Tuesday, 25 March 2014

John Wallace And Roy Bilham “Camping Musical” Bariloche, Argentina Trip 5th Jan – 19th Jan 2000

This project was the outcome of several previously failed attempts to fulfil a demand from musicians in Buenos Aires to foster links with British musicians to help raise instrumental standards in Argentina.

So on the 5th January 2000 John and myself left for our long flight to Buenos Aires and then on to Bariloche. We were met at the airport by a welcoming deputation who had organized a champagne reception and press conference. A TV station were there and a posse of reporters from the local and national press.

“Camping Musical” is an association which at the time was celebrating its 50th Anniversary. This visit came about with the support from the British Council with whom John, and myself had worked alongside for many years.

Bariloche is a city in the province of Rio Negro, Argentina, situated in the foothills of the Andes on the Southern shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake.

The camp was 25km away from the main urban centre – San Carlos de Bariloche on an island in a very remote location. Once on the island, among all trees were log cabins and cottages where all the participants slept. There was also a Refectory come rehearsal area, an auditorium and a place outside for concerts.

This was to be the first brass course that the “Camping Musical” has ever organized. Alongside us planning this event were two professional trumpet players from Buenos Aires, who were invaluable with translation. Because this was a first time event there was great enthusiasm to make this course work and a great deal of energy all round.  There were a few moments where flexibility and flair for improvisation were required but all in all it succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

The participants had a low opinion of their own capabilities at the beginning and thought they would never play the difficult works that we had organized in the programme, but day by day we raised their perceptions of their own worth until they surprised and shocked themselves by coming through the concerts with flying colours.

All the participants were a complete cross-section of Argentine Brass players the youngest player being a fourteen year old boy who along with his mother and father had travelled 2500km from Tucuman in the north. There were even a couple of musicians who had travelled from Chile to take part. The level of ability was high, but because of the diversity of age and experience the levels of achievement were mixed, high school students, students from conservatoires, professional musicians from provincial orchestras and major orchestras from Buenos Aires. Having all these different levels in ability was very beneficial in speeding an upward hike in standards.

The participants were surprised when every day we would warm up without instruments, playing games. They entered immediately into the spirit of things. Our days were mixed, we would have full band, then we would split the band in half I would rehearse my half and John his. Later we would take individual lessons, mixed duets, brass quintets and sectional groups. It really was a full day of playing. Even after our evening meal we would have informal work-in-progress concerts to get the participants used to playing to each other. Word soon got about and a large audience of locals started showing up to listen of a night time, sometimes these concerts would go past midnight. The evenings out there were magical I have never seen so many stars in the sky it was just breathtaking during the day the blue of the sky was amazing and sometimes you would see the odd Condor flying over with it’s 10ft wing span.

The food at the camp was of a very high standard and the wine was of a very high standard too – delicious. On the last Friday we were treated to an Asado which is a South American barbecue.

Out first official concert was held on the last Saturday of the course in The Sala Rautenstrach, attended by 180 people. The acoustics were excellent. On the final Sunday of the course we travelled 25km to San Carlos de Bariloche to give two concerts. First a serious programme in the Neo Gothic Cathedral at 6.00pm, which included the music of Tallis, Gabrieli and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and then an outdoor concert at 8.30pm of slightly less serious music. The cathedral was packed to the rafters and people were even standing outside to listen, with the spectacular backdrop of Lake Huapi and the Patagonian Andes.

The course for me was a brilliant adventure I enjoyed every minute of it, a new experience which I grabbed with both hands. Everybody left the course fulfilled, happy and glad they made the long journey to participate in this wonderful event.

It was a great time making music and for me you cannot get any better than that.

Thanks to the British Council for making such a memorable Brass Course possible.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Royal Artillery Band Farewell To Woolwich 1762-2014

Having served 22 years in The Royal Artillery Band, finishing my service as Band Sergeant Major and Deputy Bandmaster, I knew that the weekend of the 8th-9th February would be a very proud and special two days for me. A celebration of music provided by past and present members of this amazing wind band and orchestra the likes of which we will never see or hear again.

