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.