Croydon Condon Celebration by Malcolm Quinn March 2014

A vibrant and highly engaged audience engendered a memorable sense of occasion and atmosphere as Croydon Citadel Band presented A Tribute to Major Leslie Condon at London’s Regent Hall.

With the intent of not only recognising the 30 years since the untimely passing of Les, but also to raise funds in support of The Leslie Condon Trust (TLCT), it was announced that over £2,150 was raised, a fantastic amount which will be even further enhanced by the profits of Croydon Citadel Band’s new CD, to be released this month, featuring the Major’s music performed by the Band (Bandmaster Iain Parkhouse), along with guest soloists Brett Baker (Trombone), Les Neish (Tuba) and the Regent Hall Songsters (Songster Leader Mark Walton).

Perpetuating Les’ memory through The Leslie Condon Trust has been masterfully managed in a really understated way, some would say typical of the man himself. The Trust has never advertised or requested funds, but rather has relied on occasions like this, sponsored by the Croydon Citadel Band, to contribute to the continuing work going on in parts of the Salvation Army world, work that would simply not be happening but for the support of the Trust.

As a prelude to the event there was opportunity to meet with both instrumental guests to get their own perspective on the evening, both sharing their thoughts and experiences with a humility that belies their undoubted musical expertise.

Brett Baker – has enjoyed a great empathy and sharing of music with SA Bands since 1993, being a   guest of the Mississauga Temple Corps in Canada on a visit to Toronto when he first played ‘Song of Exuberance’. Having good memories of playing at the ‘Rink’, he indicated how much he had enjoyed working with the CCB, being part of the project of recording the CD and culminating in this Festival of music. His exceptional technique and sheer consistency in performance over a number of years has made him undoubtedly the world’s finest ambassador for trombone in Brass Banding. Having recently announced his intent to concentrate on conducting, he continues to give of himself unstintingly to promoting the Trombone, and immediately after this event he made his way to New York where he was the principal guest at the USA Eastern Territory ALL STARS convention at Star Lake, New Jersey.

Les Neish – also enjoyed working with CCB, particularly working with Brian Hillson on the recording. A native of Manchester, Les lives with his wife, Debbie, and one year old son Charlie, in Northern Ireland and they both attend the Salvation Army Corps at Lurgan. Regularly commuting between Belfast and Manchester, his busy life as a performer, clinician and teacher has taken the art of Tuba playing to a high level of popularity.

As the audience gathered with keen anticipation there was an opportunity to view video pictures of Les, his wife Ruth and all five of their children: Dorothy, Sylvia, Valerie, David and Phil, all of whom were there at this event, along with their own families, as well as TLCT trustees: Lincoln Parkhouse, James Richardson and Mike Singleton.

The scintillating opening March ‘Celebration’ was played with a majestic precision certainly worthy of the composition, with the foundation being a solid performance by the Bass section. How refreshing that the Band has a large percentage of young members, particularly cornets, horns and basses. Moving seamlessly into ‘Prayer of Childhood’, a piece of music which has been played, and sung, over the years in many dedication services of new-born children, was sensitively played by Principal cornet Carl Nielsen, and was a fitting prelude to prayer, offered by the Croydon Citadel Commanding Officer, Major Roger Batt.

In his opening comments, compere for the evening Dr Stephen Cobb, Territorial Music Director, recognised that (probably due to his early passing) Les Condon was not a prolific composer, contributing less than 70 brass and 30 vocal pieces, but each of his publications remain of such quality that the impact continues to be very substantial to this day. The heritage that Les left behind was not just music, but rather the person he was. Many were there because of the special friendship they had with Les, but ALL would recognise that they were not unique, because he had that special relationship with everyone he came in contact with. The Congregational Song Now Thank we all our God, an arrangement written for the 1961 National Songster Leaders Councils Festival, immediately embraced all who were there in a great sense of community.

The first soloist contribution ‘Celestial Morn’ is music which has certainly stood the test of time, with Les Neish indicating how inspirational it had been listening to an old record of Major Condon playing his own composition. Written in the early 1960’s, it was premiered at the Regent Hall and performed by the composer himself at the 1961 National Songster Festival. Played on a single Eb SA ‘Triumphonic’ Tuba, ISB members recall that on that occasion Les modestly carried his own chair and stand with him to the front, typical of the man! However, on this reported occasion, Les Neish, an outstanding brass player and musician, played on a more sophisticated, heavier and technically developed instrument (and while standing to play too!!). His rendition was absolutely outstanding, played with such a commanding and incisive delicacy that made it all look so easy, culminating in an ending that sent a shiver down the spine. With a solid start from the horns, the Band supported well with a precise & sensitive accompaniment, imitating the style of the soloist.

The Regent Hall Songsters’ first contribution ‘A Call to Care’ was originally written for the 3 Condon girls (Dorothy, Sylvia and Valerie) and then in 1968 for singing companies. Subsequently reworked for the ISS and published after Les’ death in 1986, the words by Miriam Richards still encapsulate The Salvation Army’s challenge to meet the needs of the contemporary world and to work to bring a knowledge of God’s love to the people we serve

Brett Baker’s first contribution ‘Concertino for Trombone’ (Ferdinand David – arr. Les Condon) was written in 1980 for ISB tour of Western Territory, USA. Brett’s sensitive, scintillating playing, range & dynamic contrasts of style and musicality brought this complex piece of music to life more than any other rendition previously heard by this writer.

