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ALBION: 4BarsRest take a closer look at the forthcoming National Finals 2001 test piece.

Name of Piece: Albion
Composer: Jan Van der Roost
Test Piece for the National Finals of Great Britain 2001 Publishers: De Haske Publications BV, PO Box 744, NL-8440 AS Heerenveen, Holland.

Lets separate the facts from the fiction. The facts are these. Albion, is the third major work for brass band for which Jan Van der Roost has taken inspiration from the period of British history known as the Middle Ages.

“Excalibur” and “Stonehenge” make up an impressive trio of compositions that have and will bring much satisfaction to both players and audiences alike and Mr Van de Roost is a mighty impressive composer whose work deserves the recognition that it has finally and belatedly achieved in being chosen as the test piece for the 2001 National Championships of Great Britain. “Albion” is a very fine piece of brass band writing.

The fiction however is not the music but the subject matter, as the composer seems to have taken his historical inspiration from the Walt Disney School of Make Believe and Fairy Tales. Let us point out straight away that this in no way detracts from his fine composition, but you might as well call the piece “Albion” (according to the Brothers Grimm).

For the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is complete and utter Bull. Lets face it. Pulling a sword out of a stone, marrying a woman who runs off with your best mate, having a wizard called Merlin as a dodgy friend and finally bringing peace and harmony to your kingdom of Camelot only to be stabbed in the back and have to throw your best Wilkinson sword blade back into a lake for a woman to come and catch is a bit far fetched ain’t it? This is history according to Hollywood and Monty Python and has kept a cottage industry of nutters and anoraks in business ripping off Americans for years.

After the Romans had come and gone after 400 years of bad weather, lack of pasta and the warm beer, The Middle Ages came along and were as dull and depressing as a night out in Hull on a wet Thursday night. Yep, plenty of fighting, a bit of black death and the occasional debauched activity that kept the peasants from revolting against our Norman Kings and Masters. Arthur, apart from supposedly living in rural Cornwall, which would have been depressing enough, would have been cold, wet and bloody miserable.

Still, if you can out all that at the back of your mind, you are in for a bit of a treat from “Albion”. So back to the facts.

The work was commissioned by the Swiss Brass Band Association with funds provided by them, the Flemish Brass Band Federation, the Dutch Brass Band Championships, the Norwegian Band Federation and Boosey and Hawkes plc as test piece for their respective National Brass Band Championships. It is dedicated to Markus Bach who more than any other man has striven to get recognition for European composers to be featured at major brass band events.

Just like the fairy tale, the music is very complex. To start with the band will have to make arrangements to accommodate more percussion that can be found at the Notting Hill Carnival. Three separate sets of percussion are aligned at the right, left and centre of the back of a traditional formatted band line up. In addition, the cornet section is equally divided into fanfare groups around the band. Finally, three different types of side drum are also strategically situated to enhance the atmosphere. Got all that eh?

Off we go then. 58 bars or so of turbulent fanfares and drum rhythms herald the oncoming declaration of the Albion theme which the composer notes on the treble stave as A, D (which represents the letter L), Bb, A (which this time represents the letter I), G, (representing O) and F (representing N). The turbulence before the arrival of the theme is cleverly realised as the individual groups play in different times and tempo, which enhances the sense of chaos that is only overcome by the introduction of a series of chords from the main body of the band as the dynamic level of the chaos finally subsides. Enter Arthur.

One of the major plus points of the piece is the clear directions given on all parts, not only giving clear indication of beat patterns (so that rehearsal is not interrupted by your bass trom player asking one thousand and one silly questions) but choreographic directions as well. Full marks Mr Composer!

On we go then with Arthur bringing the first signs of peace and harmony (a bit like Tony Blair in 1997), before an exciting Allegro energico heralds passages of technical complexity in various time signatures. There’s a lovely near full band glissando and valve smear that will take a fair bit of work to carry off and some tricky work in the cornet, horn and sop. All this carries on for a fair old time as Tony (sorry, Arthur) and the lads of the Round Table set about the ritual slaying of dragons, elves, and assorted J.R.R. Tolkien characters that supposedly inhabited Cornwall and Wales at the time. Either this or they were on the magic mushrooms or something. Its good robust writing though.

The scoring here is complex and will take a good band of technicians to overcome with clarity and style. A disciplined approach will be needed by conductor and players alike as the music can lead the band into a progressive spiralling of tempo.

Rehearsal marking 182 sees a section marked Marziale, but it will require some truly fine playing to make it sound clear and precise. The top cornet line and sop in particular have their work cut out in areas of real hard technique, before the section ends with a huge piano to fortissimo three bar crescendo. This is dramatic stuff.

As ever, the love interest rears it’s ugly head and rehearsal marking 216 sees the introduction of a Larghetto section that is quite beautifully realised by the composer. Lots of fiddly work from solo cornet, horn, sop and flugel will require players to perform with style and panache just as Lancelot gets his leg over Lady Guinevere. The poor old euph player will be cursing the fact that he has to play a top E mf trill though (seems she wasn’t quite the pushover he had expected). The theme returns again and the percussion players have a chance to show off by enhancing the music with some well thought out effects. (They are too complex to mention here, but it seems Lancelot had a pretty impressive pair of timps to go with his jousting pole). Again though, it’s a section that musically as well as technically testing.

Back to business for the lads in the chain mail and rehearsal marking 282 starts the long journey home. Again the composer has made things complex, but there is clear thought to the musical line and players will have to realize the importance of each of their parts to the overall musical picture. Given a lack of thought it will sound a mess, but the composer has given clear lines that the bands will do well to follow. The build up to the Stringendo before rehearsal marking 344 will take a lot of practice before it comes off.

Finally we have the big theme returning (this time in a major key) but again there is a lot of understated detail that needs to be brought out to make the music really come to life. A final Vivo is cut short (Arthur gets stabbed in the back or something) before a mighty impressive ending that will require strong lungs and even stronger lips to make it come off with style.

This for us is a very impressive and artistic work from a composer who has brought fresh ideas and more than a little individualism to a welcome test piece. It will sort out the big boys from the rest for sure, as there’s plenty of scope in both the dynamics and technique to make even the best bands put in the hours of work.

This for us is a worthy test piece for the National Finals and one that hopefully see Jan Van de Roost write again for bands at the top most level. If only someone could buy him a proper history book.

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