British Brass Bands and British Theater Legends

Woodfalls British Brass Brand
The Woodfalls British Brass Band on stage at the Royal Albert Hall

Thirty years ago, when we lived in Iowa, Paul payed tuba in the Eastern Iowa Brass Band, a British-style brass band that performed and competed in regional and national competitions. One year they were visited by the Desford Colliery Brass Band from Coalville, UK that was touring the states and performing. We hosted tuba players from that band in our home and I remember them as delightful folks who drank a lot of beer.

When we booked our trip to London, Paul noticed that the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain were to be held in Royal Albert Hall , so he bought tickets in an effort to relive his brass band history.  We made our way to Royal Albert Hall and found our seats next to two very knowledgeable ladies from Cornwall who explained the competition system to us and told us which of the 20 competing bands not to miss. The bands perform in an order determined by a lottery, and the first band up was Desford Colliery Brass Band! Since they were first, they opened the competition with the National Anthem (and no one took a knee). In the competition, each band plays the same piece, so by the time I had heard Handel in the Band six or seven times, I was ready for a break. After a walk in the rain in search of coffee, we returned, soaked but refreshed. The ladies from Cornwall assured us the best was yet to come, so we settled in for some more. When you’ve listened to the same 16-minute piece of music over and over again, you start to wonder how the adjudicators remain sane, but finally we heard last year’s winner, the Brighouse and Rastrick band, and I felt like I was hearing the piece for the first time. It was a more nuanced performance with rounder sounds and lyrical phrases and I finally understood why that piece was chosen as the contest piece. Paul naturally was very interested in the tuba players, and at the end of the day he said he wasn’t sure whether he feels inspired to practice more or to give up tuba entirely. I had to ask him if the Brits were so good at playing brass instruments because of their stiff upper lips. He did not laugh.

Wyndam’s Theater
In Wyndham’s Theater waiting for the curtain to rise. There was much discussion about whether the image on the curtain is a tree or neural pathways in a brain.

We left before the end of the competition because we had tickets for a show with our MSMT group. We made our way to Leicester Square via the Tube, and went to dinner at a pub near Wyndham’s Theater. The evening’s entertainment was the one straight play booked by MSMT, The Height of the Storm, starring Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, two British theater legends. It’s a family drama about growing old, dementia, loss, and love. It was disturbing at times but very compelling. I especially enjoyed seeing Eileen Atkins after enjoying her work on many of the British shows we see on PBS (like Doc Martin). It was a great production with an amazing set and effective use of lighting. As much as I love musical theater, I was reminded of how much I enjoy the intimacy of a straight play where I feel totally immersed in the story. We ended the evening with a group discussion of the play back at the hotel.

Tomorrow is a Harry Potter day for us in London. Stay tuned for details.


Getting There is Half the Fun

London Eye
The London Eye as seen from Golden Jubilee walking bridge.

It seems that all our trips begin with some unforeseen snafu. A few days before we left for Italy last year, we had a huge storm that knocked down trees and power lines and left us without electricity for several days. We left our house with the power out, not knowing what might happen when in came back on in our absence. This time everything seemed fine as we boarded the bus for the airport. Less than 10 minutes into the trip, the hatch on the well in the bus where the luggage was stowed came open, and suitcases went flying out on the highway. Fortunately none were run over and the driver was able to retrieve them all without disrupting Route 1 traffic too much. I feared it might be an omen, but the rest of the trip went fairly smoothly.

On the plane from Boston, I decided to get a taste of British drama by watching the film Nothing Like a Dame, a documentary with four great British actors, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Eileen Atkins. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these brilliant women reminiscing and laughing together. I may watch it again on the flight home. (We will see Eileen Atkins in a play this week, but more about that later.)

When we arrived at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, our rooms were not yet ready for us, but we were treated to lunch at the  R. S. Hispaniola, a floating restaurant nearby. Jet lag was starting to set in, but we managed to stay awake during the 2-hour lunch and orientation. After lunch and a little nap, we set off for one of the activities we booked on our own, a concert at Royal Festival Hall. To get there, we crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge, a lovely pedestrian bridge with excellent views of the London Eye.

Royal Festival Hall
The Royal Festival Hall stage

The concert featured Welsh opera singer, Bryn Terfel,with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and two young signers, soprano Lauren Fagan and tenor Gareth Jones. The program was mostly opera with some show tunes at the end. It’s always a joy to hear opera singers in concert with an orchestra in a more intimate setting than a large opera house. Terfel was excellent, especially when he sang Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge from Das Rheingold, and I’m sure we’ll see more of the two younger singers as their careers take off.

Tomorrow we spend a good part of the day at Royal Albert Hall listening to brass music and then we see a play in the evening. I’ll share the details here.

Off on a New Adventure

Tower Bridge in London
Tower Bridge Image from Pixabay, CC0

Paul and I are off on a new adventure today, so I’m returning to this blog to share it with family and friends. This time we’re on a group tour to London with folks from the Maine State Music Theater. This isn’t our first trip to London. We visited about 20 years ago, but we had our then 12-year-old son with us, so we planned our vacation around activities we thought he would enjoy. This time, our focus is on musical theater with a few other artsy and touristy activities thrown in.

The advantage to traveling with a group is that most of the planning has been done for us, and we don’t have to worry about transportation, hotels, or luggage. We’ll be staying for a week at the Royal Horseguards Hotel and attending five shows with the MSMT group. We’ve also booked some shows, musical events, and tours on our own, so it should be a fun-filled, action-packed trip.

If you want to enjoy London vicariously through us, you can follow this blog and receive emails each time I post, or watch for updates on Facebook. Facebook has changed its policy about automatically posting to timelines, so I’ll try to remember to manually add the post each day.

I’m off now to do some last minute packing and organizing. See you on the interwebs!