Gaia Symphony – first performance

Review of Gaia Symphony – first performance

Cheltenham Music Festival

Sunday 10th July


The sun was blazing down on the hottest Sunday afternoon of the year, yet inside Cheltenham Town Hall, a modest audience (about 170 people I think) experienced a tsunami, a raging fire, a blizzard, the Northern Lights and the presence of giant prehistoric stone circles.

It was all in the music, of course – the music in question being John Pickard’s mighty ‘Gaia Symphony’, given as part of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival by Buy As You View Band conducted by Dr. Robert Childs.

This massive work, based on the Four Elements of Water, Fire, Air and Earth, actually consists of four separate movements of test-piece standard, linked together by percussion interludes (Dr. Pickard calls them ‘windows’) and, although heralded as ‘the longest piece of music ever written for brass band’, the work seemed to pass swiftly enough, due to the fascinating sounds and textures which held the attention of the listeners throughout.

The imagery is vivid – a tidal wave, a blazing fire, the Aurora Borealis and the various Neolithic stone circles that are found around the British Isles. The music is no more ‘modern’ than in many test-pieces of recent years and approachable by anyone used to today’s ‘blockbuster’ film scores. This is not in any way to denigrate Dr. Pickard’s seriousness, nor belittle his achievement, but to outline the comprehensibility of the ‘Gaia Symphony’, which, by any standards, must already rank as one of the most significant compositions in the annals of brass band literature.

Each of the movements had already been performed separately (the earliest, ‘Wildfire’, as long ago as 1991) and it was only during the course of composition of these pieces over an 11-year period that the composer decided to weld them together into a single work.

For this performance, the band was set up on the floor of the hall, with the intention not only to provide the large percussion section with adequate space, but to involve the audience more.

The work was prefaced by an introduction from the Cheltenham Festival’s Artistic Director, the conductor Martyn Brabbins, himself a former baritone and euphonium player who ‘ate and drank’ brass bands throughout his school days.

John Pickard then analysed his work with great clarity (he is a lecturer at Bristol University), warning those rash enough to occupy the front rows that things were about to get a little noisy!

The performance was absolutely superb, with Buy As You View meeting the challenge of playing for 56 minutes on end, head on. The opening movement – ‘Tsunami’ – impressed with some sonorous utterances from the lower end of the band (Gavin Saynor, in his first concert as the newly-appointed principal Eb bass, on great form). Following the first percussion ‘window’ ‘Wildfire’ roared along convincingly, although John Pickard expressed concern at rehearsal that a special effect towards the end, designed to imitate the crackle of burning wood, might cause the audience to think it was time to applaud!

The third movement, ‘Aurora’, reflects the composer’s keen interest in astronomy (he was, for a while, Vice Chairman of Bristol Astronomical Society) and contains some of the most beautiful music in the entire work, the band producing its celebrated warm sound (one might say that it actually plays with a mellifluous Welsh accent).

The last movement, ‘Men of Stone’, evoking four pagan stone circles, is made up of four distinct sections: ‘Avebury’ (seen at dawn), ‘Castlerigg’ (seen in a snowstorm), ‘Barclodiad-y-Gawres’ (seen at sunset) and ‘Stonehenge’ (seen on Midsummer’s Eve). This last section ends with a marvelous musical depiction of the rising sun – a great, life-affirming major chord with a stratospheric soprano cornet reaching up to the skies – the playing here nearly lifting the ornate Edwardian roof.

Throughout the long span of the piece, I don’t think I heard a single note clipped, an untidy passage nor a moment of suspect intonation. It was really a tremendous achievement, owing much to teamwork as it did to some fantastic solo playing (Ian Williams, David Childs, Owen Farr, Chris Thomas, Gavin Saynor and, especially, guest soprano cornet, Kevin Crockford, on top form).

The only disappointment lay in the audience – fairly small (although the Festival organisers pronounced themselves satisfied “for a Sunday afternoon”) and predominantly elderly. Where were all the young people? As it was, the audience was a perfect model of attention, with no sign of restiveness, and very appreciative at the end.

This concert was not only an important milestone in new brass band music, but also for the movement itself. The Cheltenham Music Festival has been in existence since 1945, and has always been seen as a showcase for important new British music.

However, it has rarely embraced brass bands and Martyn Brabbins’ courage and faith in mounting this extraordinary event deserved far more support from the brass band movement than it received.

Steve York