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Percy Grainger  -The Musical Wizard from Oz: Percy's Anniversary Band and Singers, John Holland. St John’s, Smith Square, London, 20.2.2011 (BBr)

Marching Songs of Democracy

Three movements from Youthful Suite (arranged by Mark Rogers) (UK première of this version)

The Merry King

I’m Seventeen Come Sunday

Mo Nighean Dubh (arranged by Roger Cawkwell)

Mock Morris (arranged by Roger Cawkwell)

The Immovable Do (or The Cyphering C)

Irish Tune from County Derry

Brigg Fair

The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart


Steven Bryant:
Impercynations (UK première)
David Stanhope: Three movements from String Songs arranged by Roger Cawkwell)
Roger Cawkwell: Three for Percy (first performance of this version)


Percy Grainger died fifty years ago today and if ever a composer has suffered neglect after their death – until recently – it must be Grainger. During my childhood, around the time of his death, you might hear Shepherd’s Hey or Country Gardens but a performance of The Warriors or the Suite: In a Nutshell was out of the question, and there were very few recordings available. Things are very different today with recordings of just about everything he wrote readily available, including several of the two aforementioned major works. So a fairly full house was to be expected for tonight’s show and a fairly full house was what Percy got.

I was especially looking forward to this show for it contained some of Percy’s works I’d never heard in concert before, and seeing the personnel of the Band it looked as if we were in for a good and interesting time – a saxophone choir, a clarinet choir, harps, piano, strings, voices and much else. However, whilst I understand and admire anyone with the passion and ability to put on a concert such as this, I also expect them to be able to execute the idea as well as promote it.

John Holland seems to be a personable young man, with bags of enthusiasm for Percy and his work, but as a conductor he left a lot to be desired. For me this concert was a disappointment simply because the performances were sub standard, dull and failed to take flight, for two reasons. In the first place the whole show was grossly under rehearsed – Percy’s music isn’t easy to play and whilst it might seem to be fun there is so much more to it than that. Secondly, Holland didn’t seem to understand balance, and how to use the big acoustic of St John’s, added to which the string section of the band was seriously under strength.

One also wonders why some of the works were not played in Percy’s original scoring but in arrangements made by others. Most unusual was Cawkwell’s arrangement of Mock Morris for saxophone choir when there was a too underused string section sitting in front of him! Poor planning indeed.

What this concert really didn’t need was the three new works, partly because they took valuable rehearsal time away from Percy’s works and partly because none of them was particularly good. Steven Bryant’s Impercynations is a piece for wind band based on ideas from Percy’s Lincolnshire Posy, which was poorly executed and at five minutes or so outstayed its welcome. David Stanhope’s String Songs consisted of arrangements of British folk tunes, including a manic version of The Keel Row, which was funny in part but musically negligible and it stretched the limits of the players too far. Roger Cawkwell’s Three for Percy sounded well for saxophone choir but, again, proved to be negligible.

The audience was well pleased with what it heard and demanded an encore, which it got, but for what they paid for their tickets they deserved better than this.

Bob Briggs

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