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Bromley Youth Concert Band Perform Gorb World Premiere

Conductor Michael Purton

  • Over the Hills and Far AwayPercy Grainger
  • Armenian DancesAlfred Reed
  • War of the WorldsAdam Gorb

I must apologise to Michael Purton and the Bromley Youth Music Trust for failing to review a concert they gave last March with a world premiere by Adam Gorb. However, it chimes nicely with my theme of RAMP, since it was given in the very generous acoustic of St. John's, Smith Square, one of London's major concert venues.

Bromley Youth Music Trust has for many years been in the vanguard of British music education, and it was good to hear in a programme by the Youth Chamber Orchestra and the Youth Concert band that standards of teaching and performance in the Borough are as high as ever. The Chamber Orchestra began the evening with a performance of a String Symphony by Mendelssohn and were then joined by the celebrated pianist Philip Fowke in Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto, which received a mature idiomatic reading with warm, stylish strings and some distinguished solos from wood wind and horns. Conducting was shared between Jonathan Josephs and John Esaias, both with huge experience of music in schools but with a professional playing background which obviously informs their work with the students. The same is true of Michael Purton, conductor of the Concert Band, who for many years was Principal Horn with the Hallé Orchestra and Senior Horn Tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Bromley Youth Concert Band is nearly 80 strong, with no less than nineteen clarinets, ten flutes, brass and percussion to match. It was good to open the concert with one of Grainger's fine concert marches, Over the Hills and far Away though I missed the two little strains of singing that the great man inserted, and for Grainger, or indeed most wind music, it is essential to exploit the full range of dynamic contrast from pp to fff; Grainger, like Mahler, is a composer of extremes, but we were never taken out of our sonic comfort zone by this performance. February will see the fiftieth anniversary of the great man's death - CELEBRATE

Alfred Reed is one of many American composers hugely experienced in handling massed wind, able to make any band sound good with brilliant scoring of attractive music. The influences on so much of this repertoire lie in Hollywood, a sort of post-Rakhmaninov-Copland collage of ideas which strike us all as familiar and which never frighten the horses. There is a comfortable sweep to the melodic material, rhythmic variety is provided in repetitive ostinati, harmonies rarely make a maiden aunt blush, and if in doubt the brass and percussion will sort out any intonation problems. I often emerge from works like these wondering whether oboes and bassoons actually played, or whether the horns and saxophones ever feature without each other. In short, and from a biased view, this repertoire is extremely useful at filling up a programme and making the players feel good, but I don't think that the musical challenges develop the band or its audience. These Armenian Dances begin very innocuously, but the finale is good fun, and the Bromley Youth Concert Band played them with panache and enthusiasm.

Adam Gorb Premiere

The same cannot be said of Adam Gorb who to my mind is one of the leading composers of today working regularly with bands and wind ensembles. What he does even in his big populist "band" pieces like Yiddish Dances, or Dances from Crete, is to treat the group like a huge chamber ensemble, and give responsibility to individual players and sections, with a varied phrase structure and complex rhythms which try and tease players and audience.

The War of the Worlds was commissioned by Bromley Youth service as a tribute to HG Wells, who for a long time lived in the Borough. It is a twenty minute tone poem, strongly pictorial. A miasma of chordal clusters for muted set the scene, out of which emerge rising arpeggio figures for clarinets, solos too for flute and bassoon with a rolling line in the basses which sounds a little like a chaconne. The Clarinet arpeggio dissolves onto the strike of a bell and an off-stage trombone - shades of Mahler - strikes terror. Bedlam ensues with ostinato figures hurled around over a walking bass line with an ominously ticking woodblock. The mood changes dramatically to muted brass chords slowly moving under solos for piccolo and later celeste. Another episode develops, as the saxophones, in this premiere wearing chancy headpieces like men from Mars, slowly wend their way through the audience, to be met by defiant chords and jagged patterning from high wind and low brass. The fight is on, a fleet scherzando , athletically leaping from bottom to top of the wind orchestra until the entire orchestra thunders out a terrifying passage in parallel discords. The men from Mars are left defeated, weeping in downward glissandi, with heartfelt elegiac passage for solo oboe which in turn develops into a moving lyrical section for the woodwind, set against horns and later low brass, with a final stentorian intonation from the bass trombone, a confident soloist as were all the principals in this extremely fine wind orchestra.

Michael Purton was for many years principal horn with the Hallé Orchestra, and my principal horn tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music. His subsequent career as Head of Wind and Brass at Trinity, allied with developing a recording catalogue which embraces most of the leading military bands of today, has given him a great perspective on the development of wind orchestras and their repertoire, and the Bromley Youth Concert Band is certainly one of the leading wind orchestras of today. A number of fine recordings have emerged from Bromley, which I hope to review in my next Homepage. Many congratulations to Bromley for its commissioning programme, and for its fine orchestra and Youth Concert Band. The evening was an example of fine programming, excellent conducting and playing, set in one of London's major concert halls. Having heard the Coldstream Guards in a great concert at St John's some years ago, I often dream of a regular series of concerts by our best Youth, Conservatoire, amateur and professional bands. Maybe this could start as part of the Olympiad in 2012, and meanwhile, if there is another BASBWE national or regional conference, invite Michael Purton and his Band.