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Review: ‘Scarlet & Gold’

MUSIC:ED reviews the Bands of The Household Division’s annual concert at Cadogan Hall in London

MUSIC:ED reviews the Bands of The Household Division’s annual concert at Cadogan Hall

‘What,’ I hear you ask, ‘is MUSIC:ED doing at a concert by the Massed Bands of the Household Division?’ It’s a cold and frosty night in Central London and here we are in our best bibs and tuckers rubbing shoulders with the Army’s finest – what’s the link?

Quite simply, it’s about careers. Specifically, careers in Army music. Forty new cadets sign up to play in an Army band every year. You can enrol as young as 16 and stay on till you’re 55. You get to train at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, as well as to continue your studies at the London College of Music on the BA Hons or BMus course if you want. And you get to wear a cool uniform.

In fact, the uniform is what this annual concert at Cadogan Hall calls itself after – that and the well-known march by Lloyd Thomas. Scarlet and gold are the colours of the Household Division‘s parade uniform and they deliver military music on State Ceremonial occasions such as Trooping the Colour. Band members are drawn from the Corps of Army Music (CAMUS) and, according to Major General Ben Bathurst CBE in his foreword to tonight’s programme, ‘all of them are passionate about music’.

So it’s with a pleasant sense of anticipation that we settle into our seats and the lights dim to reveal not only the Massed Bands seated onstage but also an assortment of players dotted around the hall, poised to deliver a welcome fanfare. And what a fanfare it is! Stirringly performed by the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry Band, it’s a fitting start to what the Household Division’s website calls ‘an evening of musical pomp and grandeur’.

The trumpeters are followed by a welcome from the Household Division’s Senior Director of Music, Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Roberts, and an introduction to compere, Alasdair Hutton, best known for his many years presenting the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This warm, genial Scotsman, dressed from head to toe in tartan, is the perfect host, introducing an impressive array of ensembles, conductors and soloists over the next two hours.

The ensembles range from the small (the Household Division Saxophone Quartet) to the large (the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra). Conductors are drawn from across the Bands of the Household Division while soloists include winner of the 2017 Household Division’s Young Musician of the Year Competition, Stephen Shepherd (saxophone), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama graduate, Corporal James Sandalls (violin), and Honourable Artillery Company Band reservist, Ben Godfrey (trumpet).

What is particularly exciting about this eclectic musical evening is the range of styles covered – from traditional brass band music to Latin American, from sacred music to jazz, from classical music to specially commissioned new music like Nigel Hess’s New London Suite, performed to a film depicting the hustle and bustle of the capital. According to the programme, ‘this tapestry of London life starts with Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian’s journey across the newest bridge over the River Thames, followed by London Eye which depicts a flight on the riverside wheel and the panoramic views it affords. It concludes with Congestion Charge with its oom-pa-pas, whistles and jeering from the clarinets capturing the stressful attempt of Londoners to go about their business in the face of overwhelming odds.’

What’s also exciting is how well rehearsed and polished the performances are and with what precision they are delivered. Which is not to say that the concert lacks heart. On the contrary, the humanity of each player is evident. From small touches like the choreographed introductions to certain pieces (two players brought the house down with their po-faced pacing to some rather sombre music) to the evident respect afforded by the players to their conductors, there is a sense that these musicians take great pride in their work.

Here’s Major General Ben Bathurst again: ‘The Army is all about talented individuals working as a team and, as a result, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Being in a military band is exactly that, each musician playing their part and being able to depend on each other to do the same. The result is absolute commitment and performance to the highest of standards.’

Which brings us back to the start – careers. Perhaps it’s best to leave you with the words of Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Roberts – again, in the programme: ‘To lead State Ceremonial music has been the highlight of my career and the greatest honour of my life. Throughout my long career within the Army, I have been afforded the greatest opportunities to develop professionally and to perform on the world stage at events that, as a young musician, were beyond my wildest dreams. The musicians you see tonight are the most dedicated, talented and passionate men and women I have had the honour to work with and I consider myself hugely fortunate to conduct them and to work alongside them on a daily basis.’

We head off into the cold, happy to spread the word.

Scarlet & Gold ran from 6-7 December 2017 at Cadogan Hall.