Event reviews

MUSIC:ED reviews the Bands of The Household Division’s annual concert at Cadogan Hall.

‘What,’ I hear you ask, ‘is Music Education UK doing at a concert by the Massed Bands of the Household Division?’ It’s a cold and frosty night in Central London and here we are in our best bibs and tuckers rubbing shoulders with the Army’s finest – what’s the link?

Quite simply, it’s about careers. Specifically, careers in Army music. Forty new cadets sign up to play in an Army band every year. You can enrol as young as 16 and stay on till you’re 55. You get to train at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, as well as to continue your studies at the London College of Music on the BA Hons or BMus course if you want. And you get to wear a cool uniform.

In fact, the uniform is what this annual concert at Cadogan Hall calls itself after – that and the well-known march by Lloyd Thomas. Scarlet and gold are the colours of the Household Division‘s parade uniform and they deliver military music on State Ceremonial occasions such as Trooping the Colour. Band members are drawn from the Corps of Army Music (CAMUS) and, according to Major General Ben Bathurst CBE in his foreword to tonight’s programme, ‘all of them are passionate about music’.

So it’s with a pleasant sense of anticipation that we settle into our seats and the lights dim to reveal not only the Massed Bands seated onstage but also an assortment of players dotted around the hall, poised to deliver a welcome fanfare. And what a fanfare it is! Stirringly performed by the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry Band, it’s a fitting start to what the Household Division’s website calls ‘an evening of musical pomp and grandeur’.

The trumpeters are followed by a welcome from the Household Division’s Senior Director of Music, Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Roberts, and an introduction to compere, Alasdair Hutton, best known for his many years presenting the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This warm, genial Scotsman, dressed from head to toe in tartan, is the perfect host, introducing an impressive array of ensembles, conductors and soloists over the next two hours.

The ensembles range from the small (the Household Division Saxophone Quartet) to the large (the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra). Conductors are drawn from across the Bands of the Household Division while soloists include winner of the 2017 Household Division’s Young Musician of the Year Competition, Stephen Shepherd (saxophone), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama graduate, Corporal James Sandalls (violin), and Honourable Artillery Company Band reservist, Ben Godfrey (trumpet).

What is particularly exciting about this eclectic musical evening is the range of styles covered – from traditional brass band music to Latin American, from sacred music to jazz, from classical music to specially commissioned new music like Nigel Hess’s New London Suite, performed to a film depicting the hustle and bustle of the capital. According to the programme, ‘this tapestry of London life starts with Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian’s journey across the newest bridge over the River Thames, followed by London Eye which depicts a flight on the riverside wheel and the panoramic views it affords. It concludes with Congestion Charge with its oom-pa-pas, whistles and jeering from the clarinets capturing the stressful attempt of Londoners to go about their business in the face of overwhelming odds.’

What’s also exciting is how well rehearsed and polished the performances are and with what precision they are delivered. Which is not to say that the concert lacks heart. On the contrary, the humanity of each player is evident. From small touches like the choreographed introductions to certain pieces (two players brought the house down with their po-faced pacing to some rather sombre music) to the evident respect afforded by the players to their conductors, there is a sense that these musicians take great pride in their work.

Here’s Major General Ben Bathurst again: ‘The Army is all about talented individuals working as a team and, as a result, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Being in a military band is exactly that, each musician playing their part and being able to depend on each other to do the same. The result is absolute commitment and performance to the highest of standards.’

Which brings us back to the start – careers. Perhaps it’s best to leave you with the words of Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Roberts – again, in the programme: ‘To lead State Ceremonial music has been the highlight of my career and the greatest honour of my life. Throughout my long career within the Army, I have been afforded the greatest opportunities to develop professionally and to perform on the world stage at events that, as a young musician, were beyond my wildest dreams. The musicians you see tonight are the most dedicated, talented and passionate men and women I have had the honour to work with and I consider myself hugely fortunate to conduct them and to work alongside them on a daily basis.’

We head off into the cold, happy to spread the word.

Scarlet & Gold ran from 6-7 December 2017 at Cadogan Hall.

