And now for a bit of Brass

This weekend saw the Festival of Brass return to Belfast under The School of Creative Arts, Queen’s University umbrella.
It took place in the Whitla Hall with an all day competition of mostly local bands, with the furthest having come from Drogheda – The Lourdes Brass Band, among the contestants. It was the first occasion I have fully embraced the art form and it is a pleasure to report it is in thriving condition. It acknowledges jazz use of brass instruments, requiem celebratory and mournful shades; also the extent of full orchestras bedded in a brass, percussion sound with the confined form, the brass band, leaving outside its realm, flute reed and sundry other assorted instruments.
This is self limiting of course so that is where the art medium must endeavor to plot a course on the music kaleidoscope heard and listened to throughout the continents. Without going into and comparing those spaces it can be seen, and heard, the narration is heavily localized even if some loose and distant connections are recognisably America, Showtime, Marching and Cinematic on occasion.

The competition would unfold on Saturday morning with the lower entry classes, grades they call them. Each with a set comprising – and some got this out of the way with their first piece – (occasionally thankfully) one of Tom-foolery. Then perhaps a March. Then a solo and then an entertainment or reflective Band expressive piece showing the glories of the music. It was only in 1913 pieces were written for brass. A piece from 1923 , ‘A Spirit of Pageantry‘ by the founding composer Percy Fletcher would later be performed in the full concert performance by The Cory Band, the No. 1 ranked Brass band in the World right now. Of their performance much more later but it should be said their set(s) were to be enthralling and the work was to exemplify how much winning and confidence maintains the very highest standards and thus pours out such great music.

In the starter categories there was to be found plenty of beautiful renditions of complex and simple pieces.
One I was instantly struck with and it lasted throughout the day, was performed sublimely by the Carrickfergus Band, an apparent third grade band, for me this a first class band performance though by The CWA Brass. The piece, my favourite of all the pieces of the sets, was ‘The Witch of the Westmerlands‘ composed by Archie Fisher, in an arrangement by The Cory Band Conductor and today’s adjudicator, Phillip Harper. This was like a piano piece with a somber and graceful air that held attention as it progressed with a delayed bar that ought have been difficult for the players to follow. It was only subsequently I thought this, as it was there in the listening, with no focus but the wonder of the music to the fore holding my attention throughout. It was a superb piece to hear in the Hall.

Hearing ‘The Witch of the Westmerlands‘ kind of points to another observation. So struck by the music and being there and seeing its origin I did not for a moment concern the listening with identifying the instrument it originated from. Indeed it was a feature later that Conductors wisely told us which instrument we were about to hear in a solo and then cue applause at the finish highlighting the major instruments played. That is to do with unfamiliarity, natural curiosity and with educating palates. Somewhere later an extract from ‘Young persons Guide to..’ appeared and there was also a test piece covering all ‘bases’.
There is something extraordinary happening, experiencing afresh, music played well in the correct context, hearing something revised and reinterpreted or having a new insight to a piece simply because it has been taken to a new level. In this case the experience came about through understatement and understanding of the core music by an accomplished band.

When things became more like a runway of competition I unfortunately dropped into my habit of being a scrutineer, hence perhaps the existence of a blog report. Copying down instruments played, critical analysis took on a life of its own and I began thinking about why and where the pieces interested me or others and also the variety of tastes and the distinct style differences which each Band carved out. Each was a Band at the moment of hearing. Nothing can really be judged. Even The Cory Band had a bad start to the year in competition but became unstoppable through musicality. There were wonders of musicality throughout the day and several deserve a mention though they entirely get mentioned as my own musical preferences. Very little of the final judges scoring co-incised with my choices though it was clear what would be generally seen, heard, as being of a consistent enough and popular delivery while embracing the structure and technical constraints. there is no place for what the Japanese call Wabi Sabi in performance here.

In The Comber Silver Band set they themed it around things astral. It began with an arranged Joe Zawinul composition.
Birdland‘ written for Miles Davis is a jazz piece you don’t need to alter. Simple. Everything I have heard of Joe Zawinul’s needs no editing or interpretation it is his. The work of WeatherReport created a never to be matched exploration of jazz and music imagined by a master.
There are apparently many unreleased recordings by this prodigious musician as he forever sat at the keyboard to assuage his creative genius and there must be gems to be uncovered. Joe Zawinul as you will note composed for trumpet and the solid relation of jazz with this Austrian was forged in his classical education. Think Salzburg, don’t think Strauss and the do ra me thing. Somehow his work was embedded in the African sound and he once heard in a Taxi in Mali one of his songs, ‘Black Market’ I think, come over as the Radio Stations theme music! You have to give Comber Silver Band plenty of points for pitching this music out even if it did not need reforming. Nor did the rendition reserved for their finale ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. Maybe themes are a problem.

