It has to be said, I have been to more events that fall into the broad classical or orchestral realms of late than I have for a long time. Believe it or not, Swindon is growing into a hotbed for such music, or should I say regrowing, as those with a few spins around the sun under their belt can attest to how buoyant things were in the past. In the last year, such soirees on my part have included an impromptu string performance in Faringdon Park and the Swindon Young Musicians’ end-of-term concert at local music’s spiritual home, The Platform. A show that took in everything from clarinet combos to sweeping string ensembles, and ukulele groups to brass bands, percussion players, wind musicians, vocal groups and much more besides. It’s fair to say that they had it all.
Most recently, I found myself at The Wyvern Theatre for Night at The Proms, a brass-and-woodwind-centred series of performances hosted by. the Swindon Music Service and featuring ensembles of all ages, sizes and instrumental make-ups.
The night got off to a flying start courtesy of the Swindon Young Musician’s Brass Ensemble under the dutiful baton of Steve Yorke and a program that took in both classical and contemporary sounds with Grieg’s Hall of The Mountain King and an Abba medley to round off. How very Scandinavian!
Highworth/Warneford Concert Band, a blend of orchestral players and more pop and rock-aligned instruments, followed, bringing things even more up to date with a robust take on White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and, for the more pop-minded, a cracking version of Miley Cyrus’s Flowers.
Royal Wootton Bassett Academy added some peppiness to this first half, a swinging brass section pulling out the moves for a sparky rendition of Valerie, and Whitney Houston would have been proud of how they performed I Wanna Dance With Somebody. But for me, the highlight of the set was Rubin’s calm, controlled, croonerish version of Anthony Newly’s Feeling Good, a song most successfully delivered through a relaxed, soulful vibe, and the young man at the mic didn’t disappoint on that score.
Between songs, Lynn Hawkins, one of the SMS head honchos, chatted with members of the young bands, getting an insight into their music experience and what they get from learning an instrument, playing in a group environment and playing live. Very enlightening. As was her leading the audience through a vocally created thunderstorm from first drops of rain to post-thunder blue skies. An unexpected act of sonic shamanism.
The final performance for this segment was Peter Clark conducting the Swindon Young Musicians Wind Band, playing the four pieces that saw them finding favour at a recent, prestigious young musicians competition in Birmingham. They covered a lot of ground. Smoke on the Water kicked things off, an astute choice given Deep Purple’s penchant for rock-classical collaborations. This was followed by a Korean Folk Rhapsody, a real change of pace and power and an extraordinary meeting of the Orient and Occident. Elgar’s gorgeous Nimrod was played with the fitting amounts of grace and grandeur, and this half of the concert was put to bed with a rousing, bespoke march called, suitably enough, The SYM March. Lights up—time for a swift white wine.
The second half opened to the site of the most extensive collection of players of the night garnered from not only all the previous ensembles of the first half and bolstered by players from the Waterloo Band of the 7th Rifles, minus their famed bugles but then again, there would have been nowhere to put them anyway given the already full stage.
A Queen medley followed, from We Will Rock You to We Are The Champions, taking in, among others, Bohemian Rhapsody along the way. With the curt instruction of, “If you are not in the army, please leave the stage,” we were left with just the military players with Major Lawrence Sale at the helm, resplendent in a dapper coat and sash, looking every inch the dignified, Victorian band leader.
Starting with a Heavy March, a splendid way to kick off given the amount of musical power now being wielded on stage, a real change of pace came with the inclusion of Maleguena, a Latin piece often played by just a solo acoustic guitar but here evolved into a sort of cinematic, Tex-Mex vibe that Ennio Morricone would have been proud of.
An array of film scores followed a medley which took us through the familiar sounds of the world of John Williams – Hook, Harry Potter, ET, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Film scores have, in part, helped classical music to remain popular in the modern age. Discuss.
Eliza French was in the spotlight for a soulful and soothing version of Phil Collins’s Against All Odds, her saxophone taking the vocal lines as eloquently as any voice. We were then treated to a brief talk by 7th Rifles recruiting Sergeant Burt Lancaster (how cool a name is that?) to encourage any would-be soldiers or musicians of the future to consider the army as a career.
A Beatles medley got us back into musical mode, Eleanor Rigby, perhaps my favourite of theirs, Penny Lane, The Long And Winding Road and a slightly psychedelic and suitably trippy take on Norwegian Wood, not the sort of phrase that I thought I’d be writing given the nature of the night’s proceedings.
And finally, really embracing the Proms spirit, complete with flag waving and clapping, the Waterloo Band of the 7th Rifles ran through a Phantasia on British Sea Songs, the Hornpipe going down a storm, Land of Hope and Glory, of course, and a union flag bedecked Lynn Hawkins leading us through a fantastic and operatic Rule Britania.
What a great night, a showcase of what Swindon and the surrounding area has to offer. From beginners to career players, from school collectives to military bands, rousing marches to delicate solos, old favourites to modern pop, it had the lot. So, next time someone tells you that there is nothing musical happening in Swindon, roll this review up into a tube and hit them over the head with it.