Wednesday 21 February 2018

Classical: Keeping the beat - the drummer is the soul of any band

Introducing the band: Mick Hucknall and Simply Red
Introducing the band: Mick Hucknall and Simply Red

The social diary recently included a trip to see the band Simply Red. Not what you were expecting to find here, I'm sure, but hang on a moment - there's a connection that brings us from the 30th anniversary tour of an act from the pop end of the spectrum right into the heart of what music is all about.

Simply Red had reached the point in their show where it was time for Mick Hucknall, the front man, to introduce the boys in the band - two guitarists, a keyboard player, a trumpeter, a saxophonist, and last, but by no means least, the drummer.

The drummer is the soul of any band, in the way that a conductor is the focal point of an orchestra. But they all have their parts to play.

With that thought, I was back in the classroom, where our music master, Henry Willis, was holding forth.

In those Swinging Sixties, popular music had been reborn, and everybody wanted to be in a band. Classical might not have been deemed cool.

Still, Henry had a way of making the connection.

He drew the parallel between Smetana's tone poem 'Vltava' - our subject under discussion - and the music of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Guitars, bass, drums. Strings, woodwind, brass. Everybody has a part to play. 'Vltava' is a particularly good example for making that point.

It's the tale of the longest river in the present-day Czech Republic, 430 kilometres of waterway told in music.

The story starts deep in the Bohemian Forest.

Two flutes depict two small springs bubbling into life. With pizzicato strings, then clarinets joining in, the music scampers this way and that - streams tumbling down the mountainside.

The cast of instruments expands, the main theme makes its entrance. The stream is now a river. The full orchestra takes it away.

French horns and trumpets then take centre stage, painting a hunting scene as the Vltava flows through woods.

Another stretch of riverbank glides by, and the landscape clears. The orchestra takes on the tone of a string band for a country wedding on the riverbank.

Night falls. Bassoon, oboe, clarinet, flute and harp, then gentle strings paint shafts of moonlight on to the water.

Day breaks. There are rapids to negotiate - brass and percussion - and they're also to the fore as the river sweeps through Prague, beneath Charles Bridge, past the imposing castle. And on it goes, mightily into the distance, where it eventually tumbles into the waters of the Elbe for its journey to the North Sea.

Each section has had its part to play, and just like the drummer laying down the beat for the rock band, the conductor - often, significantly, referred to as the music director - guides the instrumentalists through the performance.

It's collaboration at its finest, and in the case of classical music, the key contribution of the conductor can be gauged by the way the same piece can sound so very different depending on who is in charge.

Nuance has a huge part to play, though rhythm is key. Right across the range, from Bach's Brandenburg Concertos to Schubert's symphonies, there's plenty of evidence that popular music has no monopoly on toe-tapping. Drummer, conductor - it's all the same.

Henry Willis was absolutely right.

There's much to admire in musical collaboration, whatever the category.

All that really matters is that it's sweet on the ear.

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