There was a bitter chill outside the St Mary’s Church in Fratton when the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Portsmouth played their Spring Concert No. 3. It was a prelude to the “Beast from the East”, a blast of freezing air coming all the way from Arctic Siberia, about to hold Britain’s weather in its frigid grip.
The church’s heating system struggled to keep concert-goers warm against the falling temperature. But RM Band fans are made of sterner stuff. They nestled together in their overcoats to enjoy the fine music. And the cheery introductory patter of Major Pete Curtis MBE, Director of Music Training, did much to jolly the proceedings along.
The start of the programme introduced the Corps of Drums. They raised the bar with spotless precision during Sarie Marais, Per Mare Per Terram and Walcheren. All these spectacular pieces are the work of in-house composers over the years.
The evening was a significant night tinged with regret for Major Curtis. After a distinguished thirty-two-year career both as a musician and in the RM general Service, it was the last time he was to conduct at this familiar venue. Approaching retirement, his last formal duties will be conducting the RM School of Music Graduation Concert and Beating Retreat Ceremony in Portsmouth Guildhall and the Guildhall Square on 4 August 2018.
This was Major Curtis’ swan song. All those years ago he joined as a cornet player and the programme was sprinkled with his work, reflecting his prowess as a composer, musical arranger and conductor. He wrote the march Fight to Win in 2001 when he was the Volunteer Band conductor at HMS Collingwood. Its ethos is that the Navy turns raw sailors from HMS Raleigh into professional sea-goers. This rousing piece has more than a touch of big-screen John Williams about it.
He also arranged the cornet solo item Jubilance in 1999. Drawing on music from his childhood Salvation Army background, he got permission from the Canadian composer, William Himes, to turn this piece into the only formally recognised wind band version. Known for his all-round musical ability, WO1 Ivan Hutchinson enthralled the audience with his dexterity and fine tone on the cornet. As the well-deserved applause died away it was a fitting moment for him to be presented with a clasp for his Long Service and Good conduct medal.
The other work arranged by Major Curtis was The Sound of Silvestri. This is one of his many of his arrangements which have been played at the Royal Albert Hall. The original music was written by Alan Silvestri for the film The Mummy Returns. The score was for a double symphony orchestra. To condense this down to a wind band version without losing impact was difficult to say the least. The band’s rendition was sparkling and powerful.
On solo trombone, Musician John Walker played a beautiful arrangement of Over the Rainbow with supreme skill. Major Curtis was prompted to remark that a good tone is paramount for a musician. Technique can be taught but tone is the vital starting point. Aspiring players would be well advised to ponder this.
Band Sergeants Jamie Gunn, Matt Bowditch, Dan Page and Andy Hall were put through their paces conducting complex, challenging pieces as part of their Bandmasters’ courses. If it were to be judged by the ovation they got from the audience they would have passed with flying colours. However, the evening was one of musician’s music rather than popular lollipops. All the better for that.