MUSIC / Clowns among classics: Julian Rushton at the Harrogate Festival's Philip Wilby premiere

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The Independent Culture
WAS IT new music, or light entertainment? If anyone can weld such disparate objectives together, it should be the Fine Arts Brass Ensemble, a group of five brass virtuosi whose techniques and theatrical gall are equal to anything. But while they stun us with rich sound and the sheer fluidity of their playing, they mar the effect by cavalier programming. Even Richard Sandland's tuba is an accomplished musical acrobat, needlessly cast, in a spoof selection from Nutcracker, as an elephant emulating a sugar-plum fairy.

These players are quite capable of charming us with simple transcriptions of favourite music. Instead Stephen Roberts, the arranger, horn player and spokesman for the group, produced a Jurassic Park comedy. Where do you go if you begin the second half with encore material - a slick but straight arrangement from William Tell? The answer came with the actual encore, played on hosepipes. This is welcome evidence that the spirit of Gerard Hoffnung lives on; but to avoid unrelenting jollity the group offered Purcell and Bach pieces within the second half which fell rather flat.

Their subtlety and remarkable timbral variation were more in evidence in the new work which began the programme, Philip Wilby's Partita on the Krakow Fanfare. Loveliest of all was its still centre, played muted: an evening fanfare for horn, with silences uncannily filled by trombone and trumpet sustaining just above the limits of audibility, and a Nocturnal where an apparently crude textural idea, trumpet and tuba two octaves apart sandwiched round trumpet and trombone in a single-octave doubling, was eerily beautiful. The following 'Sonata: Morning fanfare' was electrifying, and as the instruments gradually removed their mutes the effect was of a new dawn. Statements of the Krakow fanfare itself began and ended the work to make a satisfying symmetry.

The other modern piece, Tim Souster's La Marche, is more ambitious and requires the players to appear in costume. This 'political entertainment' has each in turn reading tub-thumping speeches from ghouls chosen impartially from right and left, but except for Che Guevara they were far from being spitting images, particularly the grotesque falsetto Thatcher. After Mao and Stalin one awaited culmination with Hitler, whose alleged opera Souster brilliantly 'composed' for the TV series on his forged diaries. Instead the satire is defused by the cast exiting, whistling 'Tipperary'. I would have welcomed hearing the borrowed march tunes distinctly at the outset, without which their distortions are hardly clear as such; the piece impressed less as musical development than as gesture.

Thus it epitomised a problem which this group may have to face: whether to perform immaculately both moderns and classics (they played a Scheidt group commandingly in traditional style), or to become highbrow clowns. They relish playing slumped in a chair, walking, dancing, anything but falling over - perhaps they are working on that. Only Wilby's piece required them to move between sections simply to be heard antiphonally, an effect rather wasted in the small but enchanting Harrogate Theatre.