Sweet Songs of Zion

Sir Colin Davis records Elgar's 'Severn Suite' with Black Dyke.

Black Dyke's New Year started with a bang on Saturday:  there were no fireworks to mark the occasion, but they chose their first meeting of 2008 to make a historic recording, preoccupied with purely musical concerns. This was a rare meeting of two parallel worlds, when the British Brass Band tradition met and worked with one of the most experienced symphonic Maestros that the world has to offer.

Sir Colin Davis was born in 1927, and has been a guest of honour at the top table of the British musical establishment since he burst onto the scene deputising for both Otto Klemperer and Sir Thomas Beecham in the late 1950s. Since then he has enjoyed the greatest celebrity as a conductor of symphony orchestras and opera companies the world over. He was the first Englishman to conduct at Bayreuth, and masterminded a golden period at Covent Garden between 1971 and 1987. Knighted in 1980, Sir Colin is the current president of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Even for such an experienced musician, last Saturday proved to be a new experience, when he met the Black Dyke Band in London's Cardogan Hall for the first time. Black Dyke have been working on an Elgar CD throughout the composer's Anniversary year, but have delayed its release date to record his original band score 'The Severn Suite.' Nicholas Childs, musical director at Queensbury, commented on the day

'Black Dyke have recorded with an LSO conductor before, when Andre Previn worked with the band, but today has been something very special. We need to expand our musical horizons whenever we can, and the opportunity to work with one of the real giants of our age is an immense privilege.'

The four-hour session began with a complete run-through as the performers got to know each other. Sir Colin later described this as like coming back after Christmas to be presented with the world's biggest Christmas cake. Certainly, it was one of the loudest! He has been surrounded by band enthusiasts for most of his working life. As he observed 'Howard Snell, Bram Gay, and James Watson had all told me about the band tradition.  I have been immensely impressed by our principal trumpets at the LSO, not least Maurice Murphy and Rod Franks, who have given me great support and excellent advice. They were all bandsmen and came into the orchestra pre-formed as ensemble players.'

There were a number of luminaries in the hall for the recording, not least Dudley Bright and Rod Franks, principal trombone and trumpet of the LSO. Dudley's brother Julian was also present, representing SPS.   Philip Wilby enlisted the services of long-term colleague and friend Lawrence Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of conducting at California State University Fresno, and they were joined by Tom Lydon, from Classical Music Magazine, and the well-known band conductor Duncan Beckley.

In a break in proceedings, he took an opportunity to discuss with them the musical relationship they had seen unfolding.

Asked for an initial reaction, Larry Sutherland summed up everyone's feelings.
'Initially he was clearly taken aback by the power and the sonority of the band. Equally, the more he works with them, the more comfortable and relaxed he becomes, and the more effective everything is.'

Tom Lydon was a delighted witness at this first session.
'It seems to be an excellent collaborative process between everyone trying to allow Colin to conduct to the best of his abilities, with Rod Franks stepping in there with technical advice about colour and tuning. What we have seen is a meeting of two worlds, enabled by a dash of bandsman's folklore from Nick Childs.'

Duncan Beckley was enthusiastic.
'I loved it! Certainly in the initial stages you could see that he hadn't conducted a band before, let alone such a big and rich sounding group. However, he very, very quickly adjusted to them; the band were also learning some of his more subtle gestures. We are so used to conductors also being trainers, that this level of pure conducting is a rarity in our world.'

Larry Sutherland was keen to make some more detailed observations.
I noticed that he used a lot of string analogies in his gestures, physically to demonstrate articulations that he wanted..... Long flowing lines here, pizzicato, there. They may not last long, but are very influential. His conducting is very horizontal, based on lines of melodic material. So much modern band music is constructed of short rhythmic units that we are very often turned into 'vertical' conductors.  This piece predates all that musical thinking, and comes from a gentler, more tuneful age. The promenade music in particular is very important to him, and needs special legato and beauty of tone. The current trends towards ten-minute pieces, which are high, fast, and loud, turn conductors into very different musicians from those who enjoy great repertoire of nineteenth and twentieth century classics.

However, interestingly, he doesn't give an inch on tempo. He is very comfortable with the fact that the sound comes after the beat, and he doesn't compromise at all. It's wonderful to see the band react to that.

Duncan and Tom agreed :
Talking about string analogies, it was certainly noticeable how Rod Franks was so fixated on the length of notes. Clearly the shorter, more clipped style is an older banding tradition, which doesn't always suit this symphonic style of  music. The big difference between string and wind playing has to be articulation, and how the notes end. The extra ingredient is space and time, giving the players opportunity to make their musical contributions with great artistry.'

'It almost came from nothing in the first run-through and then he fixed on the high points, the extra moments of virtuosity, or of Elgarian 'Grandioso'. His immense experience with conducting opera will have a lot to bring to bear here, allowing distant sounds the chance to speak, bringing out a real vocal quality, but also keeping a meticulous pulse at the same time.'


The session restarted where it left off, and Philip Wilby's attention was drawn to a particularly powerful reading of the slow movement. This is a fugue, beginning softly and growing to a glowing climax and withering close.  This movement is titled 'Cathedral' and here the absolute technical superiority of the Maestro comes to the fore. Davis conducts this in four beats (most bandsmen need to see eight quavers here!), and yet never loses the tension in his beat.

Larry Sutherland observed that
'This is a very expressive, linear, horizontal structure. Conducting this in four does two excellent things. One, it gives the players more freedom, because they are not locked into a semi-rigid pulse. Two, it gives the opportunity for a greater sense of musical direction, seeing the horizon rather than the street map.

Sir Colin looks at the forest rather the trees!
I must say, having had the chance to meet him, he is very charming on a personal level. He has time for us all. I find that to be so true of British symphonic conductors. Instinctively we call him 'Maestro', perhaps the last of the breed, and that is a measure of absolute respect.

Respect certainly, but there was no doubt that the conductor and players shared a genuine level of mutual respect. During their initial discussion, and looking at Sir Colin's impeccably marked score, conductor and musical director discussed their intentions for this significant recording. Should they aim to discover Elgar's original intentions in the sense of a historic recreation of the world of the 1930s? Elgar's own orchestral recording is still available, and perhaps is all we need in the way of historic record.  Rather, they agreed that this should be a re-creative reading, offering the present generation  the very best from all the participants.

We are the richer for it. 


As the engineers cleared up, and the band bus set off back up the motorway, it fell to Nicholas Childs to summarise the day.
'It was a great experience. He was certainly talking from the heart when he observed to Rod Franks, myself, and all the band members 'The LSO could have a lot to gain from studying this ensemble.' This makes me smile a little, because we always look up to the greatest orchestras of the world, and rightly so. The idea of  this relationship becoming a two-way street is very pleasing. After the recording, you could certainly see the respect that he had gained for our group, and for our traditions.  Colin Davis is clearly no lover of competitions. He said informally to me 'The best thing about music-making is that everybody wins!

Certainly he loved the day, and we couldn't resist asking him if he would consider coming back again.

How about a 'Berlioz' recording for example...... his smile said it all....... 'How about'  he said mischievously ' with these players? .........Bach's Art of Fugue!'