Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Triumph of Time: The Music of Peter Graham

The work that initially attracted me to this disc was On Alderley Edge. Not only is this an affluent district of Cheshire which is home to top-class footballers and business executives, it is also a hugely attractive geographical feature. The Edge itself is owned for the nation by the National Trust. It is a few years since I have explored this impressive 600ft high red sandstone ridge, but I recall that the views are stunning. High above the Cheshire Plain, one can see towards Wales and Snowdonia in the west, Manchester and Blackstone Edge high above Littleborough in Lancashire to the north and the Peak District in the east. Unfortunately, trees now obscure some of these views, but it is still an evocative and energising place to explore.
In fact, Alderley Edge was not far away from the composer’s one-time home in Cheadle Hulme. Peter Graham has considered the impact of this landscape in his work, but has also added legendary content derived from the fantasy novels by Alan Garner which are set in the locality. There are many evocative places located on The Edge including Wizard’s Well, Stormy Point and the Devil’s Grave.  In the depths of the hill are rumours of hidden caves with a ‘sleeping army’ ready to rise and protect the country from a formidable enemy. Peter Graham has captured much of this magic in his piece. The composer has noted that On Alderley Edge is a series of ‘tone-pictures’ that are ‘evocative of European romanticism. There are musical references to Weber’s Der Freischutz and ‘the ideas of a redemption theme and the triumph of good over evil’. The music is written in an immediately approachable style, but is not simplistic. It is very much in the trajectory of brass band music from Percy Fletcher and Cyril Jenkins without being derivative.
A spin-off from this piece is the short Holy Well with the baritone horn soloist Katrina Marzella who is a relatively new member of the Black Dyke Band. The work makes use of one of the themes prominent in On Alderley Edge. The composer has written, ‘The Holy Well is one of the landmarks on the Edge, a very ancient site. The arching melody demonstrates the lyrical art and control of our soloist to perfection’.

I knew virtually nothing about the composer so I guess a few biographical facts may be of interest to the potential listener. Peter Graham was born in Scotland in 1958. He grew up in the milieu of Salvation Army brass band music. Later he studied music at Edinburgh University and Goldsmith’s College in London. For a number of years Graham worked as musical editor for Salvation Army in New York and London before settling in Cheshire. At present he is a full-time composer, however for some time he was Professor of Composition at Salford University.
Peter Graham has won a number of awards including American Bandmasters Association/Ostwald Award for Original Composition for Symphonic Winds and the Iles Medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

The composer has described how on 17 March 1923 his grandfather set sail from Glasgow on the TSS Cameronia bound for West Virginia, USA. It was a voyage of hope motivated by thoughts of a better life after the Great War. Voyage to Worlds Unknown is a musical exploration of the challenges of this journey. It is ‘unashamedly programmatic in character.’ The progress of the work is based on a historical timeline of his grandfather’s actual sea voyage. Events represented include the ‘grandeur’ of the ship, a jig presumably danced by the emigrants, a farewell ‘Ae fond kiss’ to loved ones, a storm in the Atlantic, and finally the first sight of the Statue of Liberty.  It is straightforward in its exposition of the material, however I am not sure that the introduction of the Scottish song is not just a little kitsch. Voyage to Worlds Unknown (2012) was premiered in March 2012 at the New York Staff’s Band 125th Anniversary in the Carnegie Hall.

The Essence of Time dates back to 1990 and is the oldest piece on this disc. It is a meditation on the well-known passage from the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.’ Graham has developed this philosophy by writing an effective set of variations which examines a number of clauses from this scripture. The piece is largely reflective, but there are a number of irruptions of violence into the score such as ‘The Time for War’ which acts as a scherzo to the symphonic stature of the piece. ‘The Time to Hate’ is aggressive and dissonant. The heart of the work is ‘The Time to Mourn’ presenting a cornet solo which eventually is re-presented as the ‘redemption’ theme in a section entitled ‘The Time for Peace’.
This is a challenging work that is both moving and imaginative in its working out of the theological statements of the biblical text.
The other short piece on this CD is A Time for Peace which showcases a beautiful solo for flugel horn played by Zoe Hancock. This was extracted from The Essence of Time. The composer has written that ‘at a time when dark clouds are gathering, and life becomes increasingly hectic, it seems to offer solace and resolve. It deserves its place in the repertoire.

The title track of this CD, The Triumph of Time is a largely abstract piece of music. It is subtitled ‘variations for brass band.’ The liner notes suggest influences in this music as diverse as Olivier Messiaen and American Jazz. The opening ‘clock sounds’ will remind filmgoers of the introductory scene of Back to the Future I. This is a magical work that explores a wide range of moods and brass band textures. I loved every bar of this music. It could be criticised as being eclectic, yet to my ear the synthesis is near perfect. The Black Dyke Band play this complex and technically challenging piece with consummate skill. It is not my favourite piece on this CD (On Alderley Edge is) but it is certainly the most challenging and effective.

It seems superfluous to state that the playing by the Black Dyke Band under their conductor Prof. Nicholas J. Childs is superb. The liner notes by a certain Ronald W Holz PhD are helpful, if a little verbose. It would have been good if the dates of composition of all the pieces had been given. The sound quality of this music is excellent.
This is a disc of music that I can recommend to all brass band enthusiasts. I have never enjoyed simply hearing arrangements of ‘pop’ tunes and the classics played by our great bands. There is a wealth of original music that has been written by experts in the medium that deserves to be heard apart from the inevitable brass band competitions. Peter Graham must be one of the best exponents of the medium composing today. This new CD deserves all success.

Track Listing:-
Peter Graham (b.1958)
The Essence of Time (1990)
A Time for Peace (1995)
On Alderley Edge (1997)
The Holy Well (after 1997)
Voyage to Worlds Unknown (2012)
The Triumph of Time (2014)
Black Dyke Band/Professor Nicolas J. Childs
Doyen DOYCD337 

No comments: