Conductor: Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs
Main vocalist: Flight Lieutenant Matthew Little
Reviewer: Audrey Pointer
The Royal Air Force Music Services boasts several bands and orchestras. A concert tour featuring a repertoire of old and new music of differing genres, is being held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first display season of the world famous Red Arrows. There is a well-established connection between the military and music which audiences love, and tonight’s sell-out concert, in the glorious setting of Harrogate’s Royal Hall, illustrates this point.
The large band occupies three rows of seats arranged in semi-circles around the conductor, Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs. The percussion section is at the back of the stage and, at least in this venue, almost totally out of view. However, the players make their presence felt throughout the evening with a wide range of different percussive taps, strikes, beats and thumps, executed with precision and musical deftness.
Following the National Anthem, for which the audience stands, the concert opens in earnest with a specially commissioned Stubbs composition, namely ‘Diamond Nine’. ‘The Diamond Nine’ is, of course, the trademark formation of the Red Arrows, and Stubbs’s rousing march takes you to the heart of the action by creatively including aircraft sounds as well as voice transmissions.
The evenings are compèred, and at Harrogate we were treated to Radio 2’s Lynn Bowles. Other compères for the season are Ken Bruce and Alan “Voice of the Balls” Dedicoat. Though we were given tenuous links between the decades, and a few humorous asides, a compère isn’t strictly necessary. A simple introduction by the conductor or principal singer, Flight Lieutenant Matthew Little, would suffice and a better additional element would surely have been film of the Red Arrows in action.
Music of the 1960s, the decade when the Red Arrows began, is represented by an arrangement of Eleanor Rigby by Naohiro Iwai, which captures the enigmatic melancholy of the original and also features a nifty key change. Also in the pop music genre is Queen Medley, specially arranged by West End musical director Stuart Morley. Morley certainly has plenty of material to choose from and begins by echoing the rhythmic stomping and clapping of ‘We Will Rock You’. Many other Queen classics including ‘Killer Queen’, ‘We Are the Champions’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ are also performed. Brian May’s nimble-fingered guitar solo on Bohemian Rhapsody is faithfully replicated on electric guitar by Corporal James Lawrence.
Another popular piece chosen for the concert, though placed awkwardly in the wrong decade, is ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot. The aria was of course, made even more famous by the World Cup of 1990. This arrangement features a haunting euphonium solo played admirably by Senior Aircraftman Lewis Musson.
The musical highlight of part one, and bringing this half to a close, is Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, famously used to great effect by Olympic ice skaters Torvill and Dean. With a palette of brassy and woody tones, the RAF band manages to capture all the growing tension of the two main melodies across the repeated snare-drum rhythm.
Part two begins in fine form with ‘The Jaguar March’, which has a familiar military swagger and is an ideal choice for a big band of this type. A three-girl group The Blue Belles is featured next, an “Andrews Sisters style” trio who entertain us with their rendition of an Andrews Sisters number, ‘Oh Johnny’.
‘Fnugg Blue’ celebrates the versatility of the RAF band, as well as its musical pluck. This work features that rare thing, a tuba solo, here played with virtuosity by Senior Aircraftman Johnathan Gawn, emulating tuba soloist Øystein Baadsvik. Some of the sounds Gawn coaxes from his instrument, using unconventional techniques like lip beats and multiphonics, are unusual to say the least, sounding didgeridoo-like and animalistic at times.
Towards the end of the concert, things become very patriotic, and familiar Last Night of the Proms favourites ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ are featured where audience members are encouraged to sing along and wave the Union Flags they purchased in the interval.
In terms of tunes one might well expect in a programme of this kind, we are also treated to ‘Come Fly With Me’ and ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’, the former played with a lilting promise of romance and adventure and the latter with an amusing and entertaining flamboyance.
The programme is very well chosen and the musicianship on show is of a high quality, especially from Sergeant Hannah I’Anson who delights on solo violin on two occasions. There is a great deal of variety to the evening, provided by different soloists and singers, changing moods and subtly shifting orchestration. A high-flying performance indeed!
One night only. National tour continues.
Reviewed on: 25th October 2014