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2018 National Championship of Great Britain
Test piece review: Handel in the Band

Kenneth Downie may have shown that he has something in common with Jurgen Klopp when it comes to creating something to test the mettle of the best opponents in the world...

Handel

Forgive the analogy - but as an ardent Liverpool Football Club supporter, Kenneth Downie will be all too aware of the creative demands required to successfully build an ensemble piece capable of testing the very best opponents in the world.

Both men have tinkered in terms of style and personnel with their initial bespoke blueprint for success.

Gegenpressing

For instance, 'Handel in the Band’, to be used at the Albert Hall this weekend, somewhat mirrors Jurgen Klopp’s efforts to subtly mould a team capable of winning major trophies with a ‘gegenpressing’ ethos that has remained essentially the same as when he first arrived with his toothy grin to light up Anfield.

Commissioned by Brass Band Treize Etoiles as their own-choice selection at the 2013 Swiss National Championships, it initially created an entertaining, if rather lightweight stir if nothing much else.   

Finally, by the time of the Dutch National Championships in Utrecht late last year, any remaining defensive fragilities had been addressed and the piece finally exploded into flight; still retaining the definable Downie DNA of elegance and refinement, but now with a touch of vampish danger and raw edged excitement.  

However, when it was aired a second time at the RNCM Brass Band Festival in 2017, it appeared to have been modified with considered attention to contesting detail. Aided by an intuitive interpretation of muscular elegance by James Gourlay (who also conducted Treize Etoiles), it left a much more indelible impression on the musical mind.

Finally, by the time of the Dutch National Championships in Utrecht late last year, any remaining defensive fragilities had been addressed and the piece finally exploded into substantive flight; still retaining the definable Downie DNA of elegance and refinement, but now with a touch of vampish danger and raw edged excitement.  

Steely resolve

Like the Liverpool manager, over the last few years  Kenneth Downie has skilfully given his work a steely core resolve, with a cutting edge of brilliance that can now more than test the mettle of the very best bands in the UK and beyond. It was as if he had signed up his own versions of Virgil van Dijk, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. 

This then is the version that will be played out in Kensington Gore come kick-off on Saturday; still pacy and waspish in attack, but now also unerringly stentorian and solid in defence.  

This then is the version that will be played out in Kensington Gore come kick-off on Saturday; still pacy and waspish in attack, but now also unerringly stentorian and solid in defence.  

And whilst the energetic ‘gegenpressing’ ethos with its underlying vein of cultured ‘Graingeresque’ humour remains with its knowingly cheeky wink towards elements of ‘St Magnus’, ‘Purcell Variations’ and a fleeting filmatic glance to ‘Gladiator’, it is now balanced engagingly by the beauty of his treatment of the famous ‘Sarabande’ from Handel’s keyboard Suite in D minor (HWV 437) and the verve of the spectacular fugal finale.

Herr Klopp would be delighted.

Downie
The composer on the right wing...

At around 14 minutes in duration, ‘Handel in the Band’ is admirably compact; a composition that doesn’t waste its energies on needless possession-stats padding.

The famous ‘Sarabande’ phrase has a part to play in that, as the ‘La Folio’ structure of one motif, repeated seven times with the seventh statement extended on its final cadence certainly tests creative invention.

Trademark intricacies

However, Downie has got around things by ensuring that each of the linked sections is more akin to a self-contained variation of free thinking tactical awareness built on Handel’s original bass line, which he himself says, “...leads itself especially well to contrapuntal treatment”. 

As a result we hear his trademark intricacies of detail and style play off each other (as well as considered use of dynamic and pace - the adverb ‘poco’ appearing no less than 20 times) - on occasions, almost bar against bar. The momentum ebbs and flows but never loses its energy. 

Drama is evoked without losing a sense of urgency from the very start (with a tricky poco accel), whilst snaking triplet and quaver runs find a meandering vein in the music.  

On first inspection the inner structures and some secondary parts may look rather innocuous, but they are cleverly used as stanchion points - like an old-fashioned left back able to kick any ‘Fancy-Dan’ winger up the jacksy if they take a few too many liberties. The discerning percussion writing adds clever dabs and shades of colour and texture.

Drama is evoked without losing a sense of urgency from the very start (with a tricky poco accel), whilst snaking triplet and quaver runs find a meandering vein in the music.  

As the work develops so do the complexities; the dialogue sharply passing between parts like Barcelona style one-touch ‘tiki-taka’, although the ‘grave’ stillness in the eight bar phrase around the mid-point of the piece (rehearsal letter M) has the ability to instil a sense of palpable melancholic stasis. 

Top, top players

The ‘gaffa’ with the baton in his hand may prepare the tactics and give the hand gestures, but the artistic expression and technical excitement is within the gift of only the very ‘top, top’ (to use current hyperbolic football parlance) players on this occasion.  

And whilst the flugel, solo trombone and soprano (think Salah, Firmino and Mane) may get all the plaudits in a winning performance, it will be the journeymen pros with a job to do that really hold the key. 

Calm heads and cool adrenaline rushes will enable the ensemble to move with purpose, cohesion and transparency.

Get it wrong and the lactic acid will hit the stamina reserves, leaving a blown out band hanging on for grim death as the clock reaches ‘Fergie Time’.   

For instance, making a marked contrast heard in the subtle cameo moments in the vast acoustic expanse of an old cake tin like the Albert Hall will take some doing - as will the pacing of the fugal finale which notches up to 155 (and perhaps more) on the speed dial.  

Get it wrong and the lactic acid will hit the stamina reserves, leaving a blown out band hanging on for grim death as the clock reaches ‘Fergie Time’.   

All that and just one or two lapses in concentration (just cast a mind back to poor Loris Karius in the Champions League Final) and any hopes of title winning glory may well evaporate in front of a conductor’s eyes.

And every supporter, let alone those who follow Liverpool like Kenneth Downie, will know just how heartbreaking a feeling that can be when there is a big, fat silver cup to be won. 

Iwan Fox



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Stuart Black

BA (Hons) Music
Conductor, Teacher, Flugel soloist