tThe high gloss of five tubas, bells raised, angled as if choreographed, each player almost hidden behind an expanse of gleaming brass. This is the image I will wear of Tredegar Band‘s exciting performances at two BBC Proms. In orchestral concerts, the phrase “bells up” has a specific meaning, especially used in a Mahler symphony, when the horns are instructed to play with raised instruments to reach a visual and auditory climax. In a brass band that spectacle is part of its nature: cornets, flugelhorns, tenor and baritone horns, euphoniums and especially tubas, a bobbing sea of coiled pipes, valves, pistons, playing as one. If the band is world-class, as in the case of this award-winning Welsh ensemble, its performance will have subtlety, precision and rock-solid discipline.
On Monday, the band, formed in 1876, teamed up with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Ryan Bancroft to give the world premiere of big concert by Gavin Higgins. The composer grew up in an ex-mining community, played in bands and understands the idiom and scope. In five movements, this ingenious work united the two sound worlds and drew on the best-known brass styles: brass bands, expressive chorales and breakneck, competition-like virtuosity. At Tuesday’s late Prom, the band was led by Ian Porthouse, their inspirational conductor for the past 14 years. Music ranged from Richard Strauss to a Judy Garland medley through Vaughan Williams, summarizing a brief history of brass band music.
Tredegar and similar bands feed the brass sections, especially the trumpets, of our symphony orchestras. But most of the players are amateurs, with full-time jobs in other walks of life. Later I asked for more information. After the late Prom they arrived ‘still buzzing’ in South Wales at 4:45 am. One member, a radiographer, was back at work by 8 a.m. Brass bands have moved beyond their old association with heavy industry, but the close-knit community of musicians they attract, across generations and families, continues to tie them closely to geographic regions.
In the Tredegar Band, Porthouse’s wife and son play the cornets. (Tredegar has included women since the 1950s.) The chairman, nearly 90, followed his father into the band, so the connection spans more than a century. Watching Porthouse beat a neat, nimble four, as in a regular march, for a wild version of The Devil in I by heavy metal group Slipknot was a lesson in sangfroid. He could distract any regular rival from the podium. The encores continued, more and more exuberant, as the clock approached midnight. Bring them back soon.
To get to the late Prom you had to scale the railings (literally, dangerous; details on request) to make the flash of the sparkling Opera Holland Park HMS Pinafore to the Royal Albert Hall. This collaboration with Charles Court Opera, directed by John Savournin, who also sang Captain Corcoran, brought Gilbert and Sullivan up to speed on the 1940s. As always with OHP, the excellent, ten-strong chorus was nimble in voice and movement, as well as fitness levels, as they soared across the big stage, singing.
By playing it straight, without laborious contemporary references and with an emphasis on drill, the humor of the work was given plenty of space. The City of London Sinfonia, conducted by David Eaton, was bright and energetic. With Lucy Schaufer showing impeccable comedic timing as Little Buttercup, the clever bumboat woman, and Richard Burkhard as Sir Joseph Porter leading a vibrant cast, Opera Holland Park closed out the season in style.
Glyndebourne’s Poulenc double bill, directed by Robin Ticciati, directed by Laurent Pelly and designed by Caroline Ginet, deserves uncomplicated but heartfelt praise for its performance. In The human voiceStéphanie d’Oustrac played Elle, pouring her heart into a telephone on a mostly black stage, in a voice steeped in pain, sometimes raspy, sometimes lyrical.
The comedy on the other hand Tiresias’ breasts (Tiresias’ breasts), based on Apollinaire’s play, invited us into a surreal, sherbet-colored world where underlying darknesses – gender issues, a post-war population crisis – are triumphantly banished by mercurial music, stylishly played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Pelly’s flawless staging. Elsa Benoit and Régis Mengus captivated as the frustrated wife and her by no means ordinary husband.
Star ratings (out of five)
Tredegar Band ★★★★
HMS Pinafore ★★★★
Poulenc double bill ★★★★