Keswick Music Society (by Dan West)

An early Sunday call at a particularly rainy London Euston station sees Septura assemble to perform for the first time since our Kleptomania spree of concerts concluded in July. It feels like it’s been a particularly long break for us, considering how 2018 has been Septura’s busiest to date, performing dozens of dramatically different programmes around Europe and North America. For a few months it often felt as though we were premiering and performing new arrangements and programmes once or twice a week, requiring intense dedication and personal practice. As gratifying and rewarding as these projects have been, this break has been welcome and needed for those of us who need to make up some hours at our ‘day jobs’ and spend time with our families. It’s been an especially timely hiatus for trombonist Matthew Gee who, along with his wife Sarah, has welcomed their first child into the world!

Boarding our busy 9:45 train to Penrith, Matt bunkered down to be productive in a different way, taking the opportunity to catch up on ‘a month of admin.’ I took the opportunity to attempt to wind up our absent founder and artistic director Simon Cox via WhatsApp messages claiming that we had all missed our train and were missing vital members of the group. Simon, currently on tour in Japan with the London Symphony Orchestra, unfortunately saw through my ruse and dished out some of the World’s Finest Banter™️ from the opposite side of the world.

Our performance in Keswick tonight is the first Septura concert without Coxy at the helm. Though we’re obviously distraught that our talisman is not here to lead us, we’re lucky he has sent a very fine deputy in the form  of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal trumpet James Fountain. After tonight James will be the only trumpeter to have performed all 3 trumpet chairs in the group & we’re lucky to have a player of his exceptional abilities who can step in on occasions like today. Safe to say his level of banter indeed rivals that of the good Doctor Cox…

Though London’s weather this morning could only be described as despicable, the rainclouds have parted for us as our Virgin train has hurled itself northwards to the Lake District. The sun is particularly welcoming as our train dissects Liverpool and Manchester through Warrington and into what I believe would typically be described as The North. As a person who is not native to these lands I am always taken aback by the scenery in the north of England, especially when the skies are kind and there aren’t rain clouds in sight. When our train entered the Lake District I took advantage of the camera on my excessively expensive new phone to take a few snaps from my window seat.

Our performance tonight for Keswick Music Society – their first of the season – will feature an all English & French programme called Bridging la Manche.We have performed this programme once before, in February for the Ilkley Concert Club. It’s one of my favourite Septura programmes as it explores and contrasts pieces by composers from both nations. Starting in the Renaissance we perform an Ave Maria each from Josquin and Parsons, followed by Baroque selections from Rameau and Purcell. After the interval we hear early 20th century contrasting contemporaries Debussy and Parry followed by song selections from Ravel and Vaughan Williams. The repertoire provides rich sonorities well-suited for the group to enjoy and explore. It also implies profound lessons on political commonalities but the less we dwell on that the better in the current climate…

Keswick itself is located on a lake called Derwent Water, nestled between lush hills in the northern Lake District, only a couple of dozen miles from Scotland. When we were picked up at Penrith station, our dutiful driver informed us that we were only a stone’s throw from the rainiest place in Britain. We count ourselves lucky that the sun decided to shine brightly for our visit. The brisk, cleansing air could be bottled and sold to Londoners, and the setting near the venue is genuinely breathtaking. It seems many of the Keswick Music Society’s subscribers that we have met retired here in the Lakes after successful careers in London. I have so far heard it referred to as ‘The Eastbourne of the North’, and I genuinely see the appeal as a retreat from the hectic nature of urban life.

The concert proved to be very enjoyable thanks to a receptive and discerning audience. From my vantage point it seemed as though the vast majority of seats in the Theatre on the Lake were filled, and we were informed afterwards that we played to well over 300 people. Though the acoustic was dry, it had a certain warmth to it  which allowed us to shape our own acoustic. We achieved this by expanding our note lengths and tapering the ends of phrases to compensate for the lack of what we would call ‘bloom’ – the resonant forgiving acoustic you might find in a church or concert hall.

Following the concert we were carted to a beautiful home a short but scenic drive outside of Keswick. Our hosts, Alan and Hazel, seemed to have particularly enjoyed pieces by Debussy and Rameau – France winning the day yet again. Though the English repertoire lives to fight another day, much of it featured on our upcoming Naxos release, Music for Brass Septet – Volume 6, which is due out October 12th.

Arranging Walton’s Sonata (by Simon Cox)

I first heard Walton’s Sonata for Strings during a youth orchestra trip to La Mortella, the beautiful home and gardens on the Italian island of Ischia that were the composer’s home. I was immediately gripped by the tension and energy of the piece, and it became a firm favourite of mine during the following years. It sounded so technically difficult that the thought never really occurred to me to arrange it for brass – surely certain passages would simply be unplayable?

