Monday, 3 August 2009

Paul Lewis: Festival of London March

I once met a man on Hungerford Bridge who told me he had watched the Royal Festival Hall being built. In fact he recalled the Red Lion Brewery, which he reckoned, was there before the war and was demolished either by the Luftwaffe or the builders. I think he suggested that as a young man he had drunk this company’s beer. He told me about the Festival of Britain and all the exciting buildings that were erected on the South Bank including the ‘dome’ and the Skylon. Certainly he rated the Festival Hall, but bemoaned the other ‘Brutalist’ buildings such as the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the National Theatre that have been constructed subsequently. I concurred. I remember my father telling me how he had taken my mother to the Festival in 1951 and how he had described to me many of the exhibits. I have always felt that I missed out on something very special.

Paul Lewis, who was born in 1943 was a young lad of eight at the time of the Festival of Britain, however he recalls being “enthralled” when taken there at that time. Although not the direct inspiration of this work, the Festival was certainly a background contributory factor.
The Festival of London March was sketched out in 1960 but had to wait another eleven years before it was orchestrated. In 1971 it was used as the finale of the London Festival Ballet’s 21st Birthday Gala Performance at the London Coliseum.

The listener should be warned that this piece does not necessarily fulfil the expectation. I guess that when I saw the title I expected either a ‘sixties version of ‘pomp and circumstance’ or more likely a pastiche of Eric Coates London Suite or his Holborn March or perhaps something akin to Haydn Wood’s descriptions of the London scene. The reality is that Lewis’s piece is a lot lighter and does not strive to emulate any particular style of ‘ceremonial’ music. If anything the nods are to an earlier generation, certainly in the ‘march’ part of the music. The ‘trio’ is a little more typical of the genre, but never quite manages to give me goose pimples or cause the hair to rise at the back of my neck. I guess that Handel’s Water Music is perhaps the best comparison, seen through the lens of modern day London. I was impressed with the orchestration of this piece, even if it is a little on the light side. Yet it is this lightness that gives the texture of the music a greater clarity..

Unfortunately there has been little criticism of this work. I was unable to find any reference to the 1971 celebrations in the contemporary media. Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International suggests that the March rolls and sways “with Handelian breadth but without the crushing Germanic weight of that composer.” I think this is a fair judgement.

Paul Lewis’s Festival of London March is recorded on White Line CD WHL 2138

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have just heard the Festival of London March on Classic FM, and while it was playing I was absolutely convinced I was listening to an unfamiliar piece by the great William Walton. The little piccolo flourishes, the regal sweeps and indeed whole phrases seemed to seal the deal. I was utterly astonished when it turned out to be the unknown (to me) Paul Lewis.
I think this piece is delightful and will add the DC to my birthday list.