Fine Arts Brass Ensemble 25th Anniversary Concert


Conductor: Stephen Roberts
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts University of Birmingham
In memory of Sir Malcolm Arnold CBE (1921 – 2006)
Sunday 1st October

This was a great trip down ‘Memory Lane' having followed these guys since the very beginning to now. On a selfish point it was especially nice for me as I started young Simon Lenton on road of brass playing, with him playing Soprano Cornet at Bulkington Silver Band at the age of 8...

The event ought to have been better attended but it was good to see many players on stage with brass band backgrounds.

The Fine Arts Brass Ensemble started life at the University of Birmingham in 1980, with Birmingham based music students; Andy Culshaw (trumpet) -  Bryan Allen (trumpet) Stephen Roberts (horn) Simon Hogg (trombone) Owen Slade (Tuba) - In fact the name for the group was taken from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts so it was only right that this Anniversary Event be held there.

The line up stayed the same for seven years until Owen moved on to the London Philharmonic Orchestra being replaced by Richard Sandland. Again a stable team until 1995 when Andy Culshaw decided to spend more time playing Golf being replaced ironically by one of his students Simon Lenton and two years later when Bryan Allen moved to Scotland accepting a position as head of  brass at the Academy, Angela Whelan took his place (and much more attractive she is too !!)

Since 2005 the old stalwarts have moved on leaving Simon and Angela to run the group and to embrace a new generation of brass players; Sam Elliott on Tuba, Chris Parkes on horn, and Katy Pryce on Trombone.

Over the years FABE have always been unique providing great entertaining concerts and in commissioning major works from over fifty composers including, Leonard Salzedo, James McMillan, Philip Wilby, Michael Nyman John McCabe, and of course Sir Malcolm Arnold who the Quintet affectionately refer to as an honorary ‘drinking member'..

Today was a special celebration of over 25 years of music making – more than 2500 concerts in 70 countries from Zanzibar spice markets; to Pier 339 in San Francisco….

FABE now has a large discography of nearly forty recordings, ranging from the A-Z of Jazz to James MacMillan's Vigil Symphony with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Fine Arts Brass always believed that concerts should  be entertaining embracing a wide range of musical styles including the lighter ‘lollipops' (as Sir Thomas Beecham called them) and the new works and transcriptions of the classics that typified Fine Arts Brass Ensemble over the years.

Especially nice to see the old members Andy Culshaw, Richard Sandland, Bryan Allen and of course the conductor for the evening Stephen Roberts, apparently Owen Slade (original Tuba player) was recording the score for the new Bond Movie so was unable to be around.

Toccata from Orfeo (Monteverdi   Arr Stephen Roberts) was a stunning opening for 10 piece brass,  antiphonal piccolo trumpets setting the scene for the afternoon with a typical bright and brilliant Stephen Roberts transcription. That was followed by Brass Quintet No 1  (Malcolm Arnold), a well known and difficult work put across very well. This was one the very early works recorded by FABE and still as fresh as ever. 

If you have an original vinyl copy of FABE's first recording 'Pastime With Good Company'  you will find a recording of this very work which Arnold himself rated as one of the very finest. So very good that it is programmed here also.. Malcolm Arnold himself was a fine Trumpet player and in this work he shows off the dashing semiquavers work in the two outer movements no problems there at all !! . In contrast, the central Chaconne shows Arnold's somber episodes as  evident in many of his Symphonies, particularly, the notorious trombone cadenza very well played on the day by Julian Turner (of Desford Band) All in all a great live performance.

Brass Quintet No 2  (Malcolm Arnold) was a natural progression. This work was in fact written for the FABE in 1988, as short five minute3 movement opener and whilst no real fireworks and  not being a major test it does have some nice moments. Particularly the 3rd movement which has hints of his later Orchestral works especially the Irish Dances which he wrote two years earlier…. As Arnold said 'Why write No1 again?'  He did actually plan to write a 3rd but time moved on and just never got around to it..

Extracts from West Side Story  (Leonard Bernstein  Arr Simon Lenton) had a real WOW factor. A Quintet transcription of the West Side Story Dances ?!!… No way would you expect this to work for five -  BUT it did, and in buckets..  the three extracts were the opening Prologue, Mambo and America, excellently linked and the atmosphere caught so well. As you'd expect a need for a true ‘lead trumpet' was very well handled by Mr. Lenton.  - I look forward to the up coming recording project of the work, which I understand will be a CD of Bernstein and Sondheim to also include Bernstein's overture to Candide in addition to Sondheim's Incidental music for the only film score he composed; 'Stavisky'..

