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S & H Concert Review

University of Warwick Wind Orchestra and Brass Band Conductors Colin Touchin, Simon Hogg and Ben Wong Butterworth Hall, University of Warwick Arts Centre, 25th February 2002 (CT)

Colin Touchin has been director of music at Warwick University since 1988 and there is no greater evidence of his influence than the University Wind Orchestra, a huge band of up to one hundred players. Add to this the fact that the number of ensembles at the university has grown from six to twenty one during his tenure and one can start to appreciate the extent of his achievement.

In a tribute to William Walton in his centenary year, the programme opened with Crown Imperial. A slightly nervous start from the band with a little more of a pre-concert "warm up" needed in the woodwind perhaps, but any early nerves soon seemed to be dispelled and the performance made up for its initial uncertainty with some well graded dynamics and playing of good spirit towards the conclusion. By the time we got to Popular Song from Facade which followed, it was clear that the band were enjoying themselves immensely, as were the audience. Martin Ellerby has written extensively for both brass and symphonic wind bands, his pieces always demonstrating a flair for melody, yet combining this with often-considerable technical demands on the players. His Venetian Spells is cast in four short movements, each of which pays tribute to Vivaldi, Stravinsky (who was buried on the island cemetery of San Michele), Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli respectively. It is a stylish and highly enjoyable work and although the technical demands were not always completely overcome by the band, enthusiasm was in ample evidence throughout. American composer Derek Bermel’s Ides March was receiving its European premiere at the concert, the piece being the result of a challenge to write a march suitable for both a funeral and a wedding. The result, perhaps not surprisingly, is a little curious although it does manage to combine a certain sense of celebration with some darker and perhaps not entirely serious undertones. Hot off the publisher’s press, the first half concluded with an arrangement by Robert W. Smith of a selection from John Williams’s score for the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Anyone who has seen the film will know that it is a magical score and all of the big tunes were here from Harry’s theme, to the arrival at Hogwart’s, to the music representing Harry’s broomstick, the memorably named Nimbus 2000. Great fun and guaranteed to get everyone whistling away in the interval!

To open the second half it was the turn of the University Brass Band to take the stage, kicking off with a lively and appropriate opener in Goff Richards’s arrangement of the Gershwin overture to Strike Up the Band. Alan Fernie’s arrangement of Someone to Watch Over Me, which followed, showed off the mellower side of the band with some beautifully sonorous sounds marred only by a few minor intonation troubles. The weekend after this concert the band were to be competing in the Midlands Area Brass Band Championships and this was a good opportunity to give the test piece a pre-contest trial run. The Russian composer Victor Ewald’s Symphony for Brass Op. 5, here arranged for band by Michael E. Hopkinson, is heavily influenced by Tchaikovsky but nonetheless enjoyable for it in its blend of good thematic material and skilful scoring. The band may well have felt that there were still a few loose ends to tie up prior to the contest but overall there was much to commend in the playing.

It fell to the wind orchestra to conclude the concert, this time under the direction of Ben Wong. By now the band were on top form and playing with much improved confidence. Like the Ellerby work in the first half, James Rae’s The Turn of the Wheel, a tribute to the early pioneers of the steam engine, proved to be a melodically enjoyable piece, easy on the ear if not always on the players. This was possibly the best playing of the night from the wind band however and the strong influence of Malcolm Arnold in several of the major tunes came through very clearly. With so much quality original music around for wind band these days I felt a little disappointment that the closing item was the finale from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, even in an arrangement as good as this one by W. J. Duthoit. The slightly sedate tempo adopted reinforced my opinion on this point but the band certainly achieved a rousing conclusion, changing to riotous good humour for the final item, Harold Walters Hootenanny, in which the wind and brass bands joined forces.

I would estimate that there were no more than around 125 people in the hall for this concert, a great shame, for not only do these young musicians deserve our support, they also put considerable effort into giving us an entertaining programme of impressive variety. Fortunately the small audience did not deter the players in their enthusiasm for the music.

Christopher Thomas

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