English Music Festival
31st May 2010
Founded in 2006 by its Artistic Director Em Marshall, the English Music Festival was conceived as a showcase for neglected English music of the early twentieth century, the golden period of the ‘English Renaissance’.
Within four years it has rapidly established itself as one of the most enterprising and pioneering annual music festivals around.
Set in and around the quintessentially English, dreamily beautiful surroundings of Dorchester- on- Thames in Oxfordshire and its magnificent Norman abbey, the event has attracted some of the country’s finest musicians, including the BBC Concert Orchestra, Brian Kay, David Owen Norris, the Elysian Singers and actor Jeremy Irons, whose narration of Vaughan Williams rarely heard ‘Oxford Elegy’ at the inaugural festival, helped to put the event firmly on the musical map.
For this year’s festival, a brass band concert was a new, yet appropriate departure given the quality of the repertoire that exists for the medium during the ‘Golden Era’ – including works from Holst, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Howells and Ireland.
It is sometimes easy to forget how lucky we are to have them.
For Dave Lea and Jaguar (Coventry) Band, the event marked the culmination of a busy period of engagements and rehearsals, coming hot on the heels of the Grand Shield and the All England Masters the day before.
If the band’s performance at the Masters was jaded however there was certainly no loss of focus or concentration evident in the magnificent abbey as a demanding first half comprising the two Holst suites in ‘Eb’ and ‘F’, and ’A Moorside Suite’ were combined with the towering Vaughan Williams ‘Variations for Brass Band’ – a rarely heard masterpiece.
It set the scene for a programme that in many ways encapsulated all that the English Music Festival strives to promote.
The sonorous strains of the ‘Chaconne’ that opens Holst’s 'Suite No. 1 in Eb' took on a glowing majesty in the Abbey, and although it took the band a little while to settle into the acoustic (it could hardly have been further removed from the extreme dryness experienced at Kettering’s Lighthouse Theatre) the closing ‘March’ was taken at a sensible tempo that allowed the detail to be heard with surprising clarity.
In the ‘Second Suite in F’, the popularity of the closing ‘Fantasia’ on the ‘Dargason’ clearly struck a chord with the audience, but it was in the touching, folk song inspired slow movement “I’ll Love my Love” that both the band came into their own; the surroundings an appropriate setting for some wonderfully lyrical playing.
Holst’s ‘A Moorside Suite’ provided a touch of the bracing outdoors in its outer movements, with the opening ‘Scherzo’ and final ‘March’ recalling images of the composer’s walking holidays with his great friend Vaughan Williams.
However, it was deeply affecting ‘Nocturne’, laced with a fine solo contribution from the band’s principal cornet Darren Lea, that left the most lingering impression.
Written late in his life and being used as the National Championship Finals test piece in 1957, ‘Variations for Brass Band’ is a work that makes its fair share of demands, but this is music that is the product of a lifetime of experience from its creator.
With its echoes of the ‘Sea Symphony’ (something it shares with the ‘Ninth Symphony’, his last great symphonic utterance) and the score for ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, its variation form is masterfully constructed.
Although a degree of finer detail was lost in the Abbey, Dave Lea intelligently constructed reading brought the score vividly to life.
The last time Jaguar (Coventry) played Granville Bantock’s ‘The Frogs’, it was in winning the National Championships First Section in 1995, then in the band’s former life as Rolls Royce (Coventry).
Arguably it is not a work that shows Bantock at his best, yet amongst his brass works (which also include ‘Orion and ‘Prometheus Unbound’) it remains his most enduring, with Dave Lea and the band making a strong case for its cause here.
The familiar strains of Vaughan Williams ever popular ‘English Folk Song Suite’ provided a lighter centre piece to the second half, before the band launched into a substantive performance of Percy Fletcher’s ‘An Epic Symphony’, to provide a fine climax to the concert.
A finely wrought performance made the greatest impression on the ample audience, with its strongly Elgarian coloured language captured in majestic fashion.
There were also bravura contributions from the band’s trombone section in the recitatives of the first movement, a delicate wistfulness provided by the horn section in the ‘Elegy’ and a contrasting musical heroism on a grand scale in the ‘Heroic March’.
With choruses of vocal appreciation from the audience ringing around the abbey’s generous acoustic, it would be difficult to imagine a more uplifting (or deserving) conclusion to a band concert than this.
With ample repertoire still to explore, the beginning of what one would hope to be a fruitful relationship between the Festival and brass bands in future years could well have been started with Jaguar’s fine contribution here.
For a Festival that deserves our support in putting British musical heritage to the fore, that relationship could just be a match made in heaven for all concerned.