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Nationals 2001: Gala Concert Review

Epic Brass – featuring The Black Dyke Band, The International Staff Band and The Symphonic Brass of London

Royal Albert Hall: Saturday 20th October 7.45pm

The promoters couldn’t have asked for anything better could they? A great day’s contesting had finished just about on time and to cap it all the winning band were going to take part in the Gala Concert just a couple of hours later. Add the crowd pulling International Staff Band and the Symphonic Brass of London and they surely had a dead cert success on their hands.

The old Hall shone in all it’s faded glory and outside there was even a ticket tout trying desperately to flog off a few seats in the stalls, whilst inside the auditorium was about three quarters full. The only spaces were in the very top stalls near to the gods, which had just a sprinkling of punters and the main floor where the back four or five rows were empty.

Before Black Dyke opened proceedings the two huge screens perched high above the two sides of the stage showed a video introduction of the band. This was an excellent idea and put the audience in the right frame of mind so that they burst into applause as Nicholas Childs and Geoff Whitely, the bands administrator brought the National Trophy onto the stage to sit proudly next to the new Champion Band of Great Britain.

Sheila Tracy was again the compere, and again was a complete irritation with her inane babble and her habit of stating the bleeding obvious in her oh so correct BBC home service tones.

Still, Dyke hadn’t had chance to celebrate their win and were in a bit of a rush to get their main segment over and done with. They opened up “Toccata in D Minor” – the Ray Farr version, not the Bach original and fairly flew through it. Nearly all the detail was lost in the acoustics, but to be honest, who cared? The percussion were very good though.

Before the next offering, up popped Nicholas Childs on the big screens looking like an image from the film “Blade Runner”. He’s an imposing chap, but having him look down on you from 50 foot up on a screen the size of a London Double Decker Bus is a little spooky and reminded you of the scene in “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles. Still it certainly beat Ms Tracy, even though we thought he introduced the next item as “La” instead of “Le” Corsair.

A couple of hectic minutes that was over and done with! We don’t know if the band and MD had done a deal to get to the pub a bit quicker but it was a whip through with the turbo charger on. All the detail got lost in the empty spaces, but as we said before – who cared? Black Dyke were National Champions.

Chance of another look at the screens and this time Nicholas Childs doing a more than passable impression of Michael Parkinson in interviewing David Thornton (although it would be interesting to find out how many out takes there were). It was a bit cheesy but none the less a welcome change from the usual weak introductions many concertgoers have to put up with.

David was on very fine form and gave a spankingly good account of himself in Philip Sparke’s “Brillante”. At the end he was deservedly awarded the Euphonium Player of the Year Award for 2001 – a fine achievement for a player who has really matured into one of the very best in the business. His playing both on the contest and concert stage for Black Dyke over the past year has been of the very highest class and this was an award that was fully justified for a very popular and likeable young man.

A last look at the screens and Dyke finished off with another up-tempo run through the “Toccata from Suite Gothique”. This was a fine end and featured a little chap (he seemed little as he was so far away) on the organ of the Albert Hall, which added it must be said very little except a rumbling drone to the music. Still Dyke had done the business and could go off for a well-earned shandy before the second half.

The International Staff Band took the stage (after a short video) and sent the willies up most of the audience by starting off with music that sounded as if it was the theme from the original Star Trek shows of the 1960’s. You know the bit that starts just before old James T. Kirk says “Space – the final frontier” – yep, that bit. Very odd. Still the music entitled “Truth Aflame” by Kevin Norbury was a nice enough bit too much of a pot - pourri of ideas and thoughts to work for us.

Stephen Cobb conducted in a very precise and elegant manner and he himself introduced the next item, “I know Thou Art Mine” by Len Ballantine which before the band could start playing was interrupted by an amazing bit of nose blowing from a member of the audience – Bleeding heck mate and heaven help anyone who was seated in front of you.

The music was nice enough, but the amazingly the big screens put up the words of the hymns to coincide with the music – a bit like a Salvationist Karaoke Night! Spooky ain’t the word for it as the group of people around me started to sing along. It was a nice idea that should have been explained a bit more to the audience – I felt I was in the middle of a revivalist meeting.

Kenneth Downie appeard on screen to introduce his “Rejoice! The Lord is King” which was given a fine account by the band. Based on excerpts of Zadock the Priest it was a fine piece of brass writing and it should hopefully be heard more often in the future.

15 minutes for a break and then back to concert and the Symphonic Brass of London, who opened with “Dance Episodes from On the Town” and featured the third movement, “Times Square 1944”. They then followed up with the “Suite from West Side Story” which has become something of their hallmark over the years.

The playing was of a very high standard, although it did lack the polish of some of the other combinations we have seen under the ubiquitous banner. Eric Crees conducted with style and the playing of the individual members was excellent. It was nice to see Robin Taylor, once of Grimethorpe, on euphonium and Gareth Small once of Penclawdd Brass on flugel horn.

Both pieces worked well, but you had the feeling that this was really just another job for the boys and although it was slick and very professional, it was a bit cold in it’s execution. Still you have to admire the standard of their playing, even if one or two of them looked more than a little bored.

The finale saw the massed bands (and we mean all three combinations) squeeze onto the stage for a run through four items of enough volume to rumble the foundations of the hall.

“Also Sprach Zarathustra” complete with splits and blobs was exciting and very loud, whilst “Lord of All Hopefulness” by Kenneth Downie was very well performed and a delight amongst all the crash bang wallop.

The highlight however was the duet between David Daws of the Staff Band and Roger Webster of Dyke in “Wonderful Words” by Wilfred Heaton which was superb. Both are players of the very highest class and both complimented each other with such musicality. It was worth the £15 ticket price alone.

Finally, the “March from the Pines of Rome” which to be honest was so loud it nearly hurt the ears. Still exciting stuff and the audience loved it – which is what it’s all about really isn’t it?

People have complained over the years that there should be a return to the Gala Concert as it should be the climax of a weekend of music making. On this evidence, Kapitol Productions have taken a huge risk and made it work very well. The International Staff Band were good value and of course brought the crowd in, and the Symphonic Brass were truly professional, but it was Dyke’s win in the afternoon that somehow put the icing on the cake and made the event a bit more special.

Congratulations to Phil Morris and Nicola Bland for the promotion of the event, and to the Salvationist Publishing Press for stumping up the considerable money (about £25k we here) to underpin the event itself. Lets hope it will continue next year.

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