10 observations from the second Royal Over Seas League Ensemble Final

This was a close fought night. I had two of the ensembles vying for the top place with one holding a wildcard for the prize. A4 Brass Quartet secured the winning position and a non-competing slot in the Grand Final at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 4 June.

Listed below, ten thoughts which arose from listening to the competing four ensembles last night.

1. Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet is brilliant

I’ve written before about how competitions are a great way to discover a range of unfamiliar music. Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, and the third movement in particular is a punishing work demanding made to appear effortless by the members of Ensemble Solaire. Props to bassoonist Justin Sun who remained resilient despite an uncompliant music stand. Solaire created an exquisite voice with some gorgeous legatos and gratifyingly piercing staccatos.

2. A bit of theatre is always appreciated

Wind players are by necessity required to maintain a static pose in order they deliver a consistent tone. Consequently, there’s a risk they’ll appear like mannequins. A little bit of movement, say throwing of a handkerchief into the audience, cod-acting between brass players, or changing positions on stage to seize attention invigorates the listening experience whilst still ensuring the instrumentalists maintain their necessary poise. Two of the four ensembles did this to great effect.

3. Harpists have a raw deal

After gracing the stage with talent and flair, stood to take their deserved applause, I always think its a bit of a shame that a harpist has to remove his or her instrument from the stage. I understand why. The instrument is so fucking expensive that if I had one I don’t think I’d trust anyone else to move it for me. But something of the on-stage mystique is lost when I see an instrumentalist lumber up to the front of the stage again so that the harp can be wheeled off the stage.

This is brought into stark contrast when the harpist is Oliver Wass. Oliver plays with panache – style and grace mixed with an infectious enthusiasm for the instrument he plays. A joy to watch. That’s not to downplay the other members of the Pelleas Ensemble he’s a member of. Flautist Henry Roberts and viola Luba Tunnicliffe match Wass’ confidence and sensitivity with bold consistent mid-range tones and taut reliable articulation. Pelleas didn’t win but that doesn’t really matter. They are an entertaining and hugely satisfying listen. If people don’t rush to buy tickets to one of their events then the arm of the law should be brought to bear.

4. Placing the notes is the way to my heart

There’s a thing about wind quintets and the way they place a chord. If everyone moves as one and pays attention to the beginning and the end of a chord then the effect can be as electrifying as having a macro view of a needle being placed gently on an LP (remember them kids?). Ensemble Solaire have this particular technique licked.

5. Keeping eye contact with the audience is vital

I saw a number of players during the evening snatch looks at the audience in addition to their music and the associates on stage. It’s a natty trick. A simple act. As an audience member it makes me feel totally connected with the performer, perhaps even appreciated by them in the moment. Connection with the audience is vital. It turbo-charges the atmosphere. Props to A4 Brass Quartet’s Chris Robertson on euphonium. Nice work.

6. Don’t let spectacle over-shadow the need for tension

A4 Brass Quartet won the competition (and will go on to perform in the final on 22 June) but, because I’m a picky bugger and I want to be honest, they weren’t my favourites to win. This was partly down to the reason flagged in last point below, but also because as spectacular as their performance was – a breath-taking demonstration of music acrobatics and stamina – I didn’t experience any tension in the performance as a whole. As an audience member I need both spectacle and an air of tension (and ideally resolution too).

7. ROSL isn’t the best acoustic for a well-articulated bunch of brass players

A4 Brass Quartet’s articulation was so fast and so incredibly tight that I wanted to hear more gaps in between the notes.

I know. That sounds incredibly mean-spirited of me but bear with. A dryer acoustic deadens the sound and reveals their considerable skill. Take a look at this video recorded in what looks like a practice room at the RNCM (presumably) and you’ll see what I mean. Listen to more of A4 Brass Quartet here.

8. Brass players are always the cool bunch

I don’t know what it is about brass players but they always appear like the cool groovy bunch. They know how to wow audiences with cheeky irreverence, a sophisticated sense of cool, or an infectious kind of self-deprecation. A4 Brass Quartet have this in spades. They’re the blokes you’d expect to see occupy the back seat of the bus to school.

9. Careful what you communicate when on stage

One ensemble unwittingly communicated a vague sense of fear on stage. This was a shame because the quality of the individual voices was strong and engaging. It reminds me of the more general point about how important body language is in non-verbal communication. Often in stressful situations it is awareness of our body language which is the first to slip. And that is often amplified on stage.

10. Arrangements for wind players can breathe new life into a work blighted by familiarity

Don’t forgive the pun. It’s intended.

Ensemble Mirage’s performance of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship from Scheherazade revealed the mastery in Rimsky-Korsakov’s writing, giving the work a much-needed immediacy usually lost in full-scale symphonic performances. Similarly, the arrangement of Ravel’s String Quartet by Ensemble Solaire’s horn player Matthew Horn (no really, he’s a horn player with a surname of ‘Horn’ – tidy) had an edge of the original scoring.

The Royal Over-Seas League Final is on Thursday 4 June at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Book tickets via the Southbank Centre website.

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