Presented by Brisbane Festival 2006
27 July 2006
Brisbane City Hall
Ashley Gittins, Alexandra Kerwin, Peter Luff, Riki McDonnell, Ron Prussing, Paula Russell
Brisbane Excelsior (Howard Taylor)
QLD Conservatorium Brass Band (Greg Aitken)

Concert Review –

Brisbane Excelsior was fortunate enough to have been able to produce this concert in conjunction with the Brisbane Festival 2006 which provided support in terms of media coverage and general public support. The Brisbane City Hall was three-quarters full with the audience thankfully choosing to concentrate themselves towards the centre of the auditorium, which created the much needed and sought after intimacy between performers and listeners.

Brisbane Excelsior opening the program with Jubilee March (Drury) at a scorching tempo.  The program then moved quickly onto the first of the soloists, all of whom were simply outstanding – every one of them without exception.

Paula Russell, Principal Cornet for Brisbane Excelsior, was first cab off the rank playing Jubilance (Himes).  Paula’s sound is one of the best ‘downunder’ at the moment and she played confidently with great precision, style and flair.  The evening, for Paula, was enormous – her accompanying support for the soloists who followed was sensitive and her band work was superb. 

A snappy band feature, Valero (Swearingen arr Smith) kept the mood upbeat and moving forward which set up nicely the next solo spot.

Principal Trombone of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Ron Prussing, is a true star.  Playing Rhapsody for Trombone (Langford), as a fitting tribute to the late Don Lusher, Ron played with great musical dexterity. He performed later in the second half with a gorgeous big band arrangement by Tommy Tycho of He aint Heavy, He’s My Brother.  Ron gave Howard time off during this piece, leaving just soloist and band.  He played with great control and command on the Alto Trombone.  The band played superbly during this number and really showed what fine listening skills it has.

Next was someone who soon became ‘the darling’ of the show.  “Wow, she’s really got something”, was heard to be said by a member of the audience.  Alexandra Kerwin delivered a strong, accurate, and mesmerising performance of Farr’s arrangement of the Lloyd-Weber piece Gethsemene on Soprano. In a true indication of her appeal, all of Alex’s CD’s sold out at half time!

Ashley Gittins stepped out from the Euphonium/Baritone rank of Brisbane Excelsior to take his place as the next soloist.  Ashley is proof that we in the Southern Hemisphere really are capable of producing our own experts in the art of brass bands.  Better World (Bearcroft) is a great piece with heaps of technical and artistic challenges.  Ashley is his own greatest critic when it comes to ‘finger work’, and Better World is full of it.  No sign of any flaws tonight – there was plenty of clarity in the faster passages and the finest slow melody playing you might ever hear – all without music, of course.  This was Ashley at his best and was one of the most special performances of the evening.

Brisbane Excelsior ended the first half with a perhaps slightly under-rehearsed rendition of the Finale from Faust (Gounod arr. Woodfield) a great piece to finish with none-the-less.

The second half opened with the first public performance for the Qld Conservatorium brass band under the Musical Direction of Greg Aitken. It was obvious that the band is in its infancy (4 months old in fact) but it certainly managed to present the chosen program with overall competence, and signs of an abundance of potential. The band played Concert Prelude (Sparke), Partita (Gregson), and Shine as the Light (Graham). This program, whilst delivering some fine works, maybe needed a bit of a boost with something upbeat and lively.  We are looking forward to seeing more of this band in the future.  Congratulations to Greg, the band and course director, Peter Luff, on its debut performance.

We were then introduced to Riki McDonnell, who did sensational things under the heavy influence of cold and flu medication. Riki brought freshness, humour and more skill to the early stages of the second half.  Carnival Cocktail gave Riki the chance to show-off his fantastic range and technical mastery which has seen him win Championship titles no-one else in brass band history has come close to matching.  It became very obvious that Riki and Howard have worked many a concert together – cleverly orchestrating comedy with musical interludes.  In complete contrast to this number was Pokarekare Ana, which gave Riki a chance to phrase and treat this gorgeous melody in fine style.  Riki – yes – you truely are a star of brass.