Wellington Silver Band played a glorious version of the Scottish Official Anthem. ‘Highland Cathedral‘.
Brilliantly it began with the entrance of a lone piper with the Band creating an excellent background tonality, superbly judged.
Again identifying the instrument types didn’t matter (pipes kind of identify themselves anyway!) but the embellishment of sound in the Hall was able to evoke in my mind vistas of the Highland’s long valleys, step and broad mountains. On other edges sea crashing on forbidding rocks beneath rough hills. The piper stole this completely authoritatively and a unification of genre was struck.
Music the genre.
It seemed as though the sound was holding all comers offshore in the spray. That music can conjure up such things is association on a level music has a mastery over us in our continual enquiry. It is a very rich cause that has us listening.
Another string in the Creator’s bow. The Wellington had more pleasures to dispense. ‘Kingdom Triumphant‘ and a ‘a Rondo‘.

Where these competitors shone was sometimes in their musical choices and the Lourdes Brass Band were especially rich with beautiful arrangements by Brendan Breslin of ‘Bound for Bantry Bay‘ (and you can note here the location of Drogheda as a place of departure and important Irish port over a century ago) and ‘Sally Gardens‘.
Another WeatherReport reference arose for me when they began their set. Two kettle drummers were alone on stage and other musicians, bass trombone! trombones arrived playing ‘When Thunder Calls‘. It sounded remarkably like Ravel’s Bolero.
At every WeatherReport concert they would run a tape of the Bolero (back then un-balderdised by skating/film) while the audience filed in beforehand. Having seen them plenty of times, though not enough, for me it formed a part of the performance and everyone knew when the climax arrived then so too would the full band – straight into something like ‘Black Market’. So this piece which I didn’t know was a similar experience.
Is Joe Zawinul up there orchestrating the musical future? I wish he was.

There was another exceptional start when Ballyduff Silver Band used the size of the Hall to create a spatial sound.
Jenny Hill (mezzo soprano) along with a cornet player sang out the first verses of ‘Suil A Ruin‘, a well known Irish lament, and came along one side singing and completing the song centre stage. The conductor, a proud father or relation?, W. Hill whose arrangement it was, kept the Band from overwhelming both soloists in his warm control and instrumentation. There is clearly a conversation going on within this form of band by them taking on influences, harmonious links and connections while constructing wider scoping music.
It may not be as important on a broader basis, for example in England, than it might be here in Northern Ireland, so it needs amongst other things, mere entertainment progression for one; to be taken as scripting a universality of the instruments involved including the voice where we can forge new beginnings.

I began noticing the predominance of male soloists in the latter stages. When the RoughanSilverBandprincipal coronet player Andrea Gordon stepped up to play and also With Sally Ganley alongside there were glimpses of a strong emphasis on the playing and technical dexterity on display. This Band played a version of The Water of Tyne which to me was far superior than a later rehearsal of the piece. Though that was down to the Conductor here, Keith Anderson who energetically led with firm control, great pacing and settled the nerves if there were any as this Band from the opening Spanish tune ‘Malagueña‘ had a set to enjoy and were well received. Their non showy, the music itself the show, focused programme, musicality and evocative pieces, ‘Arnhem‘ was again better than other versions heard on the day, made this one of the fuller enjoyable sets I encountered. They fared less well on the scorecards but I have to disagree though to be fair there were only a few points in any grade in it and what the adjudicators like or are looking for is fairly constrained and very subjectivebb. The march solo did however win.

In terms of the first grade and the Bands with lots of serious rigorous competition, history and practice under their belts or waistbands I was more inclined to look at the general set ups and how they would perform imaginatively. The vision of leaders was clear as a starting point and knowing which worked best for this environment. It was tense and furious at times and the shock and awe tactics were robustly employed with elaboration on solos and spoofs alike taking the audience by surprise and giving it plenty of impact.
That is not to say there was not beautiful music and very evocative playing of the very best at times. There was plenty in everyone of the competing first grade Bands. It led me to think that their entertainment lay with wider viewing and the traditional outposts on tour and in concert. This was a competition format and it seemed that the Concerts themselves might show each in very different light when the Conductor and Musical Director, one and the same?, put together sets to fit perfectly with their own perfected skills.
I will be on the lookout for concerts in the future.

