Category Archives: music

My Music in 2012

Having looked at my review of 2012, I’ve noticed the lack of musical mentions, apart from a rather negative comment about my orchestras’ repertoires. As a musician, music is incredibly important to me, but it is something I have to give my full attention to, and (perhaps sadly) when I’m stressed and busy, it simply doesn’t figure. But that doesn’t mean the year was music-free! Here are some of the pieces that earned a place in the soundtrack of my year.

The album that has totally bowled me over this year, and continues to work its magic, is Enya’s ‘A Memory of Trees’. Hardly a recent album, I first heard it in its entirety in the KPA (Keele’s postgraduate clubhouse) on 4th July 2012. The purity of the vocals, plus the creativity of the music, continues to entrance me, and I don’t think I will ever get tired of listening to it.

As I write this, we have just passed the anniversary of Whitney Houston’s untimely death, and I should mention my all-time Whitney favourite track, ‘One moment in time’. This first came out in 1988, when the Olympics were held in Seoul, and I started my first academic post. I realised that I don’t have this iconic track on my mp3 player, and will seek to remedy this as soon as possible! This segues nicely into the Olympics that were held in London in 2012, and the opening ceremony. In this, the piece that I particularly liked was ‘Caliban’s Dream’, by Underworld (featuring Dockhead Choir, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Only Men Aloud, Elizabeth Roberts, Esme Smith and Alex Trimble). ‘Caliban’s Dream’ has certainly earned its place in my 2012 soundtrack.

During the festive period of 2011, I watched an omnibus edition of the documentary series about the Military Wives Choir, who had sprung to prominence in 2011:with their hit song ‘Wherever You Are’, which was the Christmas No. 1 of 2011. In the autumn of 2012 it won the Classic Brit Award for Song of the Year, which was well-deserved. This song became one of my favourites of 2012. I first heard it when I downloaded it for Angela’s radio show, and was in floods of tears! It somehow struck a chord with me (no pun intended …).

Finally, my old favourites continue to sustain me, especially on my travels and when away from home. They include Supertramp’s ‘Famous Last Words’, and Renaissance’s ‘A Song for All Seasons’. I’ve been listening to these albums on and off for the last 30 years, so no doubt they will continue to be important!

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The Folly of Eurovision

I am writing this on the day after the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in Baku, Azerbaijan. Sweden won it, and the UK entry, sung by Engelbert Humperdinck, came last but one (25th out of 26). Interestingly, Norway got the ultimate wooden spoon, and earlier on the same evening, England beat them 1-0 in a friendly football game, in what was Roy Hodgson’s first outing as manager. But I digress.

I used to enjoy Eurovision. Many of the songs left much to be desired musically, but it was always an enjoyable evening, and the voting was largely done on merit. All that changed a few years ago, which seemed to coincide with the introduction of the ‘new’ countries from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia to the contest. Voting by cartels became commonplace, with neighbours and political allies voting for each other. The contest started being hosted in such unlikely locations as Baku. And in so doing, the definition of Europe got stretched to include such obviously Asian countries as Azerbaijan.

You only have to look at the songs that have won the contest in the past to see that the criteria for success have changed. Would Abba win now with ‘Waterloo’, or even Katrina & The Waves (who won as recently as 1997) with ‘Love Shine a Light’? I think not. This year, the UK’s song, sung impressively by that accomplished veteran performer, Engelbert Humperdinck, ‘Love Will Set You Free’, failed dismally, getting only 12 points. So what do you need to stand a chance? According to one of my students (@tlittleford on Twitter), what you need is to have a ‘Europop track that can be played in clubs’. Well, I feel rather like a high court judge when I say ‘what’s a Europop track?’, but I get the general idea – something that would have been played in discos in my younger days, perhaps? So, if this is generally acknowledged now, why was our entry so obviously inappropriate? And why put Engelbert through such an embarrassing ordeal? It has also been pointed out to me that we have tried the quirky pop numbers before, and they have done badly too. So is it just that we can’t win (literally)?

The ultimate insult is the amount the BBC spends on the contest. In 2008 it was £173000, and is probably more now. I think that we have to seriously consider withdrawing this funding. If we really still want to take part, let’s go into the semi-finals. That will at least eliminate a really bad (or simply inappropriate) entry. And let’s use the money for something more worthwhile!

Musical activities

On Saturday I played in a concert with one of my current two orchestras, the South Cheshire Orchestra. It wasn’t the most exciting programme, but there were two pieces that I enjoyed playing, Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie’ overture and Borodin’s ‘Steps of Central Asia’. The first of these has some challenging (and very audible) scale passages for the trombone section, and the second, although not particularly challenging, gave me a chance to use my alto trombone for a change! The concert went well, although we had the usual rather small audience.

Next Saturday it’s the turn of the Middlewich Concert Orchestra, where I’m involved in 2 pieces. Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture is a real favourite. He uses the trombones to good effect, and it’s always good to play Mozart (given that he didn’t use trombones in his symphonies or in some of his other operas, e.g. the Marriage of Figaro). The other piece is Brahm’s 2nd symphony. I like all Brahm’s symphonies, and my only slight issue with the second is that we are underused! But when we do play it is interesting, and (hopefully) effective. I’ll be using the alto trombone for both of these, although I recently read a discussion of Brahms’ orchestration which suggested he intended the first part to be played on a tenor trombone. If that was the case, the players involved must have had very good high registers, since the first part is written in the alto clef for a reason. The other factor might have been that the trombones in use then had narrower bores, and therefore required less displacement of air. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes! I’ll no doubt report back on Facebook and Twitter after the concert.