The Gardens at La Mortella

The golden rule of choosing repertoire to arrange for Septura is that it must sound like an original work when performed by brass. This means we’ve been very selective about what types of music we arrange, avoiding pieces which contain tricky musical figurations and a breadth of colours that seem beyond the scope of the septet, often resulting in a focus on choral or piano music. As we’ve progressed through our Music for Brass Septet series of recordings for Naxos however, our horizons have broadened as we have developed as arrangers and players, and pieces that once seemed out of reach have become realistic possibilities.

We had already decided that this disc would be a turn homewards for the group, focusing on English music of the 20th Century. Matt Knight and I were struggling however to find a really significant work to complete the recording – something that would help us continue to establish the brass septet as a serious artistic medium. It was then that I remembered the Walton Sonata, and listening to it through we both realised this was the piece we were looking for.

Then the real work began. This was comfortably the longest and most complex score we had attempted to transcribe, and it was difficult to see at first how certain passages were going to work. As with any such daunting task, the best approach was to just start work on it and trust that the solutions would emerge through trial and error. This arrangement called on all of the tricks we’ve picked up over the last few years, such as using a variety of mutes and dove-tailing parts to capture all of the essential features of the original, and after several weeks a first draft had emerged. This was checked meticulously by Matt, and following a healthy round of corrections we were ready to send the parts to the players and schedule the first rehearsal. At this point there was still one problem: despite my best efforts, this was going to be seriously hard to play!

The first read through was a little daunting as the scale of the task before us become apparent. This was unlike anything we’d encountered before, full of awkward intervals and devilishly tricky articulations.  Luckily for us, we have some of the best players around in Septura, and after a few hours of private practice (and a few panicked phone calls requesting changes to the parts) things were really shaping up.

St Paul’s New Southgate – Our Recording Venue

When we eventually reached the recording itself, we were confident that it was going to be a real success, and despite a delay of about four hours while Alan received roadside assistance on the M40 motorway, everything went smoothly. We hope you enjoy the results!

Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton: Music for Brass Septet 6 is released on Naxos on 12 October 2018.

Altmark Festival, Germany (by Sasha Koushk-Jalali)

The Altmark Festival was Septura’s first German destination of 2018, and we met early on Saturday morning to polish up our Borrowed Baroque programme. We have performed this a number of times in the UK recently, and merely had to bring James Fountain up to speed on our newest piece, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.

After working our way through the programme with satisfying efficiency (James is rather good at the trumpet), we headed off to St. Pancras to catch a train to Gatwick. The airport ritual was fairly fluid, thanks to EasyJet priority boarding (#thedream), and awaiting the group at Berlin airport was our transport for the weekend, a maroon battle bus and driver Mr Müller. After a brief game of instrument Tetris, I ended up taking one for the team and sitting in the slightly space deficient front seat, allowing me to showcase my limited GCSE german conversational skills, which were soon outstripped by the SatNav and BB RADIO (a relentless stream of euro/dance hits). After two fairly long hours of sitting at a 25 degree angle, we arrived at Ratswaage Hotel in Magdeburg, a city 30 km or so from the concert venue for the following day. Accommodation sorted, brief and restrained frivolities ensued, consisting of a few good quality german beers, and a surprisingly excellent late night meal at Gorillas Restaurant & Grill in the centre of Magdeburg.

The following day the members of Septura arrived chipper and refreshed for breakfast, where only Dan West managed to clock the bespoke omelette option (the group envy was palpable). Mr Müller and his lovely maroon bus awaited and whisked us away to the beautiful Schlosskirche Letzlingen, which sat opposite a  lavish castle. After discussion with the church vicar, we discovered the castle was built in 1843 to be used once or twice a year by the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV as a hunting retreat.

 

The Castle in Letzlingen

Following a brief warmup we knuckled down and sound-checked the programme for the concert. As with many churches, the shape seemed to amplify the tuba heavily, and diminish a fair amount of clarity among the trombones, meaning the majority of the rehearsal was used to find an acceptable balance between us. The rehearsal over, we headed out and enjoyed a generous picnic, including ice cream dessert, kindly provided by the festival.

Enjoying an Ice Cream

The concert itself was a great success, certified by the crisp, incredibly regular applause. A particular highlight was James Fountain playing his solo in Handel’s RinaldoLascia ch’io pianga, from the pulpit, despite his initial trepidation at the idea. We were persuaded into playing two encores by the appreciative audience and enjoyed a lengthy standing ovation.

