By Stephen McNeff
I travelled to Buxton on the hottest day of the year so far to hear the North Cheshire Wind Orchestra under their newly appointed music director Tom Newall. I was particularly interested because NCWO were co-commissioners of my Clarinet Concerto some years ago and are again part of a consortium for which I am writing a flute concerto to be premiered in 2014. More of that later. On this day they were also playing Ghosts, my suite of spirit-world portraits, now over a decade out from its premiere in 2002 and played a lot, I'm very pleased to say.
It had been a while since I heard NCWO and quite a lot of the personal have changed so, despite my obvious professional self-interest, I was there with critical ears. They opened with Arnold's Four Scottish Dances, a good starter which the band is obviously familiar with and feels confidant playing. Copeland's Variations on a Shaker Melody is really an edited version of the Gift to be Simple section of Appalachian Spring. It is a testament to the robustness of the original material (and the skill of the transcriber - not to mention the players) that this arrangement works perfectly for wind orchestra and does not feel at all depleted. Again, it seemed like the orchestra were more than happy to take the piece in their stride and projected a wholesomely bright sound for this most optimistic of works.
Ghosts contains a variety of challenges and some difficult and exposed solos. Being invited to a concert to hear one of one's own works can be a mixed blessing, especially if invited to comment afterwards. Fortunately everything was in place and, if the bright sunlit day (or indeed a Methodist church) was not the usual place to encounter the sad stories and gory tales depicted in the suite, the orchestra made everything of the opportunities presented. I might have wished for a more authentic sound of dragging chains in the opening or a proper bell for the Blackpool Tram, but these are quibbles. Tom Newall has obviously studied the work thoroughly and understands the drama and contrasts - not surprising in a young conductor who also works in opera. The tricky 7/8 section was under control (and the on beat/off beat tambourine in alternative bars representing the coin counting the Bank of England Clerk did not panic as some have done!). Solos were nicely prepared and delivered with confidence while the 'big' numbers like the Dog of Godly and the Blackpool Tram were played with appropriate window rattling vigor.
The final work was Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations. I thought this a slightly odd choice at first given it's associations with Remembrance Day, but then recalled that it is a personal portrait of a friend and there is no reason to confine such a fine extract to November. As one would expect from an orchestra of NCWO pedigree the tempo and dynamics were exact and all in place and Tom Newall's control and phrasing entirely in the tradition of British conductors approaching Elgar.
Under their new music director NWCO are in good, energetic hands. It is good to see talented young conductors working in the wind orchestra world, committing themselves and also enthusiastically commissioning new work. My new flute concerto is a joint commission with the Lambeth Wind Orchestra, another group who have come on in leaps and bounds in their first five years under John Holland - again an indefatigable music director with boundless energy and a real understanding of how to get the very best from a wind orchestra. The Concerto - which is aimed at talented, but not necessarily professional (yet) soloists - will be premiered in April 2014 simultaneously in London and Warrington and then heard in Dublin played by our friends the Dublin Concert Band with Fergus O'Carroll.
For more information about the new concerto and how to contribute, please visit: