Overture for an Epic Occasion
Three Impressions, Op.36
Symphony in two movements [co-commissioned by National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain and National Youth Brass Band of Wales: “world premiere”]
Overture Le corsaire, Op.21 [arranged by Geoffrey Brand]
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36 – Nimrod [non-credited transcription]
Woodland Sketches, Op.51 – I: To a Wild Rose [arranged by Eric Ball]
A Downland Suite – Elegy
Bugler’s Holiday [non-credited transcription]
Cornet Carillon [non-credited transcription]
Rhapsody: Journey into Freedom
The National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain
Geoffrey Brand [Berlioz]
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 7 April, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
This was a grand celebration of sixty years of The National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. The concert bordered on the indulgent, though – a great deal of music and chat, the latter, for all Bramwell Tovey’s bonhomie and repartee, stretching the evening to three hours-plus and exhaustion (for this listener anyway) and at-times seemingly misplaced given the audience was so small (surprisingly) and mostly converts. Not that the youthful musicians flagged in any way, energetic and virtuosic to their collective Journey into Freedom and even continuing into an encore (a few bars caught on my way out), and consistently doing themselves and their folks proud.
Indeed, if a positive reflection of the ‘youth of today’ is needed then the 80-strong NYBB is a great advert for all that is good: terrifically talented young people coming together with skill and dedication for something commendable, even precious in its gift. Under Tovey’s lively direction (he’s the NYBB’s current Artistic Director) the playing was fabulous and also avoided (just) being aggressively loud – such was the possibility given the number of musicians in too small a space – for smoothness (but not blandness) countered the volume.
The concert opened with Overture for an Epic Occasion (apt!), by Denis Wright (1895-1967), a leading light in the formation and development of NYBB. It’s an impressive piece, proudly ceremonial, deftly lyrical and wistful, and given a fluent and eloquent performance that set an immediate high standard that was maintained for Leslie Condon’s Easter Glory (1965) and Arthur Butterworth’s striking Impressions, also music from the 1960s that is sometimes harshly sounded and inhospitable in its description – bleak and grey. It had been hoped that the ninety-next-year composer would conduct (he too has very strong NYBB connections) but he was detained at home to nurse his wife.
Roy Newsome was also paid tribute to, the longest-serving music director of NYBB, who died last year. ‘Nimrod’ is familiar as a solemn excerpt, here in an unattributed arrangement, but it works best in Elgar’s original context and for the orchestra, although the long, meaningful silence at the close of this performance was movingly managed. Then James Fountain on cornet – he is effectively the leader of NYBB – not for the first time brought his mellifluous timbre and phrasing to ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, but it was a shame to lose ‘March’ from Holst’s A Moorside Suite (unless it acted as an encore). Edward MacDowell’s ‘To a Wild Rose’ (originally written for piano) emerged as tenderly transcribed by Eric Ball, although John Ireland’s ‘Elegy’ (A Downland Suite is a brass band original) goes further in its depth. Lighter fare was now welcome, Leroy Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday (which took a while to get started due to further banter!) enjoyed the flamboyance of several guests, and Ronald Binge’s bell-like effects (arranged by Jan Molenaar?) traversed their own meadow (as Albert W. Ketèlbey might have recognised).
Earlier in the evening Geoffrey Brand, successor to Denis Wright, conducted his transcription of Berlioz, which although skilful and respectful, doesn’t quite convince, not least because percussion is added to the composer’s timpani-only scoring and, furthermore, with the loss of strings and woodwinds comes a lack of dimension. Nevertheless Brand himself belied his mid-octogenarian status as he inspired his young charges.
Perhaps the main interest in the programme was Edward Gregson’s Symphony in two movements, billed as a world premiere if given what was described as a “private performance” the night before in Weston-super-Mare. This is the first time that Gregson (born 1945) has called a piece of his ‘Symphony’, and if in recent years he has been in the orchestral world more than the brass one, his upbringing and early musical experiences place him firmly in the latter sphere as well. Dedicated to Paul Hindmarsh, Gregson’s 20-minute piece is very impressive. Its two movements are openly based on Beethoven’s final piano sonata (Opus 111) – he might have also cited Prokofiev’s Second Symphony as a comparable structure. The opening ‘Toccata’ is thunderous, spiky and energetic (with the occasional echoes of Rawsthorne and Walton) and then a lyrical ‘second subject’ offers respite before tension and drive recall ‘Mambo’ from West Side Story. The longer second movement, ‘Variations’, begins with gleaming, sustained lines to which a scurrying response excites and leads to a gong-capped climax. Further, bluesy, explorations boil to a cloud-clearing fortissimo and a pulsating conclusion.
This is a richly rewarding piece, music that is engaging and satisfying, and which challenges the young musicians, here gratefully taken. Indeed, in the course of this long evening every gauntlet thrown at the players was met in winning style either in terms of ensemble or solo contributions. All involved with NYBB can hold their heads high as they march into their seventh decade.