After a quick beer and a chat with the vicar we were on our way back to Magdeburg, where we began celebrations on a job well done. It being a Sunday night we were afraid that Magdeburg wouldn’t offer us adequate meal options. However, we ended up with a varied diet: starters at an Italian restaurant, and then a dangerously large Schweinshaxe at a separate establishment. Despite our best intentions to get an early night, time flew and it was heading ominously towards the small hours when the merriment came to a close. Subsequently, the 6 am start the following day was only loosely adhered to by the tuba player, much to the ire of his disgruntled colleagues. Nevertheless, we made our flight and travelled safely back to London.

All-in-all the mini tour was a successful outing, and we can only hope to return to the wonderful Altmark Festival in the future.

 

Tour stats:

Days : 2.5

Concerts: 1

Hours of sleep:  < 10

Irritating Tuba Mutes Carried: 1

Distance traveled: 2464 km

Getting to grips with Pulcinella (by Huw Morgan)

Just over two months since our triumphant return from the USA, and with the group’s members all looking a little leaner as a result(!), it was back to work for our third series of Kleptomania concerts: this time, “Borrowed Baroque”. Among the programme of core brass septet classics (selections from Rameau’s Dardanus, Prokofiev’s Suite and Handel’s Rinaldo), one work stood out: Matt and Simon’s arrangement of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, the vibrant ballet music originally attributed to the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and orchestrated in 1920 for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the same Parisian company which premiered many iconic scores, including The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring.

A poster for Pulcinella at the Ballets Russes

Looking through any Septura piece for the first time is always an exhilarating but daunting experience, wondering how far our technical and musical limits have been stretched, and whether there’s enough space in the orchestra schedule to squeeze in the practice it undoubtedly requires before our first rehearsal. This time, however, what struck my eye was the new presentation and layout, which looked even more professional than usual, and was thanks to our recent collaboration with Dorico notation software (more of which soon, I’m sure). Unfortunately, despite the upgraded programme, our arrangers still hadn’t managed to locate the “rests button”, and as I tentatively thumbed through my part I wondered how my chops would be holding up come 9:30pm on 1st May!

Still, the great thing about Septura is that everyone knows they are in the same boat in this regard, and works their socks off to achieve the best result. Pulcinella is particularly tricky, since there’s a lot of doubling: Matt Gee with both alto and tenor trombones, Alan with trumpets in B-flat, C and D, Simon on trumpet and Flugelhorn, and me with the E-flat and B-flat piccolo. Of course, re-imagining such a vivid piece in true Septura style would not be complete without an abundance of mutes, and this work was no different. In fact, we introduced a new colour to our audiences – hat mutes – which, although conceived for jazz and big band music, veils the sound in an uniquely expressive way. A big “Dankeschön” to my colleagues in the Sinfonieorchester Basel for allowing the trumpets to borrow them for this project, and whilst the trombones are looking forward to getting their own set for our next concerts, Sasha’s desire to join in with a tuba hat might have to go unheeded (unless, of course, we can convince Matt Gee’s Dad to rig something up!)

Huw’s view of the rehearsal, featuring one of the hats!

As with our premieres of the Walton Sonata for Strings and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in St. John’s Smith Square during our previous Kleptomania concerts, the frisson of excitement in tackling such a formidable work was palpable, although one particular patron did try to scupper the atmosphere by allowing his mobile phone to go off twice in the space of 10 minutes (surely that’s the dictionary definition of inexcusable?!) SJSS provides a rather generous acoustic for us brass players, and while our second venue a few days later – West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge – is always a more intimate experience for both performer and listener, it allows the clarity and virtuosity of the arrangements to come to the fore. It also offered Matt Knight a chance of redemption: after he had inimitably “humanised” our previous performance there (an event which has gone down in Septura folklore), it was a particular relief that all members, mutes, AND their instruments made it onto the platform for the second half!

Tomorrow we repeat the same programme in Champs Hill, Sussex, and this weekend we’re also revisiting Elgar, Walton and Mussorgsky in readiness for our performance on 22nd May at the Newbury Festival. And fear not: if you’d like to catch Pulcinella before the summer is out, you can hear it again on 27th June as part of the “Proms at St. Jude” in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. In the meantime, do follow all our latest happenings here on the blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter, and if you’re attending one of our concerts, please come and say hello: we love to meet our audiences!

