Radio City By Peter Graham RNCM January 2013

Radio City by Peter Graham (2013)withBlack Dyke Band(First performance)

The new composition:Having hugely enjoyed such pieces as Gaelforce.. The Essence of Time.. On the Shoulder of Giants.. A Time for Peace, one has come to expect a lot from Peter Graham and the new work for tenor trombone and brass band, Radio City, is no disappointment.

The use of a narrator is an inspired move which sets the three movements neatly in their context, conveying the spirit of 1940’s America. (Graham also uses a narrator in his Music inspired by 44 Scotland Street. Here, wind band and narration overlap with one another (Peter and the Wolf – style), whilst for Radio City the narration is used purely for scene-setting.) 

Composer’s Note on Radio City.

As youngsters growing up on the west coast of Scotland, my brother and I fell heir to anold valved radiogram which provided us with our first experiences of radio broadcasts. Onthe short wave signal, and through the static, we could pick up a whole range ofprogrammes from across the Atlantic. I particularly recall the baseball games, theAmerican accents of the announcers providing a window to a evocative world far removedfrom our small Ayrshire town.

These memories form the basis of Radio City.The work is set in three movements, each introduced by a pastiche radio announcernarrative written by Philip Coutts. The first, City Noir, is a nod towards RaymondChandler's eponymous private eye Philip Marlow and the dark cityscape of 1940sCalifornia.Movement two, Cafe Rouge, takes its title from the main restaurant in New York's famous Hotel Pennsylvania. Two of the most famous band leaders of the 1940s, trombonists Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, broadcast live from the cafe on numerous occasions and the movement echoes with a collage of imagined sounds from the period.The finale, Two-Minute Mile, derives from an event dubbed in the USA as “the most exciting two minutes in sport”, namely the Kentucky Derby. The virtuoso soloist figurations have their roots in Kentucky bluegrass fiddle music, with the galloping bluegrass clogdancing rhythms providing the backdrop.

Peter Graham, Cheshire, January 2013

Black Dyke Band

Size, it is often said, is not everything, (although it certainly can help). I commented to some of the musicians in the Band after the concert about the wonderful sound that the Black Dyke makes. Interestingly I had the same response from everyone: “yes, its really huge isn’t it?” Or words to that effect. Well, yes, it IS a big sound; a glorious big sound. But its a whole world more than that: the sound is golden and warm, rounded (not brittle or harsh, never edgy), perfectly blended and balanced, and it brings a huge smile to the face as it did to mine from the very beginning of the Britten Fanfare at the start of the concert. At the end of what had, for me, been a rather tedious grey sort of a day, I had a beam on my face from bar one of this performance (I do not exaggerate) and I put that down purely to the sound. This is an ‘expensive’ sound in as much as it has cost a lot of time and hard work to produce, both individually and as a group. Brett Baker is fortunate to have the Black Dyke Band for his backing and he puts the platform that they give him to perfect use.

PhD in Performance

How is the level for a PhD in performance defined? Has anybody, anywhere, ever defined it? Does Brett Baker’s university offer guidelines for the assessor? I am not aware of any such notes being available either from the University of Salford or indeed elsewhere. Perhaps its time now for this to be rectified?In the absence of such defining goalposts I decided to assess this performance on a purely professional level, making no allowances whatsoever for (for example) that fact that the soloist is also a student.The PerformanceI should point out to any reader who has no experience of brass playing that, in order to play this piece, the soloist has to have a really high level of ‘fitness’ as well as technical ability. By ‘fitness’ in this context I mean the strength and stamina to play the piece from beginning to end with the added pressure of live audience and microphones. For brass players, this sort of a problem is rather like that of a marathon runner: can I make it?! And for most players Radio City would be out of reach both technically and in terms of the stamina required simply to get through.Noteworthy in this concert is the fact that the flugelhorn soloist in Philip Wilby’s One Star – sailing west had a substitute player until her solo came round in the programme. Hence she could walk onto stage fresh, having taken no part in Britten’s Fanfare and McMillan’s Canite Tuba.

Brett Baker had no such luxury as he was obliged to play every piece up to his own solo – the penultimate piece in the programme. This programme was a huge blow by any standards; far from an ideal way to embark on a world’s first performance of a demanding solo piece to a Festival audience comprised almost entirely of experts.Brett Baker was apparently unfazed by the above and was able to play seemingly ‘as fresh as a daisy’. I feel that I must stress (again to any reader without brass playing experience) how impressive this is.Radio City is fiendishly demanding on the soloist and Brett Baker pulled off its first performance with tremendous panache, style and virtuosity, coupled with a golden sound fitting to the Black Dyke Band (as described above) and Glenn Miller (2nd movement). I think it was the Brazilian jazz trombonist Raul de Souza who learned to play the trombone whilst listening to his older sister practising the violin. As a child nobody told him that the violin is capable of greater virtuosity than just about any other instrument, and so he learned to play trombone in a florid manner from a very young age, asking no questions, and in imitation of his sister. This is precisely the approach needed for the 3rd movement, the 2-minute mile. Fiddle music Kentucky style is called for and Brett Baker delivered it to perfection. This movement was a display of virtuosity on a level which would have made a violinist proud.I confess to being a touch nervous, before the solo started, that Baker would play with an incessant vibrato, the staple and default sound of so many brass bandsmen and women today and, in my opinion, so inappropriate. (Vibrato, I suggest, should be an affect and absolutely not habitual). But the Black Dyke clearly do not adhere to this strange wherever-did-it-come-from-and-why style of delivery; and Brett Baker is of the same school. Of course I need never have been concerned. Nearly all the vibrato which the soloist used – most notably in the musical nod to Glenn Miller – was added with the slide and not on the breath or with the jaw. This was, for me, a great relief as well as a joy to hear.The performance was sprinkled with delights both technical (playing violinistic music, perfectly controlled lip trills (terribly difficult to bring off under control (or even at all)) and musical (golden sound throughout, vocal / lyrical style of playing).

Conclusion:Radio City is a great asset to the (advanced!) trombonist’s library of available repertoire and I hope that it will be seen and heard many-a-time in the future. For Brett Baker, soloist and student: sensational performance, glorious sound with virtuosity to match; stamina, energy, commitment, musicality – an absolute triumph. I was delighted to be there. Top marks – no allowances necessary.

Jeremy West February 2013

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