band.
After a couple of dodgy moments in the opening cornet fanfare, the performance gains in stature and confidence, and the six cameras succeed in picking up most of the key soloists at the appropriate moment, not least Carl Woodman in the brief tuba solo. An interesting comparison can be made with the rendition of the same work by the ISB of 1966, complete with the composer himself on bass. This can be found in the film of the 75th Anniversary Salute included as an extra at the end of the disc.
In an interview with Julian Bright, who has also provided the excellent sleeve notes, Stephen Cobb explains that Kenneth Downie had recently presented the band with a new transcription of Bruckner’s “Ave Maria”. The cornet opening is very effective, as is the scoring for trombone, an instrument frequently prominent in Bruckner’s own orchestration, and featuring in several of his choral settings. The band produces a full, sustained, organ-like sound, and there is a respectful hiatus before the applause begins at the conclusion of the performance.
The ISB’s final solo item was a new work from the pen of Dudley Bright, Principal Trombone of the London Symphony Orchestra and a bandsman at the Regent Hall Corps. Entitled “The Cost of Freedom”, it is inspired by the selfless commitment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and writer who was executed as a result of his opposition to the Nazi regime. The tone is set by John Stainer’s tune “The Cross of Jesus”, followed by Herbert Howells’ melody “Michael” (“All My Hope on God is Founded”).
The lesser known spiritual “We’re Gonna be Free” is introduced by the trombones, leading to a quasi big band treatment, but with additional runs and figuration, before the entry of Edward Gregson’s reflective setting of “Before the Cross”, first on euphonium then cornet.
The work concludes with the song “The Power of the Cross”, and whilst not in any way an ostentatious showpiece, it presents plenty of challenges to both players and listeners. This thoughtful composition seems to reveal more facets with each successive hearing. It is just a pity that the producers were unable to turn a camera to catch the composer as he acknowledges the applause from the audience at the end.
The afore-mentioned discussion provides a brief interlude before Black Dyke’s individual programme, which commences with the arrangement of Widor’s “Toccata” that Philip Sparke made for them to play at the Albert Hall.
Right from the scintillating opening bars it is clear that the band is on top form, Nicholas Childs keeping the playing tight, and making the most of the opportunities for quiet playing when they arise. The camera-work is first class, particularly when switching between various sections of the band as they answer one another, and it is most fitting that it is Dyke’s fine bass section that is brought to its feet first to acknowledge the applause.
Richard Marshall then delights with a sparkling cornet solo, “Miss Blue Bonnet”. Written by Frank Simon, one of Herbert L Clarke’s pupils who succeeded him as soloist with the Sousa Band, the accompaniment has been arranged for brass by Sandy Smith. Playing without a copy, Richard’s rendition is apparently effortless, and the restrained playing from the band, as well as the sensitive scoring, allows the solo line to come through clearly. It is also good to see the band members joining in the well-deserved applause at the end.
Peter Graham’s “Cartoon Music” is a fun piece, but one which needs a lot of care and attention to detail if it is to work successfully. Here, the visual element is helpful as one can appreciate the various movement and theatrical “business” which goes into the performance. The trombones in particular seem to be enjoying themselves, bobbing up and down in time with their glissandi, and the percussion are able to use nearly every toy in the box!
Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s “Immortal” was written to accompany a ten-minute feature looking at the history of Black Dyke, the feature itself appearing as one of the DVD’s extras. Following a brief narration by bass player Matthew Routley, there is some beautiful sextet playing before first the cornet section, then the full band enters, and various solos and duets allow the band’s Principals to display their undoubted talents.
Paul Duffy and Lee Rigg, Alex Kerwin and Sandy Smith, and Richard Marshall and Brett Baker are all featured, and at one point there is a hefty bass trombone entry reminiscent of Philip Wilby’s “Revelation”. The sustained central section is a tribute to the band’s Principal Cornet players over the years, with further refined playing from Richard. Elsewhere it is good to see the solo work being shared out amongst the front row cornets and other secondary players. There is also some confusion amongst the players when invited to stand to acknowledge the applause, and on the review copy there is an odd change in sound level towards the end of the piece.
