Independence Day Concert

A concert of music for military band from both sides of the Atlantic, including ‘The March King’, John Philip Sousa

New Queen’s Hall Symphonic Wind Band
Tom Higgins

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 3 July, 2005
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Wind-band concerts can become bland unless you are an aficionado or a member of the band itself. Perhaps this is something to do with the lack of variety and colour as compared to a symphony orchestra. With an audience of about 100 the Cadogan Hall was a little over an eighth full despite much publicity. In fact, this concert was far removed from the usual expectation and boasted a programme of compositions from both sides of the Atlantic in an Independence Day extravaganza.

Tom Higgins made an admirable job as both compere and conductor. He is known as an Arthur Sullivan specialist, but here the closest he got to “HMS Pinafore” was John Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe Overture. Higgins’s programme note suggests Ansell’s contemporary Eric Coates as the greater composer and judging from Ansell’s piece, that is a correct judgement. Though well executed by the band, the music, consisting of a medley of sea songs including “Rule Britannia” and the “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, was trite, unsubstantial and quite unrepresentative of the quality of the remainder of the compositions played at this concert.

As expected in an Independence Day concert there was a large smattering of John Philip Sousa – composer of the USA’s second national anthem The Stars and Stripes Forever which closed this concert and The Liberty Bell (Monty Python). But it wasn’t the Sousa, however tuneful, that really made the evening. Gustav Holst kept a record of his compositions in a notebook and in the page for 1909 is entered “1st Suite for Military Band Op. 28A” but this is the only evidence of the work’s origins. There is nothing known of performances of it before 1920, the piece itself published in 1921. It was the first piece that really challenged the New Queen’s Hall Symphonic Wind Band, and cracks showed in the slow-quiet opening ‘Chaconne’. The Bass and Euphonium lacked certainty as did the cornets’ breathy piano entry. When the rest of the band entered things had settled down.

There was no such reticence in Leroy Anderson’s Buglers’ Holiday, deftly executed by Messrs. Blackadder, Thomas and Ward on cornets. A keen eye was not needed to see how much the musicians enjoyed this sprightly number: a sentiment echoed by the audience. David Rose’s Holiday for Trombones made a fine showcase for Messrs. Whitson, Willey and Gordon.

As Tom Higgins mentioned, many of the tunes have become well known through association with radio signature tunes. Anderson’s The Typewriter is heard on BBC Radio 4’s “The News Quiz”, but (surprisingly) does not actually feature a typewriter in the score. A little slight of hand, or musical licence, fixed this obvious oversight on the part of the composer and introduced a comic turn by one of the orchestra’s percussionists, Stephen Henderson, armed only with an Imperial typewriter and a shiny red bell.

All the instruments in the New Queen’s Hall Symphonic Wind Band from the 1920s or earlier and so, it appears, did the typewriter. As with all period instruments, the device had a mind of its own and the technical failures caused by keys sticking showed how far we have travelled down the information highway with modern-day ailments such as lost files and computers crashing: evidently not very far.

From the American ‘March king’ in Sousa to the English equivalents in Walton and Elgar who offered a more sophisticated look at the genre. Walton’s Crown Imperial was written for the 1937 coronation of George VI and is a popular concert work. Perhaps it was due to the lack of strings in this arrangement, but the balance was not quiet there: lots of ‘top and bottom’ with little of the middle counterpoint that gives this piece its delight. Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 fared much better. Tom Higgins thankfully did not wallow in the trio section (“Land of Hope and Glory”).

From the genre of the American musical came Richard Rodgers and Frederick Loewe. Rodgers’s ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ is an extended ballet scene from the 1936 show “On Your Toes” and from Loewe we heard a selection of popular numbers from “My Fair lady”. My only criticism of the (otherwise excellent) arrangement was the joins between selections that were, at times, sudden and seemed forced.

Then we heard Eric Coates’s ‘Covent Garden’ (from London Suite). Coates was principal viola of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Henry Wood. His ‘Covent Garden’ tarantella, a folkdance from Southern Italy that was supposedly an antidote to the tarantula’s bite, was taken at a good tempo that almost tripped up the band as the players moved to the one-in-a-bar middle section. All was salvaged in a skyrocket of a performance that confirmed that there were no spiders to be found amongst the bananas in this market.

Despite minor criticisms this was a lively, fun evening full of good sounds and a fine vindication of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra’s very particular ambitions, and which was recorded for CD. A reprise of Liberty Bell served as an encore.

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