Saxophonist Rob Burton with pianist Ashley Fripp at St James Piccadilly

St James Piccadilly have started up their lunchtime recitals in central London today opening with a recital from saxophonist Rob Burton and pianist Ashley Fripp in an event staged by Royal Overseas League.

What prompted me to attend wasn’t only Rob’s highly effective social media and supportive marketing team but also the promise of a performance of Cesar Franck’s joyous sonata in A Major (which I believe might have been arranged by saxophonist Jean-Yves Fourmeau).

The Franck is a seminal work in terms of my appreciation of music.

Back in 1989, I page-turned for a schoolmate who performed it in a school concert with then Head of Music (the late) James Recknell accompanying. I remember it as an epic work. Serious stuff. Passionate. Melodramatic. I found it difficult to understand how someone the same age as me was able to tackle something quite so grown up.

It was the first time I recall hearing someone (the schoolmate was violinist Rebecca Burman) talking in visceral terms about what was so fantastic about the Franck sonata she loved playing. That same principle of authentic passion remains true to what Thoroughly Good is about today.

If Thoroughly Good has a theme choon the Franck A Major sonata would be it.

So that’s why I wanted to hear the arrangement for alto saxophone (following the discovery of a short clip on Instagram featuring Royal Overseas League winner Jonathan Radford playing it in rehearsal). I had no idea there was such an arrangement. I now discover there’s even an arrangement for baritone sax too.

Rob Burton’s interpretation brought out the passion in the work, but with a softer, rounder, and fuller sound. This created a fuller heartfelt statement, almost as though the saxophone was able to get at the core of the music in a way that perhaps the violin (for which the work was originally written) doesn’t in comparison.

What I especially appreciated throughout Burton’s performance was the way in which the upper register at the top of a crescendo or in the full-on fortissimo phrase seemed to bloom every time. The support that underpins these moments is impressive, not least because it is reliable and consistent.

These moments are if you like the theatrical ‘reveal’ – a kind of tonal denouement that brings a similar smile to the face like an unexpected by well-deployed key change. Similarly arpeggiated leaps to the top of the register – musical fireworks. Two of Burton’s party tricks perhaps.

The Royal Overseas League Edinburgh Fringe Concerts are because of COVID hosted in London in 2021. Discover more about who’s on and when (and what they’re playing) here.

St James Piccadilly’s Lunchtime Concerts continue throughout the summer. More details on STJP’s website.

Review: Lambeth Wind Orchestra and saxophonist Rob Burton play Rhapsodies and Fantasias

A demanding programme of unfamiliar and invigorating works for wind orchestra including a cracking show piece from saxophonist Rob Burton.

“Why are you going to a concert given by amateurs?” asked the taxi driver on the way to Lambeth Wind Orchestra’s Saturday night concert this past weekend.

“Because they work hard and I’d like to hear the results,” I replied.

A far more succinct response would have been, “Why wouldn’t I?”

I was irritated by his rookie attempt at jocularity. It didn’t land well at all. When he then moved on to pissing and moaning about the borough where I lived I was keen for the journey to end (preferably at the sought-out destination) and for me and The OH to pile out.

What LWO does well is cultivating a community feel. This was the second concert of theirs I’d attended, the first where guests were greeted by conductor John Holland at the door. Don’t underestimate the dividend. If the conductor is welcoming you personally, then you’re going to have to be a cold-hearted bastard to end up not appreciating something in the hours that followed.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to look very hard. LWO players are an impressive bunch. Thirteen of the 52 players were ‘guest musicians’ meaning the core of the rich ensemble sound is powered by regular members. And when they play a chord as one complete ensemble the evocative sound of well-balanced wind band resonates across the chest, (for me) stirring happy memories of twenty-five years ago when I was at university conducting a wind orchestra.

It would be easy for an amateur band not to sound that way – one duff bit of tuning and everything jars, heads start to turn, and people start looking at their watches. But not so for LWO. Even at the point of tuning for performance its apparent that people listen, adjust and adapt. They pay close attention to Holland’s exacting and expressive beat – one of the reasons I imagine LWO secured Gold at the National Concert Band Festival last week.

The quality of the playing was most evident in Holland’s arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Daring. So much of the work depends on the textures of the strings. Dry mournful Sunday afternoons are best evoked by string players. That a quartet of players sat behind us played VW’s transcribed score with such warmth demonstrates not only vision on the part of the arranger, but an understanding of who in the band could realise the dream to greatest effect. The Thomas Tallis Fantasia is a demanding blow for a wind and brass player – endless extended sequences for (some) instruments right at the top of their range. But there were moments of intense emotion. The hideousness of the real world outside was momentarily put on hold. Exactly (I think) what VW intended. Quite some achievement for an amateur band playing in a concert hall at a school in which the composer taught.

Similarly impressive was Morton Gould’s epic Jericho – brimming with detail, dramatic perhaps momentarily piercing dynamic range – and Claude T.Smith’s blistering Alto Saxophone Fantasia. Soloist Rob Burton deftly delivered the punishing solo line with a warm round tone and gratifyingly unpretentious articulation. Sometimes swamped by the massed sound of the band in the opening material, his consistent musicianship made this an exhilerating discovery, the expansive and demanding cadenza in particular demonstrating how there’s much to discover from this remarkably mature instrumentalist.

Recommended recording of Claude T. Smith’s on Spotify from West Texas A&M Symphonic Band.

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