KLEPTOMANIA: behind the scenes

Our concert programmes are always built around particular concepts and themes, as we believe this can really enhance the live experience for our audience members, particularly when the music is less familiar to them. The programmes themselves have varied quite a lot over the last few years – from the ever-popular Seven Deadly Sins to How are the mighty fall’n (exploring the historic association of brass instruments with war) – but we have long harboured the desire to present a concert series, allowing us to focus on broader themes across several performances. This year we are doing just that for the first time with KLEPTOMANIA (kleptomania.septura.org), which as you might have guessed is based on our thievery of music originally written for other instruments. Each of the programmes in the four-concert series is devoted to a particular instrumentation – we began last September with Stolen Strings and music by Elgar, Walton and Shostakovich, and last week it was time for Pilfered Piano with Rachmaninov, Debussy and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Our decision to arrange the Mussorgsky has certainly raised a few eyebrows. It’s understandable: if you’re familiar with Ravel’s orchestration, or indeed Elgar Howarth’s version for symphonic brass, the idea of performing the piece with just seven players must seem like madness. What’s interesting however is that Mussorgsky’s original for solo piano is very much a work of chamber proportions – the textures are far more transparent and the writing less grandiose than the orchestrations which have followed, and we were therefore confident that our version would work well.

The Great Gate of Kiev – not as grand as you might think…

Rehearsals began immediately after our US tour, and continued a week later. We normally find it’s useful to have a gap like this between rehearsals when we’re learning new music due to the need to make adjustments to the arrangements (for example when we’ve realised that some players have barely any rests, or a particular effect isn’t coming across quite how we envisaged it would). As usual, the most tricky bits to figure out related to ensemble (changes of tempo, balancing of dynamics) – we’re very lucky with the players we have that most technical challenges are overcome quickly.

The first concert took place at St John’s Smith Square in London last Tuesday. This is a wonderful venue to play in for us, giving a good balance of clarity and bloom to the overall sound, and a very attentive audience contributed to a special atmosphere as we made our way through the first half. We had already performed the Debussy Preludes 10 times in the run up to this concert, however this time we had a change of personnel (Pete Moore on trombone in place of Matthew Gee) so we had to have our wits about us and make sure we stuck with any differences in phrasing and nuance compared to what we were used to. Performing a substantial piece for the first time is always a bit nerve-racking, but everything held together nicely in Pictures and the audience seemed to think it had been a success, so who are we to argue? We’ve been especially pleased to see lots of students and colleagues at our London concerts this season, so it was good to meet them all afterwards (over some refreshments, of course) and hear what they thought.

In full flow at West Road Concert Hall (phtoto: Tony Hawkins)

Five days later we were in Cambridge at West Road Concert Hall for the same programme. Despite some drama early in the day (Pete Moore woke up suffering from a blocked ear which made it very uncomfortable to play and impossible to hear properly, although he gamely soldiered on), we all felt a lot more relaxed the second time around (which may or may not come across in the performance – one audience member who came to both concerts reckoned they sounded identical!) I should say however that this relaxed atmosphere was shattered half way through the second half, when Matt Knight realised he was about to play a euphonium solo…with no euphonium on the stage. A brief-ish departure into the wings (he had to actually find the instrument apparently) and he was back, delivering a remarkably composed solo in Bydlo. Afterwards we got the chance to meet a number of local brass players, many of whom were familiar with Elgar Howarth’s arrangement of Pictures for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, so had been curious to hear our take on it. I’m glad to say they all seemed to enjoy it, and we’re looking forward to seeing them at our next concert.

KLEPTOMANIA continues with Borrowed Baroque on 1st May (London) and 4th May (Cambridge).

kleptomania.septura.org

Christmas with Septura

We’ve just had our first rehearsal for this year’s Christmas concerts, and things are shaping up nicely for the first concert in Scotland in a few weeks’ time.

Christmas has been the inspiration for so many great musical masterpieces, and brass instruments are a vital part of this festive musical fabric. In these concerts we’ll focus on some of the highlights of the rich Christmas canon, but where the years of repetition may have dulled their impact, we hope to illuminate them afresh, casting them in a brand new light through the unique sound of the brass septet.

This year our big new piece is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker — a sizeable chunk of the ballet makes up the second half of the concert. Growing up listening to the symphonies, I was never very keen on Tchaikovsky’s music, which seemed to veer between schmaltzy sentimentality and overindulgent bombast. It was only when I heard the ballet scores, and The Nutcracker in particular, that I began to realise his true genius. This is a score so rich in wit and elegance, and so full of life and colour, that its enduring popularity is no surprise. It’s simply a joy to revisit each year, and many happy hours were spent arranging it from Tchaikovsky’s piano score this summer.