Feelin’ Good – judging by the smile on her face I would say that she was!  The Alex Kerwin comeback to the second half made us all feel good.  Simon Kerwin, Alex’s husband, has arranged this sensual number for Flugel and brass band which no brass band library should be without.  Made famous again recently by Michael Buble, this piece is one of the best around in current brass band solo repertoire.  Alex launched herself into this piece in punchy, raunchy style showing her incredible versatility in not only instruments but also style….and choreography! There may have been the occasional pelvic gyration from her if you looked hard – definitely plenty of shoulder rotations though! 

Saving the best till last perhaps??….bring on Peter Luff, Head of Brass at the Griffith University QLD conservatorium, founder of the new brass band degree, and one of the finest players of the French horn you may ever hear.  Peter’s chosen work was Czardas (Monti arr Thorne).  Played from memory, Peter’s delivery was totally captivating.  He oozed quality and class. His treatment of both slow and fast phrases was absorbing – a true example of the reputation that precedes him.  He gave Brisbane Excelsior no option in delivering possibly the quietest moments in the whole concert.

Riki and Alex returned to play together in the specially written by Simon Kerwin title track of their recently released CD Poles Apart.  Featuring melodies from the UK, New Zealand and Australia, from Coronation Street to Neighbours there was something in it for everyone.  Riki and Alex played, again, with great precision and class.  Yes – they were having a good time, we could tell.

Irish Blessing with all of the ‘stars of brass’ playing as a sextet was rather sentimental but it worked well, and Kingdom Triumphant sounded very triumphant even if it did end the evening on a ‘slow’ note.

Stars of Brass ‘sit in’ with Brisbane Excelsior

The concert finished late due to a hugely long interval – apparently the Conservatorium Band were waiting for the front of house doors to close before starting the 2nd half, but unfortunately, there was no appointed door person to close the doors.  Oh dear!  It took about 15 minutes for ‘somebody’ to work this out!

All that being said, bringing together these amazingly talented musicians for one night’s entertainment was a remarkable and memorable occasion. It was argued whether or not anywhere in ‘downunder’ had produced such an event before – we could not think of any.

Brisbane Excelsior is already planning Stars of Brass 2 for 2007.  Bring some more CD’s this time, Alex!

Patricia Kelly is one of the leading arts critics in Brisbane and the Excelsior band was certainly lucky to have her there.  I was told that certain members of the band were a little nervous as to what she might say given her reputation for telling it how it is.  However, the following is the review Patricia has written for the Courier Mail, which appeared Monday 31 July 2006:

Does Brisbane realize what a musical whiz is in its midst?  Plymouth-born Howard Taylor has worked wonders with Brisbane Excelsior Band since he was coaxed from a New Zealand posting to become Excelsior director in 2001 with a five-year plan to make them Australian champions.

The outcome of this promise was evident when his Aussie champion band and guests took to Brisbane City Hall stage with sizzling playing for a Brisbane Festival concert.

It attested to the success of this belief that there are three crucial elements: first, second and third are sound, sound, sound.  Honey-smooth, rich sound, thrilling harmonies and crisp precision lifted the Excelsior playing to new heights.  Under Howard’s unflagging energy and commitment to excellence the players barely let their guard down an instant, from Paul Drury’s opening Jubilee to the full-on tones of the closing Kingdom Triumphant of Eric Ball.

They were up to the greatest technical challenges at all speeds from adagio smoothies to dazzling up-tempo numbers.

As Greg Aitken, director of the guest group Queensland Conservatorium Brass Band (“the only tertiary brass band in the country”) says, his players love the music written seriously for brass bands as opposed to transcriptions.  There is the big challenge and there the technical mastery of both groups shone.

So did guest trio Paula Russell and Alexandra Kerwin (both from England, on cornet), and Riki McDonnell from New Zealand on euphonium), plus local lads Ron Prussing (trombone), Peter Luff (French horn) and Ashley Gittins (euphonium), virtuoso dazzlers all.

Taylor and his team could take a leaf out of the late Colin Harper’s book, with the way he used to program Queensland Pops concerts.  With savvy programming, better timing and less babble, Excelsior would pack City Hall every week.