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Review|The WFEL Fairey Band at Pemberton Band Room

The WFEL Fairy Band Entertain at Pemberton Band Room

This weekend was the last free weekend, myself and my other half (who is also a bander) had before we head into a busy couple of weeks preparing for the Regionals with our respective bands. So, what did we decide to do? Go and watch a brass band concert - obviously! It was a brilliant evening with fantastic music from, the WFEL Fairey Band and I hope I can do the concert justice in this review. 

A Word on the Venue

This was my first experience of watching a concert at Pemberton Band Room and what a brilliant experience it was! I’m really impressed with the initiative the Pemberton Band organisation have showed over the last few years. They’ve really made good use of the space their band room provides by decking it out as a fanstastic concert venue. With a full stage, lighting rig,a licenced bar and plenty of room for an audience (we even had little wooden tables with candles dotted about for a little extra ambience - lovely!), it really does work well for events. A great example of a brass band creating a space within their local community and supporting other bands - fantastic. 

Chalk-full of Laughs

Don’t get me wrong, the band sounded great, but if I saw an advert for a band of tone-deaf chimpanzees conducted by Phil Chalk, I would be rushing to buy a ticket, which is testament to how much of an entertainer he is. His quick wit, funny lines surrounding composers and features of the pieces in the programme and laughs shared with the musicians around the stand and the members of the audience had me in stitches. I really would recommend going and watching the band for Phil’s compèring alone! 

That being said, let’s delve into the tour de force that was the WFEL Fairey Band’s programme for the evening.

French Military March by Camille Saint-Saëns

Following the traditional brass band concert format, the band opened with a march -  the final movement from Saint-Saëns’ symphonic poem,‘Suite Algérienne’, simply entitled ‘French Military March’. Following his first visit in 1873, Saint-Saëns had a lifetime love for the African country of Algeria, which was a French colony at the time this piece was written and this suite was inspired by his time there. It’s proud, rousing and made a brilliant opener for the evening’s concert. 

Ruler of the Spirits by Carl-Maria Von Weber

This overture was written by Von Weber for his opera, ‘Rübezahl’ - well, it would have been if he actually finished the opera, which he didn’t. Instead, he revised this overture in 1804, so it could be performed as an independent work in its own right. It’s an energetic piece and a technical challenge for everyone around the stand, yet handled with finesse and poise by the band. I was particularly impressed with Soprano Cornet player, Matthew Hall, in this piece who had quite a few tricky, exposed moments that wouldn’t have been easy to begin with; add in a quiet dynamic and not the most forgiving acoustic and you’ve got a real challenge, which was handled very well. Pete Shaw on Flugel also stood out in this piece with quite a challenging technical line which was handled with precision; peeking out in between the ensemble writing. 

Jubilance by William Himes, Performed by Iain Culross 

The first solo of the evening was performed by the band’s Principal Cornet, Iain Culross. ‘Jubilance’ by William Himes was written for the principal cornet of the Chicago Staff Band, Peggy Thomas, in 1994, who was clearly an outstanding musician as this piece is a real showcase of both musical and technical ability. It’s a theatrical, challenging fantasia which incorporates an original scherzo along with two other melodies, ‘joy because of you’ and ‘if you want joy’. The work combines a variety of styles from its dramatic, forceful opening to the softer, more pensive melodic section and even a segment of latin-style writing. It was brilliantly performed by Culross, who was fully in control of both the technical and lyrical  aspects of this piece and the band provided a sympathetic yet colourful accompaniment. 

Hora Staccato by Grigoras Dinicu, arranged by Goff Richards

From a cornet solo, the audience was then treated to a cornet feature in the form of ‘Hora Staccato’ . This was the first time I had heard this piece and I absolutely LOVE it. It’s jaunty and fun for an audience, but having looked at the cornet part when I got home, it’s not an easy piece to play. Just to add an extra layer of difficulty the cornet section opted to (either by choice or by order) to perform this feature without music - absolute respect to every member of that section. 

The composer, Dinicu, was the leader of a cafe orchestra in Budapest and this work was taken from his collection of folk melodies. From there it was arranged by violin virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz to show off his technical abilities and became a firm favourite with violinists. I wonder what Dinicu would say to his piece now testing the abilities of cornet sections in brass bands? Well, I say that it’s great and performed brilliantly by the WFEL Fairey Band’s cornet section. 

