Review of the Netherlands Tour

In the spirit of “better late than never”, here’s some edited highlights from our trip to the Netherlands with Boudewijn Zwart.

Lowlight must have been the weather.  We played a lot of outdoor gigs wearing lots of layers and running for cover to keep the instruments dry.  As the contra player for the tour, trust me, it’s no fun!  The weather didn’t seem to deter the crowds though, and people seemed happy to watch us from under their umbrellas!  (Tough people, the Dutch)

There were many highlights though. Musically, playing in the Westerkerk in Amsterdam was just amazing.

There was about a 6 second delay, so the opening chords for the Magic Flute overture seemed to go on for ever.  What an amazing sound though.  We also met some delightful people (tourists and locals alike) who were most appreciative of the concert.

Our base for the week was Dordrecht, and the “home” gig certainly did not disappoint.  The concert was in the tower of the Great Church, home of the largest carillon in Europe. Our host, Boudewijn, allowed us to ring the bells to announce the start of the concert.  Pretty much a first for all of us and surprisingly hard work!  The ultimate test was for 8 of the choir members when they were asked to play in the Carillon tower to do a duet with Boudewijn.  What no-one realised is exactly how high that would be….A couple of hundred steps later and everyone squashed in nicely.

Dordrecht Bell Tower

Those of us that weren’t playing actually went across the road to listen.  The sound was beautiful – the bells and the saxes just sang out over the town.

A strange double act was when we were joined by a local Pipe and Drum Corps in Barneveld.  Naturally, we asked them to join in on “Shetland Sequence”.  Tuning up was fun in a masochistic kind of way.

Finally, our last day in the Netherlands was crowned by two concerts in Schoonhoven.

The stage was set up on a bridge over the canal, with the audience seated on the banks.

The afternoon was a children’s concert which included the debut of the “Squeaky Boyz”.  This quartet (Nigel, Chris, Dom and Tom) bravely performed Philip Buttall’s “Lone Arranger” on two soprillos and two sopraninos.  The local dogs loved it anyway.

In a bizarre twist of fate, the girls get all the bottom end in the NSC with Claire, Michelle, Alison and Deb performing Nigel Wood’s “March of the Baritonettes”.  In the second strange collaboration of the tour, our co-performers “Raw Noodles” played their didgeridoos along with Waltzing Soprillda!  it will never sound the same again!

The evening concert was simply amazing.  The organisers estimated about 1200 in the audience (their best turnout to date).  The canal looked gorgeous in the light and we had huge fun playing a mixed programme including two duets with Boudewijn on carillon.

The aftershow at the Silver Museum was delightful and we were thrilled to receive miniature silver tuning forks as a memento of our trip.

Gracious hosts, great music and good company.  Who could ask for anything more?

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NSC goes Dutch!

We’re in final preparation stages for our mini tour of the Netherlands.  The T-shirts have arrived, the van is booked to transport the contra, bass and baritones and the final rehearsal is looming.

We will be performing with Boudewijn Zwart and his transportable Concert Carillon (for more information, see Boudewijn is a remarkable musician and it’s worth coming just to see his instrument!  How gorgeous is this….

If you are UK based, we will be performing with Boudewijn on the 29th October in Bournville, Birmingham. More details to follow soon.

Our dates in the Netherlands are:

Saturday 27 August ZEEWOLDE 21.00 hr CONCERT Harbour

Monday 29 August GOUDA 20.00 hr CONCERT Winkelstraat (bij Oude Kerk)

Tuesday 30 August AMSTERDAM 13.00 hr CONCERT Westerkerk

Tuesday 30 August BARNEVELD 20.00 hr CONCERT City-hall square

Wednesday 31 August EDE 19.00 hr CONCERT Church-square of EDE

Thursday 1 September DORDRECHT 20.00 hr CONCERT Towerhal of Great Church

Saturday 3 September MOORDRECHT 10.00 hr informal concert for inauguration of new carillon

Saturday 3 September SCHOONHOVEN 16.00 hr CONCERT Children’s Concert

Saturday 3 September SCHOONHOVEN tbc 21.00 hr CONCERT Evening Concert

A challenging schedule, I think you’ll agree.  As always, it will be fun and exhausting in equal measure, but we can’t wait!

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Choir meets Choir

I don’t think anyone knew quite what to expect when we agreed to a double-header with Hertford Choral Society.  A 150 strong choir with an impressive history dating back to 1938, they have a reputation for bold initiatives and exciting collaborations.

