Time to score a hit

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
Neil Butterworth looks at how music can join the past with the present. As part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in St Oswald's Hall, Preston Lodge High School have beaten Billy Connolly to give us the story of Deacon Brodie, the 18th-century Edinburgh worthy who led a double life, respected citizen by day, thief by night. Described as music theatre, the work has a stronger script by George Williamson than is customary for a musical today. But, inexplicably, the capture of Brodie and the events leading to his arrest are omitted from the plot.

The drama is greatly enhanced by a dozen highly accomplished songs, ensembles and choruses composed by John Montgomery. Intelligent lyrics and distinctive melodies combined with rhythmic drive characterise each number. This is a well-planned company piece with plenty of parts to go round the cast, ideally suited to any enterprising school.

On the first night some technical snags affected the sound quality. Obtrusive hand microphones - looking like giant liquorice lollipops - produced voices of monstrous dimensions and amplification picked up every noise on stage. Each member of the cast sang and acted with great verve, even more so than on the compact disc which is on sale after the show.

Another home-made school musical, Insurrection, written by James Rose, was staged in Old St Paul's Church Hall by Queen's College, London. Representing the suffragette movement, this dramatised documentary with music is aptly chosen for a girls' school founded in 1847, the first institution offering academic qualifications to women.

The beginning was none too promising, with blank-faced chorus, flat dialogue and tame songs. But as the performers got into their stride and threw off their inhibitions, the pace improved. The company were more at home in a music hall parody that mixed polemic and humour, injecting much needed rhythmical impulse into the rather bland musical score.

As a recounting of historical events, the production was both comprehensive and succinct, clearly expressed and ultimately put over with gusto by a cast that relished every riot. The best musical numbers were the choruses, in particular 'Deeds not words', which compensated for the pallid solo songs.

And still they come! There appears to be no end to the number of youth orchestras in Britain whose standard of performance equals that of the professionals. On August 14, as part of the Festival of British Youth Orchestras in the Central Hall, Tollcross, Edinburgh, it was the turn of Hertfordshire Schools' Sinfonia to demonstrate their prowess.

Each of the three works that made up the first half of the programme is a formidable demonstration piece for the whole band. At the outset of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, woodwind were a little insecure with some incidental wobbles and squeaks, but stability was achieved with the entry of the strings. Brass and percussion were on excellent form in the final dance.

In the Globe Playhouse movement that introduces Walton's music for the film Henry V, the full orchestral forces proved too hefty for this sprightly music. In the Prokofiev-inspired Battle, the instrumental weight vividly conjured up memories of the film, galloping horses, clash of steel and cries of the wounded. If there is ever a campaign to replace the current National Anthem, the Agincourt Song which concludes Walton's suite would be an ideal candidate. The French might not approve of the choice, but nothing can beat the uplifting effect of the tune, particularly in the choral setting which accompanies the credits in Laurence Olivier's masterpiece.

Malcolm Arnold's overture Tam O'Shanter provided the players with a light-hearted romp distinguished by a virtuoso trombone solo from Nicola Monks. This demanding repertoire was in effect a preparation for the principal item of the evening, Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra, composed in 1966 to celebrate 1, 000 years of Christianity in Poland.

From the awe-inspiring initial fanfare for four trumpets through the violent depiction of war in the scherzo to the glowing hymn in the finale, this is a score of stupendous technical and emotional demands. The closing bars where the fanfare returns have the patriotic and religious fervour to set off a revolution, played on this occasion with wondrous intensity. It is a very great work indeed; I wish I had written it.

Two conductors were named in the printed programme, Robert Pepper and John Witchell, but who did what was not divulged.

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