Prom 40: A Glorious Youthful Celebration of Wind and Brass Music at the Proms

16/08/2012

 Prom 40: National Youth Wind Orchestra James Gourlay (conductor), National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain Bramwell Tovey (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 12. 8. 2012 (CT)

Vaughan Williams: Flourish for Winds
Holst: Suite No.2 in F Major
Gavin Higgins:– Der Aufstand
Martin Ellerby: Paris Sketches
Walton: Crown Imperial
Leighton Lucas: Chorale and Variations
John Pickard: Wildfire
Gavin Bryars: After the Underworlds
George Benjamin: Altitude
Derek Bourgeois: Blitz

When Sir Henry Wood’s bust has been packed away for another year and the final strains of Jerusalem have died away once again in the Royal Albert Hall, no doubt there will be many Proms from the 2012 season that will linger in our memories. Yet the pairing of the National Youth Wind Orchestra with the National Youth Brass Band for this Sunday afternoon concert will remain one of the most inspired decisions, if perhaps also one of the most underrated, of the entire Prom season.

The annual visit of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain has always been one of the most eagerly awaited Proms, but visits by the NYWO and NYBBGB are considerably rarer affairs; indeed it is now over a decade since the last appearance of the latter and a whole new generation of players have joined the ranks in the intervening years.

With the NYWO taking the first half and the NYBBGB the second under the direction of James Gourlay and Bramwell Tovey respectively, the audience was treated to two highly contrasting programmes, at the heart of which were two intriguing world premières, one by Ballet Rambert Composer in Association Gavin Higgins and the other by Gavin Bryars.

Vaughan Williams’ brief, celebratory Flourish for Wind was premierèd at the Royal Albert Hall in 1939 and the near-one hundred strong forces of the NYWO immediately demonstrated its credentials as an orchestra as opposed to a band with playing of stirring majesty in the opening fanfares and burnished warmth in the ensuing hymn-like chorale. Somewhat surprisingly, the more familiar Suite No.2 in F Major by Holst was here receiving its first performance at the Proms. James Gourlay drew playing of both character and spirit from his young musicians, with the incisive rhythms of the tricky ‘Song of the Blacksmith and folk dance characteristics of the Fantasia on the Dargason captured with élan. It was the gloriously honed tones of the haunting Song Without Words that made the most telling impression, however, with leader and principal clarinet Henry Melbourne rising to his feet for the ravishing solo line.

Although not strictly programmatic, Gavin Higgins’ Der Aufstand (German for ‘riot’) takes as its starting point the UK riots of 2012, terrifying events that the composer witnessed at first hand from his home in Brixton. Growing from singular subterranean pitches enunciated with a claustrophobic sense of impending menace by the NYWO, the music exploded into a blazing cacophony of distorted fanfares, punctuated by thunderous percussion and the wail of sirens that at times brought to mind the soundworld of Varèse. With screaming aleatoric passages for piccolo and high flutes in the latter stages prefacing the effective contrast of four offstage clarinets and an ending of crushing, even nihilistic power, the score was brought to life with a potent mix of menace and youthful vigour whilst Higgins, not for the first time, showed himself to be a composer of vivid imagination and expressive power. Martin Ellerby’s colourful, witty and beautifully scored Paris Sketches proved the perfect counter balance to the Higgins, its immediately attractive vein of melody tinged with subtle echoes of Ravel, Satie and Berlioz in its portraits of dawn in Saint Germain-des-Prés, Pigalle – imbued with a cheeky humour that could equally be the score to an Ealing comedy as a response to Paris’s answer to Soho – Père Lachaise and a celebratory, bell-laden tribute to Les Halles in conclusion.

With William Walton’s Crown Imperial drawing the first half to a rousing close aided by the additional colour of harp and the majestic weight of the RAH organ in the concluding bars, James Gourlay could have expected no more from his young forces. The beaming smile on his face said it all.

Making his Proms debut, it is impossible not to be swept along by the sheer charisma and dynamism of Vancouver Symphony Music Director, Bramwell Tovey, something clearly not lost on the players of the National Youth Brass Band whose respect was clearly etched across eighty intent and admiring faces.

In what was the more overtly serious of the two programmes, the NYBBGB opened their account with the Chorale and Variations of Leighton Lucas, a composer whose name is rarely head these days despite his close involvement with film, notably The Dambusters and Ice Cold in Alex. Delivered with a blaze of passion in the opening Chorale, the band negotiated the stylistic contrasts of the variations with style, finding notable delicacy in the gentler variations for an ensemble of the sheer size of the NYBBGB.

John Pickard’s music was last heard at the Proms in 1996 when his Flight of Icarus was played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Wildfire was his first work for brass band, a highly virtuosic response to reading a newspaper report about a forest fire. Conceived as a giant, twelve minute scherzo, the cumulative power that Pickard generates through the unfailingly fast and constant tempo established at the outset is utterly riveting, the response of the players under Bramwell Tovey was nothing short of magnificent as the rage of the fire reached a conclusion of towering fury.

Offering a point of elegant repose at the centre of the programme, Gavin Bryars’ BBC commission After the Underworlds proved to be a slowly unfurling series of increasingly elaborate melodic lines; a glowingly sombre six-minute essay in lower band textures and sonorities imbued with pathos, musical gravitas and demonstrating the maturity of the band to telling effect.

At seventeen, George Benjamin was of a similar age to many of the players in the band when he wrote Altitude at the request of Elgar Howarth in 1977, although its sophistication belies the composer’s then-tender years. Its depiction of an imaginary flight at great height was again captured with creditable clarity by the band, the music’s often sparse, crystalline textures always given careful attention. The edgy, ultimately shattering power of Derek Bourgeois’ iconic Blitz was injected with venomous energy by Bramwell Tovey, with the band finding the sense of unease in the music as well as unleashing playing of both impact and detail in the complex counterpoint and dense textures of the final Coda. It made for a visceral close to the band’s magnificent contribution.

As a sultry capital city prepared to party on the closing night of the 30th Olympiad, the members of the National Youth Wind Orchestra and National Youth Brass Band can surely be as proud of their musical feats in the Royal Albert Hall as our athletes in the Olympic Stadium. Each and every one of them deserves a gold medal.

Christopher Thomas

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