Japanese Slumber Song by Gareth Wood

Now for a complete change of pace with a piece of music written specifically for brass band, by Welsh composer, Gareth Wood, that was inspired by the beauty and spirituality of Japan. It is an incredibly atmospheric and descriptive piece of music with beautiful solo lines delivered by the band’s principal cornet, Iain Culross; solo euphonium, Peter McDonough and flugel, Pete Shaw. 

The excellent dynamic control and well-balanced ensemble painted a beautiful picture, with rich, warm sounds and pockets of colourful, pentatonic melodic moments. The piece starts very simply with an unaccompanied solo cornet, but it grows throughout the course of the work to a magnificent maestoso section that gradually subsides into a tranquil, quiet finish. It was a brilliant musical postcard or travel advert for Japan - if this music is the result of the composer’s time spent in the country, I’m persuaded to go and see this for myself!

Taps in Tempo by Jan Berenska, Arr. by Rodney Newton, Performed by Beth Cordall

This was the first piece of the night where I closed my notebook, because I didn’t want to miss a single second of this performance. Despite his exotic stage name name, Jan Berenska was born in County Durham and christened Frederick Charles Bye and his orchestra had a huge following in the 30s and 40s thanks to the light music they performed on the radio. Taps in Tempo is a fun rag, with a silent movie-esque style and this version has been brilliantly arranged for brass band accompaniment by Rodney Newton. 

From the first bar of the piece, my jaw was on the floor. Beth tackled this tricky-sounding solo with ease; honestly, the speed of her arms moving over the xylophone was mind-blowing, my brain could barely keep up. Alongside her incredible musical talent, she is a fantastic performer to watch - with a charismatic stage presence and the smile of a musician who isn’t just insanely talented, but clearly enjoys what she does. A former student of Chethams School of Music, The Purcell School and Oxford University, she is an outstanding talent and her performance was one of my highlights of the entire programme - I would pay to watch her in a solo concert! 

Scarborough Fair arranged by Gordon Langford, Performed by Rebecca Lundberg and Tom Peacock

As my brain tried to digest the brilliance I had just witnessed, we were treated to even more musical excellence, this time from the band’s solo and second trombones, Rebecca Lundberg and Tom Peacock respectively. They performed the traditional tune, ‘Scarborough Fair’, made famous by another duo, Simon and Garfunkel. This arrangement by Gordon Langford is brilliant, with two contrasting styles. The first is a beautiful melodic affair with the two trombones taking it in turns to play the main melody whilst the other accompanies with a counter-melody before joining together in harmony. The second style sees the tune set to a swingy, musical-theatre style which was an unexpected, but appreciated twist on the traditional tune. Becky and Tom’s sounds worked really wonderfully together in this enjoyable duet. 

Land of the Mountain and the Flood by Hamish McCunn, Arr. Glynn Bragg

Similar to the ‘Japanese slumber song’ that we heard earlier on, Hamish McCunn’s ‘Land of the Mountain and the Flood’ is a vividly descriptive piece and its hard to believe that he was only 19 when he wrote it. Composed originally for orchestra in 1887, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood was first performed at the Crystal Palace on the 5th November in the same year and lends itself well to the brass band sound. You can hear the pride the composer has for his homeland in every note. I’d like to think if I wrote a piece about Wigan I could achieve the same effect, but I’m not so sure…

Well, those of us in the audience certainly got our money’s worth with the first half of the concert equating to nearly over an hour. If this was anything to go by, the WFEL Fairey Band would be showcasing their stamina, as well as their musical skill. 

Land of Make Believe by Chuck Mangione, Arr. Jim Fieldhouse 

The band started the second half, conductorless and with soloists placed around the room - I was intrigued. ‘Land of Make Believe’ is a song written by American trumpeter, flugel horn player and composer, Chuck Mangione; you might recognise the name, as he also wrote the fantastic flugelhorn solo, ‘The Children of Sanchez’. Used within their acclaimed ‘Wallace and Gromit’ performances, this is a magical piece featured french horn soloist (yes, you read that correctly), Victoria Lundberg and Martin Davis swapping his cornet for the Flugel Horn, alongside the principal cornet, flugel horn, baritone, solo and 1st horn, euphonium and bass soloists who the two main soloists met at the front of the stage. It was brilliantly choreographed and beautifully played. 