The two MDs,  Nigel Wood and Derek Harrison worked closely together to come up with a varied programme designed to showcase both ensembles.  We each did our own feature numbers, and joined together for:

  • Zadok the Priest (Handel)
  • Spirit of the Lord (Elgar)
  • O Fortuna (Orff)
  • Toreador Song from Carmen (Bizet)
  • Crucifixus (Lotti)
  • Bachianas Brasilieras 5 (Villa-Lobos)
  • West Side Story medley (Bernstein)

A daring mix, I think you’ll agree!  Apparently Nigel’s initial reaction to Derek’s suggestion of ‘Spirit of the Lord’ was “Are you sure?”.  If I’m honest, after a couple of NSC rehearsals, we all felt the same – but put the voices in, and what a transformation!

In fact, the joint pieces were pure magic.  Zadok was a stunning opener, with the chorus delivering power and majesty.  Crucifixus (already in the NSC repertoire as it happens) was spine tingling, with the saxes playing at the back of the church and the chorus at the front so the sound floated across the audience.

A particular delight for me personally was the Bachianas Brasilieras 5.  If you don’t know the piece, it was originally scored for 8 cellos and soprano voice.  The NSC version is lower saxes (tenor and below) with alto solo, played by principal alto Victoria Benjamin.  In this case though, the voices joined the solo line and the two blended so beautifully it was difficult to separate them.  Pure magic.

Last but certainly not least, we did our traditional encore of ‘Over the Rainbow’, joined <ahem> spontaneously by the Chorus  (our motto is “Be Prepared”).  In fairness, even if the audience hadn’t shouted for an encore, they were going to hear it anyway because it’s delightful.

So was the concert a success?  Judging by the packed church, standing ovation and delightful comments afterwards, it’s fair to say a resounding “Yes!”

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…and breathe

Well there has barely been time to draw a breath over the past 2 weeks.  With the excitement of the South Bank over, it was time to knuckle down to some serious rehearsal time for the next round of gigs.  Unfortunately, the logistics of being a national group means that rehearsal time is strictly limited to one a month, and with 3 programmes to rehearse in one day, that was a tall order.  7 hours later, we emerged relatively unscathed….

The day after the rehearsal was our appearance at The Stables in Wavendon.  For those of you who are not familiar with the venue, it is actually on the grounds of Dame Cleo Laine and the late, great John Dankworth’s house.  We were playing as part of the “Music in the Garden” series and were thrilled to be performing in a marquee in Cleo’s back garden!  I must say, we were looked after exceedingly well.  The great lady herself was saying how shabbily she and John had been treated over the years in some venues, so the ethos of the Stables is always to look after the artists.  Need I say more?

The programme was a varied one (as always) but featured some new arrangements, including:

  • Danzon no 2 (Marquez)
  • Bachianas Brasilieras 5 (Villa-Lobos)
  • Schwarzer Tanzer (Wood)
A personal favourite was an SF8 (Sax Family octet) arrangement of John Dankworth’s own “Warm Front” which he recorded with Julian Lloyd-Webber.  Went down very well, and hopefully the great man himself would have approved 🙂  
Prize for entrance of the day goes to our guest percussionist, Matt.  At the start of the encore “Shetland Sequence” he ran to the front of the stage, hit a loose tile and slid down onto the floor, scraping his back as he went.  His landing, however, was picture perfect as he hit the grass cross legged and didn’t miss a beat.  What a pro.
Overall, an amazing reaction from the audience and a thoroughly enjoyable day.  Coming next – a report from Hertford .
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The video is launched

Woo hoo! The video from the Graffiti tunnel is now available on YouTube. In some ways, not what I expected at all but in others it is very cool. What do you think?

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Didn’t we have a lovely time….

Had a fantastic time at the Southbank yesterday.  We were supposed to be playing on the bandstand, but it just wasn’t big enough! We set up stall next to it though and let the audience use it as a seat instead.

We were surrounded by food stalls serving dishes from all over the world.  It’s quite difficult to play when you’re salivating that much…

The programme went down very well, particularly old favourite “Under the Veil” by Nigel Wood, superbly played by Debbie Sargent.  We also premiered Nigel’s arrangement of Ketelbey’s “Sanctuary of the Heart” which we will be recording at BBC Manchester as part of the “Light Fantastic” festival.