The powers that be whose idea it was to end this magnificent band/orchestra’s 250 year reign as one of the country’s finest is beyond belief. An organisation that simply can’t be replaced – and for what I say to myself. The band/orchestra has always been multi-functional supplying multiple ensembles including Old Time Orchestras, Big Dance Bands, Pop Groups, Brass Groups, Wind Groups, Fanfare Trumpets even Dixie and Umpah Bands, you name it the band had always supplied it right up to the present day.

The new home for the Royal Artillery Band will now be in Tidworth, Wiltshire from April 2014. Amazingly though not one present day member of the band is being relocated there. Instead they are all being placed in various other army bands. In my opinion it seems that the hierarchy want to start with a clean sheet and have a completely new band with not one old member.

The Royal Artillery Orchestra has also been disbanded apart from a handful of string players who will be the foundation of a new orchestra who will be made up from various other bands to create the newly formed Corps of Army Strings Orchestra. To relocate the majority of the R A Orchestra just to bring in players from different regiments is beyond belief.

Saturday 8th February the R A Wind Band and Orchestra gave their last performance in the Woolwich Town Hall. A location where the R A started playing a series of concerts since 1810, the longest running concert series in the country.

The concert opened with the Fanfare Trumpets of the RA playing a fanfare called “Royal Arsenal” which was followed by a lovely selection of wind band music accompanied by the Woolwich Military Wives Choir. The wind band played beautifully and the choir’s contribution was well received.

When the interval came this gave the packed town hall audience a chance to stretch their legs and chat and mingle with RA Band members past and present. In the second half we saw the orchestra take to the stage boosted with some ex-members and wives string players. It started with Eric Coates’ “Knightsbridge March”, followed by Alpha & Omega written by The Director of Music for The Royal Artillery Captain Craig Hallatt, apparently he wrote this piece while the band was serving in Afghanistan. He is to be congratulated it was a very fine piece of writing. As this piece was being performed, behind the orchestra was a large screen that was showing photographs of the band’s history. At this point in the concert my emotions got the better of me and I could not stop the flow of tears. 

It was now time for Frank Renton (Ex Director of Music of the Band)  to speak about the weekend. Frank who was reputed to be the finest conductor to come out of the Armed Forces, a statement which I totally agree with. The speech he gave was very moving and left no one in any doubt that this was a very sad time for the present serving men and women of the band and the end of an era, which can never be replaced. Frank conducted “The Holberg Suite” by Grieg, played by the string section of the orchestra.

It was only fitting that during the concert the orchestra played “The New World Symphony” by Dvorak, as they were the first orchestra in the world to perform this piece. It was now time for some light entertainment – the popular Post Horn Gallop – my wife Pam had my post horn in 2 pieces in her handbag so I had to quickly put it together to perform. I was number 2 of 7. We played it with antiphonal effects all around the town hall and at the end there were some brilliant cadenza’s played, the audience loved it and it went down very well as it always seems to. 

The concert came to an end with the traditional RA Slow March and RA Quick March.

Bravo to the Band/Orchestra a wonderful concert.

Sunday 9th February started in General Gordon Square in Woolwich, a huge screen was on display and written on it in big bold letters was “FAREWELL TO THE ROYAL ARTILLERY BAND”, followed by photos, videos and old pathe news clips, this was the start of mixed emotions for a lot of musicians.

The power of Face Book brought together in a very short time over one hundred past members to make up a concert/marching band. Some past members had not played for years, some had to borrow instruments to play. Music lyres had to be found and 1700 march cards sorted out. A huge task to make this special day work, and special it turned out to be in every way.

The veterans’ band in concert formation conducted by Frank Renton played for about 45 minutes to a very large crowd of spectators friends and families, while waiting for the Royal Artillery Band to enter the square. The present RA Band then played a selection of popular music and medals were given to those members who had been deployed to Afghanistan.  Then the past and present RA Bands played together. It was now time to form up in marching band formation, over a hundred of us 3 Ex Drum Majors and 1 Ex Director of Music. Three pace rolls and then we all stepped off to “The British Grenadiers”, phew what a sound we were now on our way. So much pride – I was almost at bursting point. Could I get up that bloody hill, well we all managed it, at the top of the hill a right wheel in through the barrack gates onto the front parade ground another right wheel and counter march and we halted, where we waited for the R A Band to arrive. It was great for us to play them onto the square and march past. A very sad emotional part of the day.