When it comes to Concert going many turn up to hear and see what they expect to hear and see. a favourite artist or genre well trodden and led to by previous collective thought. The same can be said of film, theatre and various music and art. You enter with a preformed consumer banquet of your own and taste the unfolding performance as is. The live experience heightens and adds hopefully to your own appreciation of the art presented and it can become a reformed picture and part of your own narrative. The principal is to appreciate the wonder of the humans in concert together or alone giving of themselves their own appreciation and interpretation.

Having racked up three major awards placing them firmly as they come here from having won the Brass in Concert Championship at the Sage, Gateshead the previous weekend it was to be a lustrous occasion when The Cory Band appeared on the Whitla Hall stage.
It was all the more appreciated as we were honored by having been included in the Diary of what is undoubtedly one of the best band ensembles on the planet at a level where they can appreciate and be appreciated having got it together with their chosen love of instrumentation and the power of music to deliver much more than each part ought too.
It is not arch to assay they were wonderful. They were particularly special and Philip Harper as Conducter/ Arranger/ Composer and having earlier adjudicated provided a leadership bring out not only his own love of this part of the musical landscape but being adventurous in exploring the music landscape.

So what was the programme?
In two parts of very different hue we heard as many of the principle players as soloists as could be reasonably slotted into a continuous programme. The most illuminating and spectacular, was, well I cannot make my mind up.
There was a stunning solo vocal from the male percussionist whose name I lost whose‘Climb everyMountain‘ began the second half in a breathtaking fashion. Welsh singing at its very best with under it a Brass Band who happen to be the best in the world at the moment and for a long while God willing with such a wealth of young and seasoned players shaping their sound. Truly breathtaking from the start of the second half and as the journey, this was to repeat the Sage winning performance as a whole, the theme of Scaling the Heights placed an intention on reaching a metaphorical peak.
To follow this Welsh singing came a Welsh lament, ‘The Dove‘, one of the best songs of the day in fact for me. This just raised the ratings even higher. This song apparently was performed in competition by them at the Royal Albert Hall and the Baritone solo, here as close to perfection I imagine, was the one which carried them over the line on that occasion if I picked up the introduction correctly. In a Salvation Army song or March, a sweeping rhythm with drum kit Harding the calfs came forth with ‘Lightwalk‘. Embedded within it apparently three Hymns one of which was ‘A walk in the Light‘. It gets a separate highlight as It needs checking out and comparing with the ethos it’s new carrier makes of it. This was a third and very strong piece. Into the second stage of the half would come four more items the best of which and we would be biased of course was ‘The Londonderry Air‘ in a curiously brassy, artful, jazzy arrangement made all the more special by the Trombone playing of, again the best there is, modest dip of his shoulder when announced as such by Philip Harper, Chris Thomas. The set was completed and summit of sorts reached with the Philip Harper arrangement, gallantly transcribed and transposed for this ensemble, of the ‘Finale from Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3’ . It was a brave attempt at a complex piece and less is more as I heard it, thinking there must be equally complex but more suitable pieces in the classic catalogue which have at least a more fundamentally brass based element with piano waiting to be discovered and reinvented? Such progressive thinking though was in evidence and there were several standing ovations and two encores before the players could leave the stage this night in Belfast. It will surprise many who have not encountered Brass playing of the depth of music involved and it is of course undervalued and wrongly put in a niche, disposed in one way as a collective idiom but also giving and lending borrowing ideas from across the musical spectrum.

On the day if I were to single out a player whose artistry is fils the space and can be a defining eight of the musical brilliance heard it would be Steve Stewart the Soprano Cornet player who ventured onto E flat Trumpet playing Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto 3rd movement, in The Cory Bands first half. There were several instances when Steve Stewart was lifting and lowering the vibe and he was only one amongst many fine players we were honored and delighted to see.

To those who I haven’t mentioned in the competition I apologies I didn’t get round to it mainly due to other aspects arising which said a bit about the edges and margins where a lot of otherwise overlooked things happen and I appreciated every effort and performance as it went on. There were few points it it in any case and it would be foolish to dwell on the marks on the day, one 23 November 2013.
Hope it was good to you.

Some programme links are copied.

http://www.brassbandleague.org
http://www.philipharper.co.uk
http://www.comberbrass.co.uk
http://www.cwabrassband.co.uk
http://www.lourdesbrassband.com
http://www.thirdcarrickband.co.uk
http://www.ballyduffsilverband.co.uk
http://www.roughansilverband.co.uk
http://www.laganvale.co.uk
http://www.1stoldboys.co.uk
http://www.murleyband.co.uk
http://www.downshirebrass.com

John Graham
24 November 2013

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