Spring Festival Preview- A Kensington Concerto
I will admit, I may be slightly bias with this piece because I am OBSESSED with Eric Ball’s writing. He’s one of the few composers who has never written a bad piece (in my opinion anyway). His emotive, rhapsodic and expressive style, does the job that music is supposed to do- evoke some kind of feeling in the listener. You don’t have to wade through bars of heavy technicality to get to the good stuff. In fact this piece gives you exactly what you want from the beginning.
Feel free to listen to a superb recording of A Kensington Concerto, by the Grimethorpe Colliery band, which should hopefully put everything I’m saying into context.
Our journey begins with an unaccompanied cornet solo. It’s sweet, it’s lyrical and full of heart and already gives you that fuzzy feeling before you’re even thirty seconds into the
If it’s one thing Eric does well, it’s building a crescendo. Here constructed from emotional chord progressions (I’m thinking of the ending of Resurgam here) it rises with such tangible emotion. The tune from the opening section is used to craft the sonata form in the Allegro. The use of unison can look so deceptively simplistic, but it’s a real test of listening. Misplaced entries could easily ruin the effect. The short quiet section with horns and lower brass is perfectly emphasised. Even something as simple as this short interlude is adorned with articulation and should be treated with the care and attention of a full phrase rather than just a springboard into the next section.
If the dynamics and clear articulation are recognised with the same confidence and attack in the quieter dynamic, as it is in the loud; the echo effect in the cornet rank is simply stunning. Again, this could be a pitfall if bands gloss over these little details.
A lamenting melody breaks through the lower brass, accompanied by sympathetic sighs and phrases from the cornets. Now a beautiful call and response feature from cornet (soprano cornet? I’m doing this by ear without a score, so I’ll gladly be corrected) and trombone. Definitely getting feelings of loneliness, looking back on years gone by in this section.
Plenty to get your teeth stuck into if you’re a bass player, you get some of the best interludes. Once again, Ball’s writing for lower brass is to be admired. Who needs a break between sections when you’ve got a bass solo that seamlessly builds tension, lifting the ensemble up into an explosion in the next section. What a noise! So beautifully structured, with a big passionate belt of cornet melody. How all the melodies weave in and out of each other and are wonderfully tied together at the end of the phrase is such an example of expert writing. Some girls are obsessed with Johnny Depp, this one obsesses over Eric Ball…I’m not sorry.
Immediately after, we are back to a more quiet, tender display of passion. The trombone part is so gentle, it’s almost out of character. Again little flourishes from the cornet, keep the audience captivated rather than lulling them with calming melodies. As the snare drum rolls, you prepare yourself for the next build up with a colourful burst of chord crashing over the cornet descent.
There is a touch of mystery as we approach the ending, with ominous timpani (sounds like a death metal band…Ominous Timpani) under the soprano and trombone entries. Again, another wonder of dynamics with instruments entering and then gliding out of each other’s way, in waves of melody that wash over each other seamlessly.
And we’re building again, you know with that rolling snare drum we’re heading towards something big. There’s going to be a rit….there has to be a rit before this section ends…and there we have it, right before a glorious chord with thunderous timpani.
So soon we find ourselves near the end. The cornet pipes up with a jaunty little tune and again you can feel something brewing and no it’s not the gas form those four pints you’ve had before you sat down to watch the contest (I certainly hope it isn’t anyway). After a quick burst of energy, the cornets are at it again with twirling melodies. I’m getting Resurgam memories with the short, sudden, accented cornet entries. The suspense is building with short ascending chords in the lower brass and whirling dervish cornets scaling up the staves. Ball leaves us in suspense with another short, bold section before diminuendos bring the whole band back down to earth again.
The ending is satisfying, picking up parts of the piece and knitting them together before a bold chord, a clash cymbal and then…nothing. So bare, such a quiet and magical moment which completely contrasts where you thought the music was going. It really comes full circle as we’re back to vulnerable, innocent melodies which reflect the tenderness we had in the opening. An old man (Eric was seventy when he wrote this) looking back on times and memories of making and listening to music, surrounded by friends. We look to the future as the cornet makes it’s last entry, full of hope, joy and charisma- there’s life in the old dog yet!
Critics say that this piece doesn’t show the same fire that Ball had in his earlier works, rather ’embers’ with a ‘delightful warmth’ is displayed instead. I wholeheartedly disagree. Everything Ball has created in his decades of composing is presented here in a triumphant, mesmerising portfolio that shows a lifetime of genius, thought-provoking and most importantly, whole-hearted musical writing.
A master of his craft until the very end.
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