Nordic Polska by Anders Edenroth & Matti Kallio arr. Philip Harper

Many of the bands soloists remained on their feet at the front of the stage, whilst the rest of the band also stayed stood up in their places around the stand, but facing the back of the stage, as the principal cornet started the jaunty melody of Philip Harper’s arrangement of ‘Nordic Polska’. Arranged by Harper for the Cory band’s Roald Dahl-themed Brass in Concert Set in 2016, the piece features seven soloists and is really good fun. The band also performed this piece without a conductor and it was brilliantly staged - I really enjoyed the band really making an effort to do something different from the typical brass band set up, it just added another level of entertainment. 

Rainforest by Peter Graham, performed by Emma Conway

The mood shifted from the light-hearted to the ethereal, as the band’s solo horn, Emma Conway, took to the stage to play Peter Graham’s ‘Rainforest’ - the second movement from his six movement work, ‘Windows of the World’. The piece is depicting the lush greenery of the Amazon rainforest, but in my head, it does have that twinkly, atmospheric feel of something from Riverdance. It was beautifully played by Emma, who’s lyrical musicality and sonorous tone brought this piece to life. This performance was made even more special, as she dedicated it to her Grandad who was in attendance and celebrating his 77th birthday - just lovely!

Cossack Fire Dance by Peter Graham

Another piece from the pen of Peter Graham followed, this time it was the Cossack Fire Dance from his ‘Call of the Cossacks’ suite. As the title suggests, it is a fiery, spirited piece of music that starts with a commanding cornet solo. Alongside the principal cornet, this piece allowed the solo trombone, euphonium  and xylophone players within the band to really show off. The piece works on a kind of verse (a solo performed by a soloist) followed by a chorus-style section that repeats throughout the piece. Audience participation was greatly encouraged, as we all clapped along. 

The Better World by Norman Bearcroft, Performed by Peter McDonough

The final soloist of the night was the band’s solo euphonium, Peter McDonough and it was a stunner! Written in 1978 for euphonium soloist, Derick Kane and the International Congress of the Salvation Army, ‘The Better World’ is made up of variations on four Salvation Army songs:

  • ‘There’s a Better World’

  • ‘There’s a Crown Laid up in Glory’

  • ‘I Shall See Him Face to Face’

  • ‘The Homeward Trail’ 

The piece is made up of three sections - a fast technical movement, followed by an emotive slow melody and the another virtuosic technical section. It was a piece that allowed Peter to demonstrate both his musical and technical dexterity as well as his range and it was expertly executed. Considering how taxing this programme was, to be the last soloist of the night and perform such a whirlwind of a piece was impressive in and of itself, but to perform it so effortlessly was outstanding - another highlight of a brilliant concert.

MacArthur Park by Jim Webb, Arr. by Alan Catherall

Now then, those of you who know me well or have followed the blog for a little while can imagine my reaction when Phil announced this piece as the band’s finale. It is, without question, my favourite piece of all time. Catherall’s arrangement of Jim Webb’s ‘MacArthur Park’ was made famous by Grimethorpe Colliery Band when it was featured in their 2008 Brass in Concert set and is loved by both musicians and listeners everywhere. I appreciated Phil’s interpretation of this piece, taking the melodic section somewhat slower than I’ve heard previously. Not only did it allow the listener to really appreciate the final offerings of the soloists (of which there were a few interprovised additions to the written solo lines), it really created a contrast when the driven, ‘Pearl and Dean’ section came in. It was the perfect ending to a fantastic programme.

Or was it…?

An American Trilogy by Mickey Newbury, Arr. Goff Richards

I was amazed the band had enough in the tank to perform MacArthur Park, which is a goliath of a piece - so you can imagine my surprise when Phil announced that their encore was the anthemic, ‘An American Trilogy’. Another one of my favourite arrangements for brass band (I think it’s better than the original arrangement performed by Elvis), this stirring, inspiring work was dedicated to three members of the Pemberton Band organisation who were sadly lost over the last year - Brian Halliwell, Helen Don-Duncan and Derek Green. And what a wonderful tribute it was. 

All in all, it was a class performance from the WFEL Fairey Band. I appreciated the programme which introduced me to a lot of music I hadn’t heard before - it’s great to see a band turning out some music that isn’t played all that often these days -  alongside newer, more contemporary pieces and familiar favourites. It was a great opportunity to experience the talented soloists of the band too! Finally, the hilarious and knowledgeable commentary provided by the band’s musical director was the icing on the cake (that was left out in the rain - if you know, you know). The Pemberton Band Room was a fantastic venue and I’m looking forward to attending future events there!

Fantastic stuff!

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