Sinfonietta – sound of strings

Musn Wright

Musn Wright

Musn Wright is a Musician in the Royal Artillery Band, part of the Corps of Army Music. As a violinist he is given the opportunity to perform with a small orchestra namely the Corps of Army Music Sinfonietta. During the normal working day he will perform on a wind instrument at key ceremonial events and in support of the Army worldwide.

One-size-fits-all, cream of the crop ensemble

An unusually cold autumn morning set me up perfectly for rummaging through my wardrobe for a different hat. As an Army musician, I’m sure many have seen the plethora of different head gear that adorn the tunics; from bearskins to busbies and mirror-like brass to the humble beret. But few will be so familiar with the metaphorical cap that many of us sit under throughout the year – that of trained orchestral musicians.

Granted, the image of a macho soldier lending their hand to the subtleties of a violin or cello, are not the first to spring to mind when one thinks of  “jobs available in the army”. However, our country’s orchestral heritage can be traced directly back to this. The first official orchestra in Great Britain was that of the Royal Artillery Band in Woolwich, who as a unit, very proudly celebrated their 250th anniversary in October this year.

Other small string groups can also still be seen, made up from musicians of both mounted and Foot Guard Regiments of the Household Division.

So back to this cold autumn morning. What we have is musicians from the Royal Artillery Band and the seven bands of the Household Division descending upon the Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham, for a one-size-fits-all, cream of the crop ensemble. Known as the ‘CAMUS sinfonietta’, its anticipated annual occurrence and careful selection of players offer it up as a very distinct jewel in the crown of military music. And the extra sparkle comes in the form of the finest woodwind and brass players, trawled from all corners and cupboards of the corps of army music. Indeed this year, as in some previous, we have the pleasure of some guest players from the RAF.

Our first rehearsal was the usual mixture of emotions. A meet and greet of those that have seen each other recently and those who, as in any working environment, may be grateful that they haven’t. But tensions over who spilt whose coffee last year soon subside as we recalibrate ourselves for the task in hand. And this year it’s quite a task, yet with even less preparation time than last, owing to such a busy month for bands. After several hours playing I feel much more relaxed into the larger string section than normal, and by the sound of the rest of the orchestra it promises to an exciting program of music to get stuck into and bring some passion and energy to both venues in the concert series.

HRH The Countess of Wessex meets LCpl Shellard clarinet soloist

HRH The Countess of Wessex meets LCpl Shellard clarinet soloist

The two venues for this years CAMUS  Sinfonietta concerts were the Newbury Arts Centre and the prestigious Menuhin Hall at Cobham.

The audiences at both venues were a mix of music lovers, military top brass and even royalty at the Menuhin Hall. Yes we had the privilege of our Colonel in Chief , HRH the Countess of Wessex in attendance. Nothing like a spot of royalty to ratchet up the pressure and encourage the best possible performance.

So to the music…

The woodwind section of the Sinfonietta

The woodwind section of the Sinfonietta

Our opening piece was an overture by the lesser known Rosenberg. And quite an opener it was, possibly an eye-opener for those less familiar with 20th century composers of his ilk. It’s a sort of marmite music with not much between loving or hating it. I’d say the audience were split on both nights. No matter the stance taken on the style of music, there would have been no doubt as to the ferocity and commitment it was delivered with. The conductor, Lt Col Meldrum, could easily have been mistaken for an evil wizard as he tried desperately to conjure every ounce of the composer’s intent from the bold phrases and the gut-wrenching harmonies. Well that was my take on it. A passer by or those less familiar with the concert hall might have thought Paul Daniels had just pulled an orchestra out of a hat. However, I suppose unless you’re a musician it would be difficult to grasp the effect a conductor can have on an orchestra.

Alongside the great variety of musical observations to be had, there was plenty on show for the non-musical military contingent who seemed equally transfixed by the performance.

For example, the discipline and timing involved in synchronising the bowing and rhythms of a well-oiled orchestra could match the prowess of a top class drill team or air display without a second thought. Likewise, the hawk-eyed observation and self control required in those pin-drop moments that see a full string section playing together quieter than a whisper, wouldn’t be out of place in an ambush or reconnaissance role.

LCpl Shellard performs at Arlington Arts Centre Newbury with the Sinfonietta

LCpl Shellard performs at Arlington Arts Centre Newbury with the Sinfonietta

I’d say my two favourite works of the program were ‘ Banks of Green Willow’ and Gordon Jacob’s  ‘Mini Concerto for Clarinet and Strings’. In the latter we had the pleasure of LCpl Alan Shellard from the Band of the Grenadier Guards as a soloist.

The ‘Banks of Green Willow’ by Butterworth offered a welcome respite from some of the more jarring chords found in the first two works. Its flowing folk-based melodies, painted with expert writing, would certainly have warmed the audience on such a cold evening. Notable colours oozed from the orchestra in the form of Lance Corporal Chris Spencer’s opening clarinet motif, Lance Corporal Rebecca White’s stirring solo violin moments and Warrant Officer Class 1 Guy Bennet’s harp contributions. I did think ‘fair play’ on his behalf as most sergeant majors wouldn’t admit to knowing what a harp was, never mind strumming their own in public.

The response from the audience as the energy in the hall wound up to an impressive, if slightly sweaty, finish of Bizet’s 1st Symphony was most encouraging. So presuming they were as generous to the Soldiers Charity ABF (whom the concerts were in aid of) as they were with their applause, the entire project will have have been of great worth. It’s certainly one I would gladly take part in again.

Public events featuring the bands of the Corps of Army Music