English Music Festival
12th June 2012
Set in the glorious surroundings of Dorchester Abbey, this was Jaguar Land Rover Band’s second visit to the English Music Festival.
Ten years since its inception by founder and director Em Marshall-Luck, it has become an annual event of considerable artistic prestige.
Now spanning five days over the Whitsun weekend, it is a sign of its importance that the opening concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra was broadcast live on Radio 3, whilst the Festival has also secured critical acclaim for its promotion of recordings of rare repertoire, music publishing and associated concerts throughout the UK and overseas.
Its rare spirit of passion, coupled with a touch of enterprise sees it draw a knowledgeable, dedicated audience, although the Jubilee celebrations impacted on numbers to a modest degree this year. However, the EMF retains uniqueness amongst the plethora of festivals that abound these days.
The early 20th century band repertoire also suits its ethos, and having primarily explored the music of Holst and Vaughan Williams on their initial visit in 2010, this year’s concert saw Dave Lea and his band explore works of John Ireland, Herbert Howells, William Alwyn and Arthur Butterworth amongst others.
It was a demanding programme containing some of the treasures of banding repertoire that tested Jaguar’s stamina as much as its ability to conjure with a rarely heard musical style – both of which they mastered admirably.
With Em Marshall-Luck, the current Chair of the Vaughan Williams Society and eminent writer, critic and Vaughan Williams scholar Michael Kennedy being the Festival Vice-President, it was fitting that the concert opened with the resplendent sounds of Vaughan Williams overture ‘Henry V’, with the ‘Agincourt Song’ and ‘Earl of Oxford’s March’ ringing around the Abbey in cultured fashion.
The centenary of Percy Fletcher’s ‘Labour and Love’ is just one year away, and the band’s performance of the first original test piece was therefore a timely reminder, with its overtly Edwardian aura being particularly well captured. Paul White and Kevin Lea excelled in their delivery of the prominent parts for solo cornet and solo trombone.
With the composer’s daughter in the audience, Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Little Suite No. 2’ formed a welcome lighter hued interlude, with the evocative mist shrouded Cornish seascape of the central ‘Cavatina’ contrasting vividly with the fun of the outer movements.
Arthur Bliss’s ‘Kenilworth’, a work of geographical significance to the band given its close proximity to Jaguar Land Rover’s base in Coventry, was given spirited treatment, with the final ‘March’ played in stirring, majestic fashion.
John Ireland’s ever-appealing ‘A Downland Suite’ brought the first half to a bracing close, with the MD capturing the contrasts of the composer’s portrait of his beloved Sussex Downs with both thought and insight.
The ‘Elegy’ in particular was played with heart warming simplicity rather than misplaced sentimentality.
William Alwyn’s overture ‘The Moor of Venice’ is imbued with the dark heart of its subject matter in its dramatic portrayal of the Shakespeare’s Othello.
It opened the second half in tempestuous fashion, with Dave Lea admirably drawing the seething intrigue off the page.
In contrast, Granville Bantock’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’ was given a no less intense, but equally engaging reading.
The sense of ultimate peace as Prometheus is finally released by Zeus from the agony of being bound to a rock with his liver fed on by an eagle, being particularly effective.
Arthur Butterworth will celebrate his 90th birthday in 2013, and the inclusion of his rarely heard ‘A Dales Suite - Embsay’ was particularly welcome. In common with ‘A Downland Suite’, it is a musical picture of a landscape that has inspired much of Butterworth’s music; in this case the Yorkshire Dales.
With the mysterious tones of the central ‘Nocturne’ offset by the bracing, striding rhythms of the final ‘Scherzo’, evoking the wind on the high moors, it was given an evocative performance.
Although easily playable by a competent Fourth Section band, it’s a piece that should be heard more often.
It fell to the pen of Herbert Howells and the majestic strains of ‘Pageantry’ to bring the concert to a close, which despite tired lips, drew stirring playing from a Jaguar Band that had shown itself to be excellently prepared for its stern test of stamina.
There was just enough left in the tank in fact for a Vaughan Williams encore, and his ‘Prelude to the 49th Parallel’.
The nods of approval from the appreciative patrons summed up an evening that witnessed some of the treasures of brass band repertoire played to an audience that clearly understood and valued the importance of this music in its wider musical context.