Student Brass Band Pays Fitting Tribute to Contemporary Composer Edward Gregson

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gregson: RWCMD Brass Band, Andrew Wareham and Edward Gregson (conductors). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 8.3.2017. (GPu)

Edward Gregson (b.1945): Essay (1971); Four Études (2016); Dances and Arias (1984)

There can be relatively few individuals who have contributed more to British musical life in the last half-century than Edward Gregson, yet he seems oddly underrated. This may be because his achievements have been very various in nature, something of which the British have always been suspicious; or perhaps it relates to that snobbishness about the brass-band world which still exists in some quarters.

As an administrator (Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music from 1996-2008, as a board member of many other musical organizations and as an examiner of advanced students),  he has made substantial contributions to the music academies of the country. As a composer, he has written music of quality for orchestra (including a number of fine concerti) and for a variety of chamber ensembles, as well as for choirs, solo piano and, of course, for brass ensembles and bands. He has also composed film scores and written for TV and stage.

Now in his early seventies he seems as full of energy as ever, whether in terms of his work as a composer, or in person as a speaker, teacher or conductor.

In this tribute concert, given by the Brass Band of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (a student band), Gregson himself conducted two of the three works (the Four Études and Dances and Arias) and spoke entertainingly and lucidly about his work (as he did when I heard him at the final concert of the International Brass Band Summer School in Swansea in the summer of 2016).

The opening work in the concert, Essay, written in 1971, was conducted by Andrew Wareham, currently a postgraduate studying Brass Band conducting at RWCMD. Essay was written for the 1971 W.D. and H.O. Wills Championship Finals. Each of the three movements has a quasi-literary title, these being ‘Dialogue’, ‘Soliloquy’ and @Epigram’.

In ‘Dialogue’ the opening unison theme (initially presented on cornets and euphoniums) is particularly striking. ‘Soliloquy’ is predominantly poignant, even elegiac in mood, not least in a fine cornet solo (particularly well-played on this occasion). The elegiac tone is challenged by a noisier middle section, before a trombone solo reasserts the earlier mood and leads into a quiet close. ‘Epigram’ makes use of many rhythmic and dynamic contrasts, and ends with a vivacious and exciting coda. The youthful players of the RWCMD Brass Band acquitted themselves well in a testing piece (to ‘test’ was, after all, the purpose for which it was originally written).

A relatively early work, the music of Essay is somewhat less sophisticated than that of the recent composition Four Études, written in August/September 2016. Grigson explained that the first three études are based upon a set of piano pieces he wrote in 1982; the fourth, on the other hand, being an entirely new composition. The set of four exists in a kind of intertextual relationship with Stravinsky’s Four Études for Orchestra of 1928. Gregson’s first three études carry very similar titles to the first three of Stravinsky’s set: ‘Canticle’, ‘Dance’ and ‘Excentrique’. Stravinsky closed his set with a colourful piece entitled ‘Madrid’ – an orchestration of a piano piece he had written in 1917, after his first visit to Spain in the previous year. Gregson, however, chose to close his sequence with an étude of very different mood, as a tribute to a great city undergoing enormous suffering in the months when Gregson was writing this piece – ‘Aleppo’.

The first étude, ‘Canticle’ has a concision and sparseness quite unlike the music of the earlier Essay. It contains a spirit of hope, though one that isn’t allowed to go unchallenged by conflict and danger, so that it is never simply ‘comfortable’. The second ‘Dance’, is forceful, yet subtle in its rhythms and, as conductor, Gregson drew both power and suppleness from the RWCMD Brass Band. Of the four études, it was ‘Aleppo’ which made the greatest impression. Its opening pages are almost barbarously energetic, shot through with musical imagery of violence and explosions, though it eventually ends with a return to material from ‘Canticle’ and with much calmer chords and bell-like textures, adumbrations of possible hope. The Four Études as a whole, constitute an impressive, richly orchestrated work, full of both weighty thought and emotion.

The closing work of the concert was Dances and Arias, another work commissioned from Gregson for a Brass Band festival, the National Brass Band Championships of 1984. It consists of a single movement (some 13-14 minutes in length) formed by a number of clearly distinct sections alternately fast and slow i.e. dance (fast), followed by aria (slow) and so on. The first dance, full of energy, introduces a motif on the trombones which then recurs, in various shapes and transformations, throughout the work. The first aria is built on a lengthy melody initially played by the cornets, before the second dance, a rapid scherzo takes over. The second aria has the nature of a lament played, principally, on the euphonium and two flugelhorns. After this reaches a climax which dissipates gradually, the sizable percussion section introduces the final dance; this, in turn, is succeeded by a very affirmative coda.

Perhaps some members of the RWCMD Brass Band were beginning to tire by the end of this technically-demanding programme; certainly there were a few more imprecisions of ensemble and intonation than there had been in the previous works, though these were not so serious or so frequent as to detract seriously from Gregson’s typically impressive writing, or to spoil a thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Glyn Pursglove

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