BSW and Me
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
"There's more important things in life than't band."
"Not in my life there ain't."
Brassed Off (1996)
In my last post I promised to become a weekly blogger and have so far failed in the ambition, vastly exceeding my first deadline. To be frank, it has not been the easiest of periods in which to up online productivity, as I have been weighed down with all sorts of domestic and familial anxieties that you will thank me for not troubling you with, and depressed by the realisation that Covid will not permit me to make my planed trip to Malta this September. To top it all, I am still reeling from the awful, quite unexpected news of the non-Covid related death two weeks ago of my much admired BSW colleague, Simon Purkess. At the moment my burblings about books, films and music seem more than usually trivial.
I mentioned Birmingham Symphonic Winds or BSW in my introductory post, and here might be an appropriate place to say a bit more about my association with them.
In late 1994, during my time living in Birmingham, I was unexpectedly contacted by a recently formed amateur wind ensemble, desperate to find a timpanist for an upcoming competition performance. At the rehearsal, I was impressed by the confidence of Keith, the conductor, and the standard of the other players, but assumed that - like similar groups I had played with in the past - it would give one or two decent concerts and quietly fold.
How wrong I was! Over the last quarter of a century, BSW has become an important part of my life as it has grown into a group of national reputation, giving at least three major concerts a year, as well as touring abroad, recording CDs, being broadcast on national radio, working with talented emerging soloists and commissioning work from several noted composers. As not only a marvellous clarinetist and pianist - (he could surely have pursued a professional career in music had he wished) - but a very successful accountant, who managed the band's finances, presided over AGMs and oversaw touring arrangements, Simon played a key role in driving and shaping all this activity. His reserves of calm common sense and good humoured patience seemed inexhaustible and will be keenly missed.
It would be dishonest of me to pretend that there hadn't been times when the strain of maintaining my own commitment to BSW seemed insupportable, especially after I moved away from Birmingham in 1997 and had to rely on long, expensive train and coach journeys to attend rehearsals and concerts. I have also suffered crises of confidence over my playing - never having studied my instrument properly and unable to raise my standard by regular home practice - and have sometimes grown exasperated by Keith's enthusiasm for composer's who's music I could happily live without. The band has represented significant social and economic sacrifice. Yet, when friends ask me - as they not infrequently do - why I keep it up when I could play in some less demanding local orchestra, I can honestly answer that BSW - as well as giving me the opportunity to perform publicly at a high level - has provided me with some of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Here are a few of them; if I put my mind to it I could certainly come up with more. Sorry if dates sometimes elude me.
1996. The premiere of our first commissioned work, Guy Woolfenden's Curtain Call, - a reworking of music he had written for Royal Shakespeare Company productions - at the Adrian Boult Hall in Birmingham. Guy became our Patron and his kindness, wit, and verbal dexterity would leave a deep impression on me, as would his scrupulous, wide-ranging musicianship.
Austria, 1997. Being rehearsed by the charming, Joseph Horowitz before performing his music in the country he had been forced to flee in the 1930s. "It sounds very modern", he said after our first play-through, "but then, I am not a modern composer."
Also in Austria, walking through the mountain pastures of Ramsau, surrounded by cloud-swathed peaks. Later strolling out along the cleft of the Schaldming valley in the magical stillness of the Alpine night to discover an isolated chalet restaurant with mid-summer log fire. Goat's heads and other folk paraphernalia cast quaintly sinister shadows in the flickering illumination, with a group of quietly cheerful elderly people playing Skat in the corner rising smartly for bed on the stroke of ten. Shades of The Magic Mountain.
Giving a remarkably uninhibited concert in a giant village beer tent, our wildly enthusiastic hosts - many in lederhosen - making sure that none of us was without a full tankard by our side throughout the performance.
Playing at Keith's wedding to Jayne (who plays flute in the band) somewhere picturesque in the Warwickshire countryside. A desperate place to get to by public transport. I arrived with, moments to spare before having to start off the first piece in our short marquee concert (a James Bond medley) with a suitably theatrical drum roll.
Strasbourg, 2000. Winning a Gold Medal at a a major wind orchestra competition. Playing outside the Cathedral - its sheer vastness creating dizzying effects of perspective amidst the narrow streets of the old town.
Climbing trees late at night in a Strasbourg park.
On the same trip, playing a packed-out charity concert in the tiny village of Luterbach, only a mile or so from he Swiss border. Afterwards, the genial Mayor treated us to a very generous sampling of the local white wine.
Birmingham, 2002. Our epic Tenth Anniversary concert that seemed to go on for ever.
Playing a guest concert at the RNCM in Manchester with many enthusiastic friends and work colleagues in the audience. Starry performances by Linda Merrick (Clarinet) and Simone Rebello (percussion) - two prominent soloists who have performed with us many times. Amongst others have been Craig Ogden, Juliette Bausor, Katya Apekisheva and (immediately preceding her fame) Alison Balsom.
Chicago, Winter 2003.
Playing to a huge audience in a vast hotel banqueting hall on the Mile. Wonderful reception, especially gratifying in that many present were top American wind orchestra directors.
Attending a free recital of rare Paul Bowles songs in the Cultural Centre.
Spending all day in the great Art Institution, before hearing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their beautiful hall.
