The Royal Marines School of Music is based in Portsmouth. It lies deep within the Naval Base, in what used to be the RN Detention Quarters. Now, instead of holding erring sailors, the old prison’s cells are places where trainees are brought up to the Royal Marines exacting standards of musicianship. In the exercise yard they are taught how to play music on the march.
The Cassel Prize is awarded annually to the best young musician from the School. There are two other prizes for second and third place. This year, after a lengthy winnowing process, five soloists were selected from scores of entrants to demonstrate their skills before three judges at the final. For the very last time, this was held on Tuesday 27 March in the opulent surroundings of the Mountbatten Dining Room at the Royal Marines Museum, Eastney.
The judges, Dr Bob Childs, a brass band specialist at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Dr Liz Le Grove, Director of Academic Studies at the RM School and Lt Col Jon Ridley RM, Principal Director of Music, freely admitted that they had a difficult job on the hands. The five soloists each played vastly differing instruments – trombone, violin, flute, euphonium and clarinet. They were judged on their musical ability, selection of music, presentation, communication with the audience, confidence and every facet of their performance.
The winner, Musician Emily Batten, was born in Cornwall but grew up in Wales. She was drawn to music after seeing an orchestra play the Nutcracker Suite. She then played in various wind ensembles on saxophone, ‘cello, piano and clarinet.
Just before she started playing she had trouble with her reed. An embarrassing hiccup, but she calmly sorted it out. Her performance was nothing short of impressive in all three of her pieces. They were showy items by Messager, Gomes and Poulenc; perfect to demonstrate her obvious dexterity. Her tonal quality was great. But what was really wonderful was the way she moved as she played. Her whole body swayed as if she was consumed by the rhythm of the music. The bell of the clarinet rose and fell with her masterful dynamics. It was all part the totally entertaining effect. Perceptively, Dr Childs said she humanised the music.
Newcastle lad, Musician Matthew Fletcher came second playing a euphonium concerto by Peter Graham and Harlequin by Philip Sparke. Matthew’s background is in brass bands at national and international level. Little wonder that he produced a beautiful, controlled mellow tone from such a powerful instrument. Electronic echo effects worked well in the Euphonium Concerto by Peter Graham. After the slow movement in the third piece he nailed the frenetic finale with supreme confidence.
In third place came Winchester girl, Musician Hollie Branson on violin. Claude Debussy would have loved her immaculately braided flaxen hair. Hollie’s posture was absolutely textbook with her left arm fully tucked under the instrument so that even the highest notes on the lower strings were within easy reach. In rapt concentration, playing Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, her face took on a no-nonsense expression. But then, the German virtuosa Anne Sophie Mutter looks positively cross playing the same piece on YouTube. Hollie’s rendition of all three of her showcase numbers was delicate and pleasing. She played Charles Dancla’s Resignation with an exciting, romantic feel, reminiscent of the cadenzas in Pablo Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs. It was a performance to be proud of.
The other competitors, Musician Lauren Loveridge on flute and Musician Frazer Wilkes on trombone played admirably too. Lauren’s rendition of Bali Moods No 1 conjured up images of palm-fringed beaches in a tropical paradise. Frazer treated the audience to some great trombone playing but he really shone in Harold Arlen and E Y Harburgs’ number, If I Only Had a Brain. Special mention must be made of the contribution made by Timothy Higgins on bass guitar, percussionist Owen Muir and Sgt Mark Hall on piano who gave this swingy number tremendous lift.