Conductor: Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The RAF Concert Tour is something of an institution, featuring musicians and singers from the RAF and, this year, paying tribute to the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Display Team, The Red Arrows. As the players take their place on stage in dress uniform in RAF blue, one might be forgiven for expecting an evening of rousing martial, even jingoistic, music. And if one were expecting that, one would be satisfied as a portion of the evening’s programme is given over to traditional military music, for example, ‘The Jaguar March’,’The Royal Air Force Fly Past’, and the freshly commissioned piece by tonight’s conductor and Principle Director of Music, Duncan Stubbs, ‘Diamond Nine’. ‘Diamond Nine’ was commissioned by the Honourable Company of Air Pilots to commemorate this, the fiftieth display season of the Red Arrows since its formal inauguration in 1965. Diamond Nine is the name given to the Red Arrows’ signature manoeuvre when all nine aircraft fly in close formation in a diamond formation.
The evening is compered by the suave Ken Bruce, probably best known as the mid-morning presenter on Radio 2. He introduces the pieces of music and gives a potted history of the Red Arrows with his trademark understated urbane wit.
However, this is not purely a celebration of military music. The evening is split into sections each looking at a decade in the Red Arrows’ history from a musical perspective, although some of the links are perhaps a little tenuous (‘Nessun Dorma’ appears in the 1960s section as a tribute to England’s 1966 World Cup success. It was, of course, famously used as a theme for the BBC coverage of the 1990 World Cup). However, one can forgive such programming – especially when ‘Music of the Night’ is sung by Flight Lieutenant Matthew Little, whose fine voice would not be out of place on the West End stage.
Throughout the evening, the orchestra shows its versatility, playing classical and pop pieces with equal aplomb. As a military band, one is not surprised to note it is predominantly brass and woodwind with no string section to speak of. However, the lack of strings does not lead, in most cases, to a lack of depth, possibly through careful arrangements of equally carefully chosen pieces. And on a couple of occasions, bassoonist Sergeant Hannah I’Anson takes up her fiddle to play some solo violin, for example, in the light as a soufflé ‘Por Una Cabeza’. So we are treated to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and an extensive medley of Queen songs alongside the traditional fare. Notable is their take on ‘Amazing Grace’, the first single by a military band to reach number one in the singles chart. The unusual arrangement commences with solo trumpet playing what sounds like improvised jazz. As the rest of the orchestra joins in, we are treated to more jazz strains and even a ragtime section – a long way from the usual more doleful playing!
After the interval, we are introduced to The Blue Belles, the RAF’s vocal group, channeling the Andrews Sisters in ‘Oh Johnny’ and a fine rendition of ‘Mack the Knife’, again from Flt Lt Little. But the stand out piece of the second half is Oystein Baadsvik’s Fnugg Blue. This is a piece showcasing the tuba and played by Senior Aircraftman Jonathan Gawn.
Each segment is accompanied by slides showing key points in the history of the Red Arrows set alongside other historic events of the past six decades.
Not every adaptation is completely successful – the replacement of the vocal in ‘Nessu Dorma’ by a euphonium solo doesn’t quite work – the solo playing by Sergeant Robin Taylor is high quality, but the instrument does not soar over the orchestra in the same way as the tenor vocal. However, much more does work than doesn’t: the tribute to World War One that starts with Stubbs’ ‘Keep the Faith’ and which includes some powerful spoken words and a pastoral violin solo is particularly striking.
The evening has another aspect too, of course, acting as a fund raiser for the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust. Overall, it does a fine job both of that and also in showcasing the talents of the orchestra and the Red Arrows. Far from being a narrow militaristic evening, there is, among the pieces played, something for everyone.
Reviewed on: 19th October