The high gleam of five tubas, bells up, held at a tilt as if choreographed, each player almost hidden behind an expanse of shining brass. This is the image I will carry from Tredegar Band’s thrilling performances at two BBC Proms. In orchestral concerts, the phrase “bells up” has a specific meaning, used especially in a Mahler symphony, when the french horns are instructed to play with instruments raised to achieve a visual and aural climax. In a brass band, that spectacle is part of its very nature: cornets, flugelhorns, tenor and baritone horns, euphoniums and, lowest of all, tubas, a bobbing sea of coiled pipes, valves, pistons, playing as one. If the band is world class, as in the case of this prize-winning Welsh ensemble, its performance will have subtlety, precision and rock-steady discipline.
On Monday, the band, founded in 1876, collaborated with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Ryan Bancroft to give the world premiere of Concerto Grosso by Gavin Higgins. The composer grew up in an ex-mining community, playing in bands, and understands the idiom and range. In five movements, this ingenious work united the two soundworlds and drew on the best-known brass styles: fanfares, expressive chorales and breakneck, contest-style virtuosity. In Tuesday’s late-night Prom, the band were led by Ian Porthouse, their inspirational conductor for the past 14 years. Music ranged from Richard Strauss to a Judy Garland medley via Vaughan Williams, encapsulating a short history of brass band music in the process.
Tredegar and suchlike bands feed the brass sections, especially 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 back home in south Wales at 4.45am “still buzzing”. One member, a radiographer, was back at work at 8am. Brass bands have moved beyond the old association with heavy industry, but the close-knit community of musicians they attract, across generations and families, continues to link them closely to geographical regions.
In the Tredegar Band, Porthouse’s wife and son play in the cornets. (Tredegar has included women since the 1950s.) The chairman, nearly 90, followed his father into the band, the connection thus spanning more than a century. To watch Porthouse beat a neat, nimble four, as if 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 conduct any mainstream rival off the podium. The encores went on, ever more exuberant, as the clock moved towards midnight. Bring them back soon.
Getting to the late Prom involved scaling the railings (literally, perilously; details on request) to make the dash from Opera Holland Park’s sparkling HMS Pinafore to the Royal Albert Hall. This collaboration with Charles Court Opera, directed by John Savournin, who also sang Captain Corcoran, updated Gilbert and Sullivan to the 1940s. As ever with OHP, the excellent, dozen-strong chorus were adroit in voice and movement, and fitness levels too, charging around the large stage while singing.
By playing it straight, without effortful contemporary references and with an emphasis on drill, the work’s humour was given full flight. The City of London Sinfonia, conducted by David Eaton, were crisp and energetic. With Lucy Schaufer, showing impeccable comic timing as Little Buttercup, the canny bumboat woman, and Richard Burkhard as Sir Joseph Porter leading a lively cast, Opera Holland Park has ended its season in high style.
Glyndebourne’s Poulenc double bill, conducted by Robin Ticciati, directed by Laurent Pelly and designed by Caroline Ginet, deserves uncomplicated but hearty praise for its achievement. In La Voix Humaine, Stéphanie d’Oustrac played Elle, spilling her heart out into a telephone on a predominantly black stage, with a voice dredged in pain, at times rasping, at others lyrical.
In contrast, the comedy Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias), based on the play by Apollinaire, invited us into a surreal, sherbert-coloured world in which underlying darknesses – gender issues, a postwar population crisis – are triumphantly banished by mercurial music, stylishly played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Pelly’s faultless staging. Elsa Benoit and Régis Mengus charmed as the frustrated wife and her by no means ordinary husband.
Star ratings (out of five)
Tredegar Band ★★★★★
HMS Pinafore ★★★★
Poulenc double bill ★★★★