Then that was it, the end. Well done to all the organizers for putting it all together and a big thank you to Captain Hallatt who allowed us veterans to be part of this great day. In the end it was a celebration of music and this wonderful Royal Artillery Band and Orchestra. 

Later in the afternoon we all mixed together in the Sergeants Mess – The Band Of Brothers, everyone reflecting their time spent with the band – stories galore – mixed fortunes. A memorable day and a privilege to be in the company of past and present RA Band members.

Good luck to the present members wherever you have been sent, at least you have been fortunate to serve in this truly wonderful band.

On a personal note I will never understand why this day had to come whoever had this bright idea may I just say you have got it O so wrong.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014


I have always enjoyed playing Christmas Carols, a tradition which started when I was a boy playing for the Rowntrees Cocoa Works Band some 55 years ago. The years have rolled by and the tradition still remains. Let me share with you Christmas 2013.

This year it started on the 5th December for the Kids for Kids Candlelit Christmas Concert at All Saints Church in Fulham, London with my Thames Fanfare Brass Ensemble. The church was packed out, we started the proceedings off with a Christmas Fanfare and segue into Once in Royal David's City, which was then followed by an introduction to the evening by Eammon Holmes, Patron of the Charity. There were several readings given by celebrities throughout the evening such as Richard Wilson OBE, Julie Etchingham and Ruth Langsford. Ruth Rendell was in attendance who is a strong supporter of the cause. Patricia Parker, founder of the charity gave a very emotional address about the work the charity had managed to do that year. There was also a lovely violin solo from Ruth Palmer and some lovely vocals from the Danes Hill Choir and the St Andrews Singers. It was a truly lovely evening and £9000 was raised which was great news. My group and I had a very enjoyable evening.

Next up for me was the 10th December I had been asked to play at the Royal Albert Hall for the concert Christmas with the Stars which was to raise money for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. I was to play in Frank Renton's Concert Brass this was my third time playing in this group for this occasion. It doesn't get any better than playing at a packed out Albert Hall, also on stage with us were the Sydenham High School Choir, Fanfare Trumpets of the Scots Guards and many famous faces from television series such as Downton Abbey, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. These celebs gave their time to either sing read or just introduce the next item on the list, there was Caroline Quentin, Nicole Faraday, Heather Pearce, Clare Teal to name a few. Frank Renton was on top form with his conducting and presenting skills. I do remember when Frank was Director of Music for the Royal Artillery Band of which I was a member, our band played for this event it was Frank's first one and that was some 28 years ago and to his credit he has kept them going ever since. At the end of the concert the celebrities and the band go up to the balcony for champagne and nibbles and you get the chance to mingle with the stars which is always interesting. Another fantastic night of making music and raising money for another good cause.

On the 12th December I would be working at St Paul's Cathedral for a concert for the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas). I would be there with 4 of my Thames Fanfare Brass Fanfare Trumpeters. There would also be The City of London Choir performing directed by Hilary Davan Wetton. I was very excited at playing in St Paul's again as it was some 25 years ago when I last played there. Sir David Green the organiser of the event told me the Cathedral would be packed out and when the evening arrived he was not lying St Paul's was full to the brim. I stood there with my fellow Fanfare players and we opened the proceedings with the fanfare “Crowning” it sounded great even if I do say so myself. There were many famous faces there giving readings, Griff Rhys Jones, David Suchet, Hayley Mills, Mick Lyons and Sue Macgregor. Angelique Kidjo sang an African song which was stunningly good a solo voice filling the whole of St Paul's it was fantastic. Simon Johnson the organist played and we played Sir David Willcocks descants trumpet parts. It was a great evening not to be forgotten, after Sir David told me that they raised £180,000 what a great result.

To bring my festive carol playing season to an end on the 14th December I played with Kent Festival Brass at Mote Hall in Maidstone, this time Marie Curie Cancer Care was the charity we were raising money for. The evening was a great success and the carols went down very well with the audience.

So as long as I don't lose all my teeth I will look forward to playing carols in 2014 whether it be at such prestigious venues such as St Paul's Cathedral or The Albert Hall or even on the platform at Euston Station or on Regents Street I look forward to it all again.