Some of what we play will be familiar from the orchestral  suite — the Miniature Overture, March, and the dances from Act II. Less well-known perhaps are the scenes from Act I, but these contain some of the best music in the ballet. They’re also crucial to the plot, and this will be important because the whole performance will be tied together with a narration — performed by Clemency Burton-Hill in Kings Place, and Brian Kay in Burford. The narration is based on the beautifully-written original Dumas story, and will hopefully make the musical performance even more vivid.

The Nutcracker is one of the most significant secular pieces of Christmas music, but of course there is a rich sacred repertoire. In the first half of the concert we’ll play excerpts from two of the most important pieces: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah. These are now well established in our repertoire — we recorded them last year — but we never tire of playing them. They give us an opportunity to feature soloists from within the group: piccolo trumpet in the final chorus from the Christmas Oratorio, and bass trombone in The Trumpet Shall Sound from the Messiah.

This is where we’ll be and when, so get your tickets now, and we’ll see you there!

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Recording on home turf

We’ve just finished recording a new disc for Naxos (our 7th). This latest one is the longest we’ve ever undertaken, and also probably technically the hardest. But the music holds a special place in our hearts because it brings us on to home turf. Our recordings so far have taken us to Germany and Austria, Russia, Italy, and France. But this one is decidedly British: Elgar, Parry, Finzi and Walton.

The process actually began about a year ago. We’d just finished recording Christmas with Septura, and so were looking to the next volume. Our series is broadly planned out (we can tell you roughly what we want to play on volume 25!), so we knew that we wanted to pay a visit to 20th-century England. But the particular composers and the specific pieces were agreed only in the autumn of 2016, after a summer of very English listening. Early on we decided that we’d stolen enough choral and keyboard works for the time being, and it was time to plough another particularly fertile furrow: music for strings. Elgar’s beloved Serenade, Finzi’s Prelude and Romance, and Walton’s Sonata all fitted the bill, and most importantly we could immediately hear them as pieces for brass. Ultimately though we couldn’t resist including some masterpieces from the rich English choral tradition: Finzi’s rousing anthem “God is gone up” is such a natural fit for brass (“The Lord with sounding trumpets’ melodies”); and the first four of Parry’s Songs of Farewell have long been an ambition for the group.

Repertoire set, there was the small issue of divvying it up and actually arranging it, as well as getting permission for the works in copyright. I bagsied the Elgar and Parry, which was lucky because Simon was keen to do the Walton – he had first heard it 10 years beforehand at La Mortella, the composer’s home in the Bay of Naples. With a deadline of mid-May, we set to work. After comparing notes, incorporating a few suggestions, and pinching some ideas from our Royal Academy students, the scores were ready just a week before the first read-through in June.

The first read-through is always a slightly dispiriting experience. Having spent months immersed in this music, imagining every detail of its glorious reincarnation for brass, it’s slightly worrying when – despite the unparalleled sight-reading of Septura’s members – it doesn’t quite sound as you’d expected. Simon’s Walton in particular is very hard – totally un-sight-readable. “Will it be ok? Have we bitten off more than we can chew this time?”, I ask nervously. “Relax, it’ll be fine – it’s always like this the first day”, Simon reassures me. Sure enough, when we meet again a couple of weeks later, after a bit of frantic private practice (not least for me), everything comes together. We hone our new versions over the next few weeks – aided by performing the Elgar at the Gregynog Festival in Wales – and then we’re ready for the red light of the recording studio.

The recording itself is always very intense – we do two three-hour sessions a day, three days in a row. Normally we aim to get 20 minutes of music a day (and just about manage) but because of the length of this disc we needed 23. We felt better prepared than ever before though, and, in the familiar surroundings of St Paul’s New Southgate, we sailed through the Elgar on the first day, with our Producers Phil Rowlands and Jim Unwin expertly guiding us through the musical rigours of recording. Day 2 was the big one: the Walton. And for the first time in our recording history disaster struck. Its form: an oil leak, leaving Alan stranded at the side of the M40 as the session was due to start. A two-and-a-half hour delay put us on the back foot, but the group rallied and we ended the day weary at 11.15 pm, but relieved to have the Walton in the can. The final day is always a bit of a challenge – tired faces plus time pressure make for an intense race to the finish. This time the Finzi and Parry were actually fairly straightforward, and we made it to our favoured watering hole, The Charles Lamb, in plenty of time for last orders.

Now Phil and Jim have the unenviable task of piecing the takes together. Meanwhile Simon and I are planning disc number 8 – so watch this space!