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All England Masters 2002:

Test Piece Review:
“Atlantic” – Concerto Grosso for Brass Band
Philip Wilby
Published by Kirklees Music
Commissioned by the Tomra Brass Band, with funding provided by Per Einar Tomren

All things have context – and music is no different from anything else in that sense. Context is different from perspective though and it is therefore important to ensure that when you discuss works of importance you do so with knowledge that there is a substantive difference between the two things. Given that some of the greatest orchestral works ever written have a historical, political or religious context to their inspiration, it should come as no surprise that one of the most talented composers for brass, Philip Wilby gains much of his in the same way. It is also important however that you realise that the context of his works differs greatly to their relative perspectives. Thus, we come to his final work for brass in the form of a test piece – “Atlantic”. 

“Atlantic” is the last work from the composer who has in perspective brought us some of the finest test pieces for brass in the last 30 years. “The New Jerusalem”, “Masquerade”, “Paganini Variations”, “A Lowry Sketchbook”, “Dove Decending…” and “Revelation” form a core of output that will be seen in years to come as some of the most important works ever written for the movement. All however have a different context to their creation. “Jerusalem”, “Dove” and “Revelation” have firm foundations from Wilby’s deeply embedded religious beliefs, whilst “Paganini” and “Masquerade” explore an historical vein of inspiration. “Lowry” has echoes of an almost economic and political cultural essence. So where does “Atlantic” fit in?

Commissioned by the Tomra Brass Band in Norway with funding provided by Per Einar Tomren who owns the much of the ship building industry in the region, “Atlantic” is a Concerto Grosso for band that although prefaced by a biblical quotation from Psalm 107 is essentially a musical tribute to the people of the Tomra community who work in the ship building and fishing industries. Therefore in context, the work is both economically cultural and religious and as such straddles the ground already covered by the composer in his previous test piece output; yet is unique from the composer because of that very duality. 

Psalm 107 itself reads as follows:

They that go down to the sea in ships
And occupy their business in the great waters,
These men see the works of the Lord:
And his wonders in the deep. 

And so to the work itself.

“Atlantic” is a Concerto Grosso for Brass Band. In the composers own words this means, “….a work for several players, who are surrounded by a larger group of musicians who support the musical argument, provide antiphonal musical opportunities, and on occasions overwhelm the solo group in climatic outburts. The piece has an energetic opening movement, which returns at the end, and surrounds an elegiac central section, haunted by muted tones and expressive solos for the inner circle of players.” 

The band is therefore seated to reflect this antiphonal approach with the traditional seating arrangement replaced with a solo cornet bench that now contains soprano, 1 solo cornet, flugel horn, solo horn and 1st baritone. The traditional euphonium and baritone line now contains 2 solo cornets, solo trombone, bass trombone and solo euph, who sits where the second baritone usually plays. Across the band to link together this inner circle are the solo Eb bass and solo Bb bass. This is the “inner ring”.

The “outer ring” is as follows: The traditional back row cornet section is replaced by three cornets, two horns and the remaining baritone and euph, whilst the opposite side where the troms usually sit is now occupied by three remaining cornets and the second trombone. The only players who don’t really move are the second Eb and Bb basses who form the bridge to complete this “outer ring”. The percussion stay where they are thank God. The score reflects this by being split in the same way with the top half of the page containing the “inner” or “Solo Group” parts and the bottom half containing the “outer” or “Tutti” group. The percussion stays in the middle of the page. Got all that? 

The piece is split into two main sections – Part One – which starts slowly (and on a pedal B for the Bb bass!) and then builds with a swell and accel to bar 25. We only need to be 15 bars into the piece for those seasoned bandsmen and woman amongst us to recognise lots of trademark Wilby moments of rhythm, sounds, hidden detail, dynamic contrasts. The tricky technique (although not in the same league as “Masquerade” for instance) that follows is clear and concise and will need a firm control and a lack of desire to try and whip up a storm if it is to be played successfully. Those who try to go hell for leather can expect ‘nil points’ from the Cambridge jury and get deservedly thrown overboard. On hearing the piece it is clear that bands need to be exceptionally careful not to lose control during bars 51 to 169. The solo lines (horn, trombone and flugel) shouldn’t trouble bands of this standard but it’s the accompaniment and tutti and work that needs a firm hand. Too many Roy Keanes’ in the band and you’ll find yourselves in more trouble than a Russian Kursk.

It must be remembered that the piece was written specifically for the Tomra Band, a Norwegian First Section Band and the composer states that he wrote it with certain players very much in mind. Therefore it doesn’t contain the technical pyrotechnics in many of his other works. The movement ends loudly in a declamatory style.

Part Two – entitled Nocturne and Finale starts with a flugel cadenza that again is not too difficult but will need a strong nerve and bags of style, whilst the rep player will need to get his running spikes on as they get to play the off stage reprise a little later. The movement is elegant and sparse in turns and once again there is an emphasis on style rather than technical content, with the euph part containing some lovely moments that extend but do not break the range. Marked at a crotchet = 70, the music moves with a definite pulse. Bands that impress here will be those which allow the music to flow. Care needs to be taken with the demis though – beware! On closer analysis it’s clear that Mr. Wilby has created some moments of real elegance here – expect some exquisite playing in the more cultured performances. 

Finally the reprisal returns and much of the last quarter is taken up of a return to much of the content of the first movement with the exception of 20 bars or so. It must be said that one felt rather short changed in this respect. 

It ends in typical style with a section that is not too far from the ending of “Masquerade” itself. 

As we said at the beginning, all works have context, and in this case the context is clear – it is work of respectful homage to a people who’s lives are inexorably linked to the sea – culturally, economically and religiously. In perspective though, “Atlantic” will possibly be seen as not perhaps one of Philip Wilby’s great works, but none the less a work of substance and one that deserves its place along side his other brass band test pieces.

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