Exploring the great modernist architecture of the financial district by foot and on the rackety elevated railway. The sleek green and black austerity of the Carbon and Carbide building; the Shriner building, with its insane rooftop "dirigible port"; the Chicago Tribune building with its embedded samples of rock from as far away as the moon. Also marvelling at the city's wealth of public sculpture - especially Calder's dancing red girders.
Escaping from the late afternoon chill into the unassuming Episcopalian church close to the lake front, with its tasteful abstract Christmas decorations.
Taking the subway to the Old Town and a fantastic Blues Club, each band playing a tight 15 minute set on one side of a partition, whilst another group set up on the other side - the audience were expected to pick up their buds and po'boys and shuffle between spaces. Great fun. Wonderful small bookshops with students hunched over their laptops. Most of these apparently now gone - as is the fascinating Museum of American Art.
Standing on the platform of the Hancock building at night and seeing as far as the wilds of Wisconsin with the lights of whole vast grid-planned metropolis spread out below like some gigantic video game.
The recording of our first professionally produced CD and the proud thrill of listening to it.
Cologne, 2007. Being jetted in at the last moment to replace a withdrawn ensemble as one of four bands required for Berio's Accordo. Magical short flight into the glowing European dusk. We perform the next blazing hot day in front of another great cathedral as first event in Cologne's Biennial New Music Weekend and are broadcast on German radio. I provide the very first note (on the whip).
Irish Republic, also 2007. Impressive conference concert in Killarney. We put across a long and a demanding programme with some verve, as the recording on Spotify testifies.
Ridge-walking in MacGillcuddy's Reeks.
Guy's spontaneous jazz piano performance of The Lady is a Tramp on his 70th birthday.
Having our recording of Guy's Bohemian Dances - one of his most appealing works - broadcast on Radio 3 and being amazed at how excellent it sounded.
New York, 2011. Crossing into Manhattan from Queens as the setting sun turns the sides of the buildings to burning gold.
Fantastically successful concert of British music - much of which we commissioned - in Lincoln Centre's Alice Tully Hall. Audience response everything that could have been wished for and more.
The brownstones and bohemia of Lower Manhattan. The great, seemingly endless avenues heading up the peninsular.
Wonderful treasurehouse of Moma.
Strolling across Times Square in the middle of the night behind a group of softly cantillating Rabbis.
Hong Kong, 2014. A place I fear I am unlikely to visit again. Ascending The Peak by the vertiginous tram railway. Proceeding by foot across Hong Kong Island to the harbour town of Aberdeen.
The tranquility of Kowloon Park contrasting with the thronging bustle of the Nathan Road. Nan Lian Gardens unexpectedly blooming beneath an unpromising concrete flyover.
Public prayer-wheels and neighbourhood temples to the local sea goddess seemingly on every block. Lantau Island, with its giant Buddha, where the bus is stopped by water-buffalo crossing the road.
The nocturnal markets. The Ladies Market, bright and colourful, with its stalls run by cheerful mothers and daughters. The central Night Market altogether more mysterious, with its winding rows of astrology and divination stalls. Also its open air restaurant, where you are handed a menu the size of phone book with literally hundreds of dishes, featuring just about every animal part you can imagine. I had the fried goose innards.
The weirdness of Macau, with its wide boulevards, outsize casinos, painted Catholic churches, and custard tart shops.
We give two splendid concerts. (Tragically, the gifted young saxophone soloist, Hannah Marcinowicz, who was with us on the tour was to die five years later in an appalling flying accident.)
Stratford-upon-Avon, 2015. Playing Guy's complete music for wind orchestra in a mammoth three-hour concert on the stage of the Swan Theatre. Audience includes Trevor Nunn and other RSC notables. Though in an advanced state of dementia, Guy is able appear on stage to accept some of the longest and warmest applause I have ever heard. Less than a year later, we perform at Guy's memorial service in Stratford parish church - a moving occasion.
Baltic States, 2017. Exploring the long forested valley of Sigulda, outside Riga, with its winding river, craft village and romantically situated castles in remarkable Autumn sunlight.
Walking along the beach at Jurmala, the sand silvery with frozen remnants of the previous week's frozen snow.
Lithuania's great Hill of Crosses by night. A simultaneously creepy and powerful symbol of human suffering and resistance.
Brussels, 2018. Drowning our none too intense sorrows with Belgian beer after failing to win at another European competition. Walking back to my hotel through Mollenbeek at around 5am, where bars and shops were still open and one felt surprisingly safe.
As you might imagine, the last couple of years have been severely disruptive of our activities, but recently we have recommenced rehearsals and next year, all being relatively well, hope to tour abroad again. Things will certainly feel very different without Simon, but he would have wanted nothing more than know that BSW would continue to thrive in the post-pandemic world.
In which spirit of continuity, I recommend the online performance of Philip Sparke's Merry Go Round to be found on our website - an unpretentious piece in unvarying 2/4 time and constant tempo that almost invariably features in our annual children's concert, recorded in far flung rooms during the height of last spring's lockdown and painstakingly co-ordinated on the editing screen. Some band members, sadly including Simon and his wife Danielle (also a clarinetist), were unable to participate. Without my instruments to hand, I contributed a single un-pitched note. The result is not at all bad considering the problems of ensemble and tuning you might expect when putting so many isolated players together. This small gesture of hope in clouded times was never intended to serve as a memorial, but its uncomplicated cheerfulness make it a not inappropriate way of looking to the future, whilst saluting the optimistic spirit of the inspiring companion we have lost.