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ISB120 Brass Spectacular (Saturday Evening)
Amsterdam, Canadian, Chicago, German, The International, Japan, Melbourne and New York Staff Bands

The first notes of Stephen Bulla’s Praise Him, brought memories of ISB 120 at the Royal Albert Hall flooding back. ISB 120 was a unique and joyful celebration - joy in the act of making music as well as in the fellowship, as the robust singing and clapping in the congregational song Stand up and Bless the Lord revealed in spades.

This highlights CD is taken from the evening concert, with the International Staff Band itself centre stage and the staff bands from around the world seated in instrumental groups occupying the tiered rows of the choir stalls. With the attention focussed entirely on the audio, it is inevitable any flaws in ensemble will be magnified. What is remarkable is how few uneasy moments there were and how truthful the sound is. The layout of the bands clearly helped in this regard for the massed items.

As with any SA sacred concert, ISB 120 was a fascinating blend of artistry, creativity, virtuosity and worship. Of the new works premièred, two are included here - Peter Graham’s concise Fanfare, Prelude and Fugue on Sine Nomine (the hymn tune by Vaughan Williams) and Dudley Bright’s Pursuing Horizons. I listened to this on headphones as well as on speakers to savour the stereo imaging as the music sweeps across the stage from group to group. The music is symphonic rather than sacred in concept, highlighted by the influences of Holst (Mercury), Debussy (Fêtes) and Respighi (Pines of Rome) that are clearly audible. The final section of this impressive piece dances its way to a final imperious statement of the hymn tune upon which it is based - St. Luke. Pursuing Horizons would make a great test-piece!

The ISB was at its very best for this anniversary evening. Kenneth Downie’s King of Heaven, which highlights the individual sections of the band like a mini concerto for band, sounded fresh, committed and technically adroit. Derick Kane was on even better form in his solo Scottish Folk Variants (Bulla) than he was the night before at Cadogan Hall, playing The Better World (Bearcroft).

Much has been said and written in recent years about the way lyricism in the playing of contesting bands is being sacrificed in the quest for ever higher levels of virtuosity and extremes of register. This is never a criticism that can be levelled at Salvation Army brass bands, whose approach to music making is founded on song and expressive melody. Just listen to the gusto with which the International Staff Songsters deliver Kenneth Downie’s Pardon, Power and Praise and the sensitive way the international staff bandsmen and women unite in song in My Simple Prayer (Little / Lovatt-Cooper, arr. Downie), followed by a their expressivity (under John Lam) in Ray Steadman-Allen’s devotional classic, in Quiet Pastures. There is also a generous, expressive core at the heart of Leslie Condon’s The Call of the Righteous (conducted by Ronald Waiksnoris) which the occasional, understandable blemish in the more technical passages does not diminish. Andrew Blyth’s thrilling processional treatment of St. Clements brings this audio selection to a fitting end.

Paul Hindmarsh
British Bandsman, Saturday 12th November 2011

If you buy only one CD this Christmas, make it this one. When the souvenir T-shirts have lost their lustre and the pin badges are languishing on page 4 of well-known internet auction sites, this CD will still be a must-have, must-play item. Like so many earlier releases that have marked an epoch in our Movement’s history, this recording is a collector’s item. All eight staff bands are featured en masse with two solo spots for the International Staff Band and one for the International Staff Songsters.

The programme begins with ‘Praise Him’ by Stephen Bulla. This show-opener – originally written for the 1992 Congress of the same name, but on this occasion used to usher in the 244 players of the massed bands – sets the tone for what is to follow. ‘Fanfare, Prelude and Fugue on Sine Nomine’ is the first massed band piece and is based on the familiar school hymn ‘For All The Saints’ by Vaughan-Williams. The music of Vaughan-Williams is heard fairly regularly at the Albert Hall but this arrangement by Dr Peter Graham makes full use of the excellent setting and acoustics by passing the musical ideas backwards and forwards across the band to great effect.

‘King Of Heaven’ was the ISB’s centrepiece on the night. Kenneth Downie, already so much a central musical figure in the event, unleashed his limitless creativity on this set of variations on ‘Praise, My Soul, The King Of Heaven’. The piece makes great demands on all sections of the band and is akin in many ways to a concerto for band.

In the composition ‘Pardon, Power And Praise’ Ken is again the provider of a wonderful new setting for the ISS of his own much-earlier arrangement of ‘Have You Been To Jesus For The Cleansing Power?’ and ‘Nothing But Thy Blood Can Save Me’.

The work of Stephen Bulla is again featured in the tour de force for euphonium and band, ‘Scottish Folk Variants’. Derick Kane is superb in his familiar role as soloist, navigating through the many twists, turns and musical jokes – so much a part of Bulla’s writing style.

No disc would be complete without some fine, atmospheric congregational singing and ‘Stand Up And Bless The Lord’, under the direction of Bandmaster Heinrich Schmidt, is a choice inclusion. I should add that each of the staff bandmasters conducted items on the night although only four have been included on this recording.

The longest and certainly the most taxing piece for the assembled musicians is ‘Pursuing Horizons’ by Dudley Bright, using ideas from Philippians 3. This piece is as satisfying in the recording as it was in the live performance. Making full use of the antiphonal possibilities of the venue, this is a major work for brass band and offstage solo trumpets. Two pieces in reflective mood follow: the vocal setting of ‘My Simple Prayer’ and ‘In Quiet Pastures’.

To finish are the iconic ‘The Call Of The Righteous’ by Leslie Condon and a new setting of ‘St Clements’ by Assistant Territorial Music Director Andrew Blyth, marking a link to the past and bright hopes for the future.
In summary, there is everything you would want from a massed-band event: pedals from the basses, ‘stacked’ soprano cornets on the last note of a piece, technical brilliance, great emotion and wonderful drama – crucially, all suffused here with a clarion spiritual message.

Andrew Mackereth
Salvationist, Saturday 3rd December 2011

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