Concert review

Prince Bishops Brass Ensemble

12th March 2018

Penrith Music Club was royally entertained by the Prince Bishops Brass Ensemble.

Penrith Music Club was royally entertained by the Prince Bishops Brass Ensemble, a brass quintet based in Durham, on Monday 12th March. This was an evening of serious fun, serious in that the playing was outstanding, fun in that the wide-ranging programme was enjoyed by audience and players alike. Right from the off, with Dukas’s unique fanfare, the brass quintet impressed with their precision and expression. This fanfare has a languid and sinuous central section which meanders through various keys before returning to the fanfare theme.

Suites by Jeremaiah Clarke and Giles Farnaby were presented with some theatricality, one dance movement of Clarke’s suite presented almost as a duel between the Chris Lewis and Derek Ruffell on the trumpets, ably supported by the (self-taught!) drumming of the other members of the group. The swift syncopations in all this English renaissance music gave it a foot-tapping energy and while the King of Denmark’s march is immediately recognisable there is much in this music that is unfairly overshadowed by that famous piece.

A kind of frantic calm was restored by an arrangement of one of J.S. Bach’s many fugues, the brass giving clarity to the musical lines. This clarity was again quite striking in the arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio as each instrument passed on to the next the climbing phrase which defines this iconic piece.

The second half of the concert was almost all modern American or jazz/swing- inspired, starting with the Santa Barbara Sonata by Bramwell Tovey, whose short movements, composed for a brass summer school that takes place there, undoubtedly left us wanting more. Particularly engaging was the chorale hymn tune of the Preacher on the Pier, again dramatically pointed out by Chris Lewis paying while walking up and down the aisle – and all to an underlying jazz accompaniment.

As Stephen Boyd, the tuba player, pointed out, we had not heard of Michael Kamen, whose elegiac quintet they performed, and yet his music for films such as ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’, has won many awards. This was a deceptively simple piece with a long solo line for the French horn, played beautifully by Chris Senior.

Arrangements of standard Gershwin show stoppers stuck closely to Gershwin’s own original harmonies, while giving free rein to the extemporising elements of jazz. Again, I suspect the audience would have welcomed more – not a criticism, just a comment that this was all such hugely enjoyable music-making. The ensemble relaxed with a swift tour of Geordie folk songs in a deft suite by Ray Chester, again allowing each instrumentalist a moment or two to shine.

To finish with arrangements of songs from Bernstein’s West Side Story was quite a challenge after all the music we had enjoyed so far. This music always sounds so free and easy but requires meticulous attention to the complex rhythm and due credit must go to the tuba player, Stephen Boyd, for keeping these pieces together. Knowing we wouldn’t let them go without a little more  Prince Bishops Brass gave a final rousing Count Basie Stomp to send us off cheerily into the night.

Charles Ritchie

Updated on18th November 2023
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