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Music Education UK reviews Grand Union Orchestra’s new family show

Grand Union Orchestra (GUO) has been a fixture on the London music scene for over 30 years. Led by composer and multi-instrumentalist, Tony Haynes, it has at its heart the grandest kind of union – that between people of different cultures – although, of course, its name also references London’s great canal, the source of much coming and going in its own right. The orchestra brings together musicians from all over the capital across a variety of musical genres and styles. It also features a host of singers from across the world and these become the voices – and representatives – of the different kinds of music.

Song of Contagion puts the singers at the front and rightly so since their songs tell the story of this new family show. Performed at the recently refurbished Wilton’s Music Hall in Cable Street, E1, the first song, sung by GUO stalwart, Davina Wright, with vocal backing from Mahamaya Shil and Delwar Hossain Dilu, takes us back 150 years to a time when cholera raged unchecked in London and Kolkata: ‘Turn the corner into Cable Street – a sharp breeze from the river catches you, sometimes the scent of the sea… the street remembers.’

GUO stalwart, Davina Wright © Gaetan Bernede

GUO stalwart, Davina Wright © Gaetan Bernede

And so begins an epic performance which not only looks at the history and politics of five diseases but also explores the music of the associated countries and continents. Thus, Song of Cholera moves between the UK and India; Song of HIV between the US and Africa; Mosquito Songs (dengue and zika) between Africa, the Caribbean and Brazil; Song of Broken Hearts (cardiovascular disease) worldwide via London and the music of Marie Lloyd and Mind Songs (mental illness) between Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

This last section looks particularly at post-traumatic stress disorder, described in the programme thus:

‘Three singers (Delwar Hossain Dilu, Jonathan André and Maja Rivic) tell their tales, individually at first, then overlapping. A survivor of the Bangladesh/Pakistan war obsessively recalls being hunted down in the mountains; in Angola, a Portuguese conscript soldier wearied of the relentless jungle warfare attempts suicide; a refugee from the war in Syria tries to console her child, haunted by the loss of her father and husband.’

This provides one of many thrilling moments when four jazz soloists – two trumpeters (Claude Deppa and Shanti Jayasinha) and two saxophonists (Chris Biscoe and Tony Kofi) – improvise frenetically over a climax in which all the singers eventually join, culminating in an echo of a medical orderly’s refrain: ‘Horror of war, beyond what words can tell.’

GUO horns with Tony Haynes (left) on trombone © Gaetan Bernede

GUO horns with Tony Haynes (left) on trombone © Gaetan Bernede

It’s powerful stuff and comes from a place of passion, integrity and protest. Again and again, the show delivers gut-punching, heart-wrenching messages about ‘politicians’ self-interest, patient activism, media headlines, corporate lobbying and national guilt’. Most of the time, the musical performances match the clarity, scope and ambition of the vision but, occasionally, there are weak moments – the odd tuning issue in the string section and, possibly, an over-reliance on the sheet music. Perhaps this is unfair – after all, classical orchestras use scores – but there was a sense that the piece was not quite ready for performance (admittedly, Music Education UK attended on the opening night) and this was exacerbated by the slightly laissez faire attitude of some of the musicians to being on (and at the side of the) stage – don’t chew gum or check your phones, for example! In a piece of such blistering dramatic possibilities, it would have been good to see GUO take the staging to the next level: scale back the music stands, commit to the visual as well as the aural experience. But these are small niggles in a performance with so much heart. (And to be fair, with funding for music other than classical at an all-time low, perhaps there just aren’t the resources to achieve this.)

GUO does a staggering amount of outreach and runs the Grand Union Youth Orchestra (GUYO), providing young Londoners from all cultures and backgrounds with an opportunity to make music together. Both orchestras are hugely deserving and Tony Haynes should be applauded for his unswerving commitment. Song of Contagion is extraordinary, ambitious, heartfelt, mind-boggling. Thoroughly recommended.

Song of Contagion ran from 13-17 June 2017 at Wilton’s Music Hall and will tour throughout 2018.

Header photo: GUO singers (l-r), Davina Wright, Maja Rivic, Mahamaya Shil, Delwar Hossain Dilu, Tommy Vun Chueng Ng and Jonathan André © Music Education UK

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Kings College London-based a cappella group, The Rolling Tones

Music Education UK reviews the vocal extravaganza

The London A Cappella Festival (LACF) is an annual fixture on the UK choral scene, attracting performing groups from all over the world as well as hundreds of workshop participants and concert-goers. Based at Kings Place, with satellite events taking place at nearby LSO St Luke’s, the festival runs for four days and is an ambitious mix of concerts, workshops, children’s events and showcases.

