The Festival Dances, op.64 belong to Hedges lighter works. But this does not imply any diminishment of his technical skills and invention. It was commissioned by the Borough of Milton Keynes to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.
This three-movement work is almost symphonic in conception with its fast-slow-fast structure. Certainly, the work’s length at just under 20 minutes is nearly of symphonic scale. The opening ‘allegro vivace’ is written in a slightly simplified sonata form, with first and second subjects closely related despite their different characters and moods. After an opening fanfare, the bouncy tune begins its adventures. Paul Conway (MusicWeb International, 2017) has noted the ‘harmonic waywardness’ of this theme. The vibrancy of the music calms down before the foot-taping, jazzy tune remerges. Much use is made of brass and the clarinet in these bars. After another slight repose the music build up to its peroration, with the main subjects being recalled.
The ‘lento’ is much more serious and reflective. The main theme is skilfully decorated by arabesques played by clarinets and flutes and tuned percussion (celeste and harp). There is just a hint of the ‘blues’ in this melody. The middle section of the ‘lento’ is a chorale for brass and strings. Despite the relatively sustained nature of this music, the movement builds to a huge climax. This is clearly a celebration of the deeper realities of the Queen’s Jubilee.
The third ‘Dance’ an ‘allegro assai’ is vivacious and bright and brings the work to a splendid conclusion. Many energetic brass interruptions foil the main theme’s progress. The listener will hardly be surprised to hear a reprise of the opening theme of the first Dance.
The Festival Dances were first performed at Milton Keynes on 7 June 1977. Sir Charles Groves conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I was unable to find any further details or reviews of this concert.
The first broadcast performance was given on Radio 3 on 20 January 1981. The BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Bryden Thomas. The other work in this concert was the premiere of British composer John Luke Rose’s remarkable Symphony No.1 (The Mystic). This massive work can be heard on YouTube. It deserves a revival in the concert hall or the recording studio.
In 2005 Anthony Hedges’ Festival Dances were issued by Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7151) on their second volume of British Light music premieres. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted by Gavin Sutherland. The album included music by Philip Lane, Haydn Wood, Carlo Martelli and Richard Addinsell.
Reviewing this CD for the American Record Guide (September/October 2005), Gerald S. Fox thought that it was ‘like something Leonard Bernstein might have written if he were British. The piece is in three parts and is bright, imaginative, upbeat, and sentimental. Part III is evocative, in its jazzy way, of the hustle and bustle of a city (shades of On the Town!)’. Paul Snook writing for Fanfare (March 2006) thought that Festival Dances was the most ‘substantial’ work on the CD. He admired the composer’s ability to write ‘comfortably on every level of accessibility’ and concluded by evoking Malcolm Arnold’s tradition ‘of civilized celebration and lyrical graciousness and it is eminently listenable.’
Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International 5 October 2005) gave some musical comparisons. He felt that the opening ‘allegro vivace’ has ‘a distinctive toe-tapping American accent rather like Bernstein but with a British 'kick'.’ On the other hand, ‘the ‘Lento’ is a lovely sustained piece with a suspicion of [Miklós] Rózsa's theme for El Cid.’ Barnett thinks that the third Dance ‘picks up on the brilliance of another British master, Malcolm Arnold - his best film music with a slightly alcohol befuddled hiccup’ His conclusion is that this is ‘a very successful piece of ebullient entertainment with its own green heart in the lento.’
Anthony Hedges’s Festival Dances have been uploaded to YouTube.