The 10 piece Brass composition and world premiere Breathless by Stepen Roberts was next.  This was written especially for thes concert. As Steve explained, by making reference to the versatility and the many and varied styles of FABE and by incorporating elements of big band style with astringent atonality this worked really well. Inspired also  as a homage to the recent passing of Maynard Ferguson in an frantic manner and to be sure just listening less us ‘Breathless' great stratospheric playing from "Lenny the Lip" Lenton.. The title Breathless is subtitled by a quote from Lewis Carol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.."Oh dear! O dear! I shall be too late…"

More Malcolm Arnold followed with his Symphony for Brass. Possibly the most important composition for 10 piece brass of the 20th century – written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble in 1979, just after Arnold had suffered a complete mental breakdown so even by Arnold's standards it is very dark in places. This was stirring and powerful performance of this physically & emotionally demanding music. Programmed towards the end of a heavy program you could see the relief on the players at the end as they now moved into the ‘lollipop' section of the concert and to get ready to have some fun…!!

They Can't Take That Away From Me (George Gershwin  Arr Stephen Roberts) was a lovely response of direct cntrast.. Scored as a trumpet duet with great visual entertainment with Angela Whelan playing particularly hard to get !! As many know, Steve Roberts has a deft touch in such arrangements..

Liberty Bell March   ( J. P Sousa   Arr Stephen Roberts) was a fine addition to the concert. Not much to say here, jovial relaxed playing particularly  the introduction of Andy Culshaw and his  fine  soloistic bass drum playing'!

A Taste of Tango   (after Beethoven   Arr Stephen Roberts) was another Roberts master-class in setting the famous Fur Elise to a tango rhythm. I heard someone in the audience ask if this was to be recorded, but I'm not sure if a bad taste CD is on the cards! It reminds me of an open adjudication entertainment contest we did many years ago with Steve where he conducted an entire Sousa march in 3 in a bar! 

This was followed by Alexander's Ragtime Band  (Irving Berlin   Arr Stephen Roberts). For those that have a copy of the groups CD ‘The A to Z of Jazz' will know this well and live it works so much better especially the sounds of the piccolo trumpet mirroring the clarinet sounds of the original.

There is no doubt that Malcolm Arnold's concert march The Padstow Lifeboat must be one of the most popular brass band pieces ever written. It has gone around the world taking the name of the small Cornish town with it and has been transcribed into wind band and orchestral versions. It is in fact a very personal work, written by Arnold in 1967 specifically for the launching of a new lifeboat in Padstow by The Duke of Kent.

In an interview he gave on Padstow Quay, which was broadcast on Radio Three, the composer said "The lifeboat here is very much part of every body's life. They do some tremendously heroic rescues, I know the crew, I know the Coxswain - Coxswain Elliot, most of them are friends of mine and I was struck by their heroism and it being very much part of the Town I thought I would like to write a march, that's all". … and today the 10 piece showed the colours and atmosphere particularly the Fog Horn… rattling around the room being played on two tubas'!! Thanks to messrs Sandland &  Elliot. Not to mention more, tasteful Bass Drum work from AC !!

There of course had to be an encore and it was fitting that it was Putting on the Ritz   (Irving Berlin   Arr Stephen Roberts) - a fitting foot tapping finale for a very entertaining afternoon… As per the program notes exactly.

So happy anniversary FABE and let us raise a glass to the next 25 years. Finally, I have to mention the fact that the concert was also the official launch of FABE's new CD;  The Complete Brass Chamber Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold. Whilst much of the chamber repertoire on the disc might not be familiar to "Brass Band" players, the CD does contain three works that will be; for instance new transcriptions for quintet of Arnold's three ‘Little Suite for Brass' works.

Sir Malcolm Arnold gave FABE his personal blessing to arrange these pieces in 2005. Interestingly, these pieces were originally composed in five parts and then orchestrated for full brass band with all the normal doubling and trebling of musical lines you expect to hear with 25 players. In these new quintet versions the works are given a new freshness and air of simplicity that will certainly arouse interest from those that know this repertoire well. - I understand that Studio music have already expressed a wish to publish them.

Robert Stew