Report on recent concerts

I’m pleased to report that the two concerts I played in, last Saturday and this Saturday, both went well. Last night’s concert, in Middlewich, was a sell-out, and literally there was standing room only!

Although the Middlewich orchestra are probably better than the South Cheshire orchestra (at least in terms of some specific players), I felt that last week’s concert was actually technically better. But it was probably the soloist, in the Elgar cello concerto last night, that pulled in the punters, and he was definitely superb.

The common factor between the two concerts was a Dvorak symphony, and although the New World symphony, which we played last night, is better known, I enjoyed playing the 8th symphony much more, in last week’s concert. This is probably because there is more interesting playing, rather than just playing the big themes very loud!

The next concert I’m playing in is on June 18th in Nantwich, with the South Cheshire Orchestra. I think the programme will consist of pieces from films and musicals, so rather different from the last two concerts! I’ll write more about this concert when I have programme details

Recent concerts, and playing the alto trombone

I am currently playing in 2 orchestras, both based in Cheshire, necessitating a fair bit of driving to get to the rehearsals, but it’s definitely worthwhile. Coincidentally, I have been learning to play the alto trombone, having played the tenor and bass since I started learning the instrument at the age of 11. It has not been easy, as the alto trombone is pitched in E flat, while the other members of the trombone family are (mostly) pitched in B flat. When I started my alto trombone project, I read about the different ways of learning to play the music, which included a number of ‘short cuts’ involving transposition, but I decided to adopt the ‘purist’ approach, and learn the new positions and the alto clef simultaneously. I decided to do this because, in the long run, it is likely to be most useful. Music for alto trombone is invariably written in the alto clef after all.

My learning has been given a focus by the fact that the recent concerts I have been preparing for have first trombone parts written for the alto trombone (although they are playable on the tenor trombone with plenty of high note practise). For example, in the concert I played in last night in Nantwich, we played Dvorak’s 8th symphony, which has some superb trombone writing in the first and fourth movements. This symphony has a particular resonance for me (no pun intended) because I once played the first part in a concert by my student orchestra (at UCL), and I remember struggling with the requirements of the music. So having the opportunity to play it again was, in a way, an exercise in exorcising some ghosts from the past. Thankfully, it all went well, and I will no longer have nightmares about this piece!

Moving on, next Saturday (9 April) in Middlewich I am playing in a concert which includes another Dvorak symphony, this time the ‘New World’, no. 9. I’ve played in this a couple of times before, but not using the alto trombone. There are some amazing moments, including the brass chorale at the beginning and end of the slow movement (the one with the ‘Hovis’ theme, for those who may not know the rest of the symphony). The first time I played in this symphony was in the mid 70s, with my county schools’ orchestra, and the main thing I remember is that the cor anglais soloist had problems with his instrument during the big solo in the slow movement, such that he couldn’t play it properly. Hopefully that won’t happen this time. The other pieces we are playing in this concert are Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Glinka’s ‘Ruslan and Ludmilla’ overture. The Elgar first trombone part is actually written for a tenor trombone, so I have had to rewrite the music to play it with the alto. But I’m sure Sir Edward wouldn’t mind!

One unexpected ‘plus’ about playing the alto trombone is it is so small and light. Having been used to carrying a bass trombone around, this is very liberating. But I haven’t given up on the bass, and will no doubt be using it again soon.

If anyone is interested in coming to the concert next week, it is in Middlewich Civic Hall starting at 7:30 pm. Drop me an e-mail for ticket information (

The Chronicles of Narnia, and future concert programmes

I am going to cover two unrelated topics in this post. The first concerns the films of the first 3 books from C S Lewis’s Narnia novels. As a young child I was read all the novels, and I subsequently reread them in my teens. When the first novel (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) came out as a film, I was keen to see it, and enjoyed it very much. Similarly I enjoyed the film of the second novel, Prince Caspian. Over Christmas I watched the DVDs of these 2 films, to refresh my memory of them, and today I have been to see the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I had been told it received mixed reviews, but I rarely take much notice of critics! In fact it was really good. I was probably the oldest person in the cinema, but I won’t worry about that either! The film was excellent; as good as the other two, although the very ending was possibly a bit OTT, with the implied Aslan-God equivalence slightly rubbed in. But that is a minor criticism. I will need to read the other novels in the series (yet again) to see what might be in store for the future, although I don’t know if any more are to be filmed.

Turning to music, I currently play in 2 orchestras, both of which are rehearsing for concerts in April. The Middlewich Concert Orchestra is putting on an excellent programme on April 9th which includes Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Elgar’s cello concerto. The previous week, on April 2nd, the South Cheshire Orchestra’s concert will include more Dvorak (the 8th symphony), and Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture. These are both splendid programmes, and rehearsing the pieces over the coming months will be a welcome distraction from the dull, grey days!

Learning to play the ukulele!

OK, I’m a musician. An experienced trombone player and a very amateur pianist. But I’ve never played a guitar or an orchestral stringed instrument like the violin. Then my admiration for the music of George Formby sparked an interest in the ukulele, and my dear wife Angela has just bought me one as an anniversary present. So I’m going to learn to play it, and blog my progress, which will make a change from my usual posts on chemistry and politics! More when I’ve tuned it!