For the remainder of the programme the two bands join together, all the featuring Peter Graham either as arranger or composer, commencing with a transcription of the opening from “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss. For this item, the back row cornets of the two bands are ranged across the back of the stage, and there is some sterling work from the combined percussion team.
Stephen Cobb then conducts “Shine as the Light”, selected because of its popularity with both Salvation Army and secular bands. The ISB soloists are to the fore, and the forces are sensibly reduced for some of the quieter passages, leaving the full ensemble for the impressive tutti sections.
Nicholas Childs, who had changed from his black tails into a striking white jacket and black shirt for the second half, took up the baton for David Thornton’s solo, “Fantasy on Sempre Libera” (Verdi arr Graham). Opening with a stunning cadenza, ranging from top to bottom of the range, complete with multiphonics and pedal notes, David employs all the tricks of the trade in an impressive performance, ending with a ringing top F. Once again, sensitive accompaniment allows him to be heard clearly without having to force the tone.
Next comes the premiere performance of “Cats Tales”, a suite paying tribute to five musicians connected with New York, and in particular the world of jazz. “Catalonia” recalls the film music of Elmer Bernstein, with a side drum placed at the front of the platform and Alex Kerwin on flugel walking forward from the back of the stage.
“Catwalk” is a parody of Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” theme, with some smoochy writing for basses and euphoniums, whilst “Scat” takes on the Sonny Rollins standard “Airegin”, with solos for trombone, cornet, xylophone and drum kit.
“Catnap”, based on Gershwin’s “Summertime”, features a very laid-back Brett Baker, and the final “Toccata” unmistakably owes its origin to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. The piece was commissioned by Yukihiro Higuchi for the Tokyo-based Trailblazers Brass Ensemble, and seems destined to take its place in the repertoire alongside such other multi-movement works as “Cry of the Celts” and “Call of the Cossacks”.
“The Appian Way” from Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” is a popular choice for a massed band finale, although many people may be more familiar with Howard Snell’s arrangement. Peter Graham allocates the solo work somewhat differently, thus offering Sandy Smith the opportunity to tackle the tricky solo that Howard gives to flugel – and a grand job he makes of it!
The camera picks up on the ISB’s Michael Calland at the start, and the uniform approach from the bass section contributes much to the piece’s effectiveness. The volume is kept well under control, thus making the final climax all the more thrilling, and there are some good shots of the percussion in action.
The concert closes with a more reflective moment in the form of “How Great Thou Art”, and there is some excellent playing by Kevin Ashman and Richard Marshall introducing the melody together. As with Dudley bright in the first half, the cameras do not pick up on Peter Graham being presented to the audience at the end.
There are three extras included: as previously stated, “Immortal” is the presentation to accompany Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s piece, and features footage of Black Dyke, past and present, both in concert and also in more relaxed mood.
The 75th Anniversary Salute by the International Staff Band consists of a number of items, filmed at Regent Hall on Oxford Street. The reproduction of the colour is not particularly good, and the picture definition is very poor by today’s standards, but the sound quality is reasonably good, and it gives a valuable opportunity to compare the 1966 band with today’s, and to spot the familiar and not so familiar faces.
It is interesting to note the way in which Bernard Adams changes the places of the solo cornets from one piece to the next, with Terry Camsey and Roland Cobb each occupying the end chair. The cameras pick up many of the soloists, although Les Condon’s phrase in “Call of the Righteous” was clearly filmed separately then edited in afterwards.
The third item is a BBC Omnibus film from 1967, featuring Black Dyke, together with GUS and Woodfalls Bands, as they prepare for the National Finals. Once again, there will be many faces to puzzle over, and the chance to see David Reid, more familiar now emerging from the adjudicator’s box, in action on cornet with GUS. Some may find the time clock in the corner of the screen a distraction, but it is a small price to pay for such an intriguing bit of footage.
Whilst the initial excitement over the issue of DVD recordings may have died away, this particular issue should interest both those who want a souvenir of the occasion and those who want to see two good bands in action, and much care has gone into the production. By and large, the music is allowed to speak for itself without longwinded interviews and introductions, and the booklet is informative and to the point.
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