A fitting contrast featured next the ‘Rink’ ladies voices. Such ensembles, not often heard these days, were particularly featured at SA music schools from the early 1970’s. The evocative sound of female voices at such weeks is a unique and often very beautiful, and ‘The Love of my Lord’ is one such piece. A beautiful setting of Doris Rendell’s beautiful words, and sung with such musicality.

The Band’s main contribution – ‘The Present Age’ – was written in 1968 and 46 years on it is still a magnificently descriptive and emotive piece of music. Still for many the template of complex and descriptive music, challenging to play, but music with a strong storyline and an immediacy for the listener and still very much relevant, all these years on.

Written in a rush for the RAH Festival, it was given to the ISB a section at a time each week. Very much a fragmented way of getting a piece to a group, consequently the ISB struggled to understand and get to know the work, with technical demands, awkward intervals, trombone figures not presented before to SA musicians, and the formidable but beautiful “It is well with my Soul” section. Unusually, ISB Bandmaster Col. Bernard Adams asked Les to explain the music to the band. It was only after he had done this, and suggested that the music reflected something of his own journey as a young man, that the ISB started to make sense of it. The music was still being completed and altered on the day of its premiere, and what a stunning memorable performance it was. Playing the original manuscript version only previously played by 2 other Bands – the ISB in 1968 and the Tylney Hall ‘A’ Band of 1970, this really was a magnificent performance by the CCB. The Trombones were majestic, Flugel and Solo Horn impeccable in the melody “I’ll follow Thee”, as was the accompaniment to the tune ‘It is well with my Soul’.  

‘Bognor Regis’ was the popular march which welcomed the crowd back after an interval.

Brett Baker’s second solo, ‘Song of Exuberance’, was written for Mac Carter, specifically for the ISB 1967 five week trip to Australia & New Zealand via Hawaii …….a really tough tour!!! This Latino style, percussive, rhythmically driven music is ideally suited to a player of Brett Baker’s calibre, being built around the SA chorus “I’m trusting, I’m trusting, I’m trusting in Jesus now”. An exuberant style with a beautiful and sensitive slow middle section, Brett showed so much panache in this vibrant piece of music.

‘Hymn to Christ’ was the final contribution from the Regent Hall Songsters. This epic vocal piece was written at a time when Col Ray Bowes, Head of the Music Editorial Department, and Major Les Condon were looking to establish a more developed vocal repertoire, similar to the Festival Series for Bands. This is one of 3 songs in that inaugural edition, with words being those of evangelist and hymn writer John Bakewell “Hail thou once despised Jesus”. Yet another fine contribution to the evening from the ‘Rink’ Songsters.

Les Neish’s final contribution ‘Badinage’ was written by Kevin Norbury. Like many of his contemporaries, Kevin is a product of the Tylney Hall National School of Music for Boys where Les Condon’s influence was immense. Written as a tribute to Les who was also his mentor when working in the International Music Editorial Department, Badinage, meaning “playful raillery or banter” is a piece of flare & abandon written to celebrate Les’ undoubted sense of humour. Reflecting a handful of motifs used in Celestial Morn, this piece was made so enjoyable by the soloist’s performance. There followed an unaccompanied encore of dexterity, brilliance, and technical ability absolutely beyond words, with sounds literally ‘making the music speak’.

A refreshing contribution by the male voices – ‘ When Jesus looked O’er Galilee’ – was supported by a trombone accompaniment, sensitively led by CCB principal Trombonist Paul Graham.

Throughout the evening, musical items were interspersed by video presentations with Val Parkhouse sharing how The Leslie Condon Trust has focused over the years on supporting musicians in 3rd world countries, very much dear to Les’ heart. John Vincent shared his experiences in Kenya of teaching basic playing, theory, and instrument maintenance, mainly on the African continent. Brian Johnson, another student at Tylney Hall, also expressed appreciation for the support of TLCT and his experience of being involved in music schools for 50 years, and his work through the Trust, in Gambia, the Congo, and Kinshasa. These videos gave an important insight into the work of the Trust and a particular surprise was that of seeing John Kim, the very first recipient of sponsorship from the Trust. John further enhanced the evening by presenting the scripture reading and thought with a humility that surely reflects the life of Major Leslie Condon. The reading from Hebrews 12: 1-2 emphasised the need to lay aside every weight and sin, run the race set before us with patience, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith!

Nearing the end of the Festival, Brett Baker and Les Neish joined the Band in playing Les Condon’s last published piece of music ‘Gift for His Altar’ Emphasising the words “I have not much to give Thee Lord” and conducted by Dr Stephen Cobb, the playing of the Band created a silence fitting of the piece so sensitively composed by the man whose life and contribution was recognised by all those privileged to share this occasion.

The final item of the evening ‘A Song of Praise’ was written in collaboration with Catherine Baird originally  for the SA’s Centenary Celebrations in 1965, the final verse being affirming, and with the strong assurance that “Christ has overcome the World”. A fitting end to a truly memorable evening, with the Band and songsters being joined by the congregation on that final verse, with the Benediction being provided by Lt Col Peter Wood

What a privilege to share with you some of the ‘chemistry’ that made this wonderful occasion such a resounding success.   Orchestrated by Major Les Condon’s ‘own’ Croydon Citadel Band, what an inspired choice to have these artists sharing the occasion. The Band of 32 members rose to the occasion well beyond expectation, with so many memories generated by exposure once again to music of such quality that it has certainly withstood the passing of time and reappeared with a freshness, because of that quality.

Malcolm Quinn

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