Eric Ball: A Kensington Concerto
Eric Walter John Ball was born in Gloucestershire in October 1903 and was the eldest of 16 siblings. He learned to play the piano and organ and by 1919 Ball started to work in the Salvation Army musical instrument department in London. Ball is known for his extensive work as a conductor and composer, and it was in the Salvation Army that he developed these skills. From conducting the Salvation Army National Orchestra, to becoming bandmaster, with the rank of major, of the International Staff Band, Ball was a dynamic and versatile conductor.
After suddenly deciding to leave the Salvation Army in 1944 after the unfortunate death of his sister, Ball became involved in judging brass band competitions. Swiftly following this he also became conductor of Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, winning the National Championships the year after. Ball was also involved with the CWS band, where he won the British Open with the Manchester based band in 1948. Ball is also remembered as the editor of the much-loved British Bandsman magazine.
During the mid-1950s Ball stopped conducting competing brass bands so that he could concentrate on teaching and composing. Through his invaluable experience within the competitive brass band circle, Ball began to compose many test pieces for competitive bands including well-known works such as Resurgam (1950), Tournament for Brass (1954), Journey into Freedom (1967) and The Wayfarer (1976). Throughout the years these works have been used at a multitude of different contests and have been performed by a wide range of bands.
Composed to be a set work for the 1972 National Championships of Great Britain, A Kensington Concerto remains a popular and respected brass band work. Ball adds a dedication to the title page:
“To Olive Rose and that gay company of friends, now scattered, who in times past met annual in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on the occasion of the National Brass Band Championships.”
A piece of remembrance of good times past for Ball, A Kensington Concerto is shaped by the composer’s highly musical style and pristine handling of the ensemble. The work opens with a solo cornet, who sets the scene for this rather elegiac piece. As more voices are layered in, Ball’s mature style takes hold. There is often a warmth to Ball’s writing, and A Kensington Concerto is no different.
The first climax of the piece is heard nearly two minutes in, with the lower band driving the cornets up their dynamic scales. This leads to a unison section that presents the principal theme for the piece. The boldness of the writing here is striking and Ball’s handling of the very different timbres and textures within a band is admirable. Fast themes that challenge different parts of the band add a virtuosic flair to some small corners of the work.
As the dedication suggests, A Kensington Concerto is reflective of a simpler time in Ball’s life, with making friends, travelling and making music were the chief pleasure givers. Unlike some of Ball’s later works, this one mixes light and heaviness together to create an intriguing effect. Ball explores a number of different avenues and takes a handful of themes to interesting places. This all culminates in a powerful last couple of minutes.
Fast scalic runs are matched with bold unison sections that lead to a quiet refrain of one of the themes. The cornets mute themselves whilst a solo horn plays the theme. Ball builds the texture back up, which is led by a solo cornet. Huge loud interjections lead to the final flourish for this incredibly fun work for brass band.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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