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Spring Festival Preview- A Kensington Concerto

We now turn our attention to the Senior Trophy piece for this weekend’s contest. If you missed the exploration of the Senior Cup piece- Diadem of Gold you can read it

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.



Despite ‘concerto’ being present in the title, this piece is designed as a complete, work to be played attacca, rather than a pause between movements- no time to open your Werther’s originals during page turns I’m afraid! Written for the 1972 National Finals, A Kensington Concerto is one of Ball’s later pieces and was intended to be his ‘swan song’. Sadly, today this piece (among other older works) have aged and can be overlooked as simplistic compared to more complex modern works. Even though the notes and themes themselves are relatively easy, similar to Diadem of Gold, it’s the musicality of the piece, dynamic contrast and little details like articulation that are such easy pitfalls, but can potentially ruin the purpose of the piece.

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.


The Piece

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

piece. I love that this solo gives the soloist chance to put their own ebb and flow and expression when conveying this stunning melody. It’s like a colouring book for musicians: Eric provides the lines and the soloist provides the colour. Simply beautiful writing. Following on, I’ve always admired how Ball writes for lower brass, it has such tenderness and passion, warming up the texture and cuddling the melody line. Bit cheesy? Yeah…anyway let’s continue. The cornet line is sonorous, rising to those high notes with such passion. The diminuendos are presented in a thoughtful, pensive manner and, given the subject matter is a dedication to ‘a company of friends, now scattered’, the intention and purpose of the piece is so clearly set out in this opening section.

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.

The quirky, whimsical section so beautifully captures the friendship topic. For me it creates an image of a conversation between a group of old friends, full of laughter and anecdotes. As we escalate into a less friendly tonality, the trombone is given a moment which cuts through, yet isn’t harsh or abrasive, like a little tiff between friends, before the whole band descends in pitch and dynamic, bringing this brief argument to a close. Following a short solo cornet feature, the cornet section comes into their own with flourishes and runs sitting on top of jolted sections of trombone mutterings…clearly the trombone is still a little insulted from the tiff.

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!

Here is the moment we’ve been waiting for- the triumphant ending. Using that echo effect once more before building the band up piece by piece, one chord at a time in a truly awe-inspiring piece of musical architecture. A rousing snare drum leads us into a final explosion of chord before the determined, articulated ‘it is finished’ last note. The listener is left emotionally drained but fulfilled after that rollercoaster of emotions, colours and memories.


Dying Embers?

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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