The audience were fantastic and we particularly enjoyed chatting to people before and after the concert.  As I was contrabass girl for the day I got to answer lots of questions about “the beast”.  I think I need a better name for it (male or female I wonder?) but as much as I love it, after manhandling it in and out of a transit van the air was a little blue.

After the gig, we did a video shoot in the grunge of the Graffiti tunnel at Waterloo.  And yes, it does smell how it looks….

Playing Piazolla’s “Oblivion” with an empty vodka bottle, lager can and plastic carrier bag blowing past was an experience we will never forget.

Anyway, onwards and upwards.  Time to start rehearsing for the next gig which is the Stables and Wavendon on June 19th.

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You are what you play

Just as in the saying ‘you are what you wear’, ensembles are inevitably judged and categorised by their repertoire.  But what exactly do you choose for 16 saxophonists with the collective range of a grand piano?

Over the years we have covered our fair share of original music, to the point where we devoted a whole concert to living British composers.  Then there was the “7 Wonders” project, timed to coincide with the publication of the new seven wonders of the world.  Seven original pieces, each one featuring a different member of the sax family.   We also pay constant tribute to the “greats”; Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Freddie Mercury….

In choosing repertoire however, the one principle that we have resolutely stuck to is that the music must be accessible to audiences.  Some people see this as “dumbing down” yet to us it simply means that a paying audience have a great night out.

One of the events which sticks in my mind is our first performance at the World Sax Congress, the spiritual home of worthy saxophone music.  It was the time that Nigel Wood, our MD, introduced the tiny Soprillo to the world.  So what piece did he choose for the world premiere?  “Waltzing Soprillda”, an unashamed pastiche on “that” Australian folk tune.  So what was the audience reaction?  Disdain?  Embarrassment?  No, it was a standing ovation, proving that even world-class sax players love to be entertained.  At the Edinburgh Fringe, the question at the CD stand was unrelentingly “is Bolero on there?” 

Don’t get me wrong.  There is a vast amount of amazingly exciting and hugely enjoyable contemporary music out there and many world class ensembles who push the genre to its limits.  Challenging new work is essential to any artform to ensure that it continues to grow and develop.  To go back to my original point, can a group of 16 saxophonists realistically expect to operate in that space, and (perhaps controversially) has it ever inspired anyone to take up the saxophone?

Our underlying core values encompass both musical excellence and entertainment.  Is it wrong to assume the two are mutually exclusive?

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Even busier….

Well, I was convinced that the upcoming concerts were enough excitement for any group, but we were thrilled to learn that we have been selected as one of only 27 Making Music members to record at the BBC as part of the “Light Fantastic” festival.

To quote from the BBC website:

“Light Fantastic is a participatory festival of light music with a central focus around British light orchestral music. The focus of the festival is a weekend of events around the country and broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 (24-27 June 2011) which unite the BBC with its public in a celebration of this appealing genre of British music.”.  For more information check out the BBC website

It could all get even more hectic as we are still awaiting permission to arrange our chosen piece….it’s a good job that Nigel is an Olympic speed arranger.  Pity it’s not a real event, it could be our only Gold in 2012.

If that wasn’t enough, we also have an opportunity to busk down at the South Bank as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations  .  Our problem at the moment is ensuring availability – with such a busy schedule over the next couple of months it can be difficult for people to find time in their diaries.

Well, the devil makes work for idle hands as my mother always said.

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Busy, busy, busy

It seems that like number 13 buses, you can wait ages for a gig then three come at once, along with the inevitable headaches of repertoire, logistics and player availability.  On the plus side, we ain’t complaining about getting more opportunities to strut our stuff!

We have been very focused recently on our concert with the Hertford Choral Society on Saturday 25th June but to our delight we have also received a return invitation to the Stables at Wavendon on June 19th.  We are discussing some possible star guests, but I couldn’t possibly name names just yet!

Our summer “holiday” this year is still likely to be in the Netherlands.  Last year we did a joint concert in Birmingham with Boudewijn Zwart who is a mobile carilloneur (check him out at  He has very kindly invited us to play a number of concerts with him round the Amsterdam area but we are still working out the logistics.

Better get some practice done!

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Hello all!

Hello friends!  Welcome to our new blog.  We always love to hear what is going on in the sax community around the world, so do keep in touch.  If you are a newsletter subscriber, we would love to hear whether you are happy for this to replace the old format or whether you prefer the general email ramblings 🙂

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