Curated by a cappella supergroup, The Swingles, this year’s festival – the 9th – ran from 24-27 January 2018. Media partners, Music Education UK and sister site, Choral.ly attended on the last day, enabling us to sample workshops, showcases and the final concert.

What struck us first and foremost was the friendly, almost intimate, atmosphere of the event. Festival-goers were in evidence from the moment we arrived, hanging out on the ground floor of Kings Place or chilling in the basement where most of the action takes place. Riding down the escalator, we saw the foyer open up to reveal the showcase stage, situated between Hall 1 (where festival concerts take place) and Hall 2 (which hosts festival workshops). With Vocal Dimension Chorus’s showcase in full swing and an appreciative audience standing or lounging on banquettes or the floor to listen, applaud and sing along, there was a feeling that this festival is as much about chilled-out participation as spectating. Many of the people around us seemed to know each other and we sensed that people come here in groups – families, friends and, above all, fellow choir members.

All-female a cappella group, Vocal Dimension Chorus

All-female a cappella group, Vocal Dimension Chorus

This was echoed in the first workshop where participants were quick to shed bags, coats and even shoes in their eagerness to get comfy for the warm-up – a two-minute meditation-style exercise led by the beatboxer from all-female contemporary vocal group, Musae (stepping in at the last minute to cover for Huun-Huur-Tu, a throat-singing group from Tuvan on the Mongolian border, who’d had problems getting visas). While the rest of Musae watched from the stage, Mel Daneke and fellow singers, Jessie Litwin and Sam Creighton, led 80 of us in a session exploring what it takes to prepare for a performance. It’s always good to feel the fear and do it anyway and we found ourselves sharing some quite intimate experiences, including moving across the floor to music representing water, air, earth and fire, discussing where we feel confident and where fearful and, for eight lucky people, lip-synching a stage performance to a backing track! I found myself next to LACF’s Festival Patron, choirmaster and broadcaster, Gareth Malone, and was delighted to see him getting stuck in as we swam, flew, stomped and sizzled our way through the session.

Musae’s workshop

Musae’s workshop

The second workshop was a sit-down affair in which beatboxer supremos, Grace Savage and Hobbit, talked us through the basics of beatboxing. Not being as au fait with the contemporary a cappella scene as I might hope, it took me a while to work out why beatboxing had been given such a prominent spot in the festival until I realised that a cappella groups performing any kind of music with a groove need a ‘rhythm section’ and beatboxers provide that. I counted about 120 participants in the workshop and it was great to see everyone having a go at this most challenging of musical forms. As before, people were keen to get stuck in and the hall was soon full of impromptu vocal drum grooves and faux-electronic whistles and woofs. The audience had its fair share of beatbox aficionados, all keen to jump on stage and improvise with Grace and Hobbit, and, for me, this encapsulated the spirit of LACF – an event where lovers of a cappella can congregate to listen and learn, share and network and, above all, perform. You could almost feel the thirst for knowledge in the Q&A section and there was no sense that people felt intimidated – rather, this was a friendly community of a cappella brethren, united in the study and practice of group singing.

L-R: Grace Savage and Hobbit improvising with a member of the audience

Post-workshop, we hung out to three more showcase performances by NoVI, The Rolling Tones and The Gold Vocal Collective before making our way into Hall 1 for the final concert by The Swingles. Founded by Ward Swingle in 1963, this London-based group performs everything from Early Music and Bach to contemporary folk, pop and jazz. With effortless blending and consummate control, they are hugely impressive and well deserving of their reputation as masters of their craft. For me, the path they tread between their obvious classical training and the need for vocalese to sound ‘cool’ can be a little unconvincing at times but this is more than made up for by their ability to bring nuance to their dynamics. So many of the other performing groups ‘belted’ their numbers that it was a joy to listen to quiet as well as loud singing!

Contemporary a cappella group, The Gold Vocal Collective

The group was joined on stage towards the end of the night by many of the other festival headliners – including Musae and New York Voices – as well as Gareth Malone. The warm camaraderie between the performers and the audience confirmed that LACF is a labour of love and a place of sanctuary for the a cappella community. Roll on next year!

Header photo: Kings College London-based a cappella group, The Rolling Tones

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