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Full steam ahead! Composer pays musical homage to famous locomotive

Composer John Kefala-Kerr has written a steam-inspired 'multi-media opera' for Durham's brass festival

Steamsong, a multi-media opera by composer John Kefala-Kerr
Steamsong, a multi-media opera by composer John Kefala-Kerr

What sparks the idea for a new piece of music? In John Kefala-Kerr’s case it was the 75th anniversary of the breaking of the world speed record for a steam locomotive.

That accolade, as every schoolboy would once have been able to tell you, fell to Mallard, the Class A4 Pacific steam loco which was built at Doncaster in March 1938.

Now a star exhibit at the National Railway Museum in York, Mallard, coaxed by Doncaster-born driver Joseph Duddington, hit the record-breaking speed of nearly 126mph on the East Coast main line – between the Lincolnshire villages of Little Bytham and Essendine – on July 3 that same year.

John explains: “There was quite a celebration of that and a commission opportunity came up from Durham County Council for artists to respond.

“I proposed a multi-media opera which means it’s a kind of sung drama which uses projected video, digital sound and an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists.

“The idea was that the piece would be inspired by Mallard as opposed to retelling the events of 1938 exactly. I went back to the original event to see where it would lead.”

Asked if he’s a steam buff, John replies: “I think I probably am now because part of the proposal was that I would become a composer-in-residence at Locomotion (the National Railway Museum at Shildon) for a while and get a sense of the culture of steam.

Composer John Kefala-Kerr
Composer John Kefala-Kerr

“I wanted to write the libretto for the piece so I needed to get some material together for a story even though it would be told in a non-linear way.

“They were incredibly generous at Shildon because they said, ‘Come and have a ride on a steam engine, come to a gala, speak to the people who work here and see what we do’.

“It was an opportunity to get close to the steam engines, those gargantuan monsters, see at first hand their inner workings and get a sense of the cultural heritage of steam.”

Mallard was reunited at Shildon earlier this year with the five other surviving A4 Pacific locomotives, including two which crossed the Atlantic for the reunion. It was a good time to be investigating the legacy of steam power in the North East.

For John, it set ideas whizzing around his head. Steam, he explains, was coming to the fore and driving the Industrial Revolution as Charles Darwin was developing his theories of evolution.

He was alerted to the unconscious poetry in Joseph Duddington’s recollection of the moment at which Mallard sped into the record book: “Once over the top, I gave Mallard her head and she jumped to it like a live thing!”

Hearing this inanimate object likened to a living beast brought the natural sciences and steam technology together in John’s head. He says it fed into the creative process even if it isn’t necessarily explicit in his latest work, which he has called Steamsong.

A 20-minute extract from the finished work was performed at Locomotion to mark the anniversary of Mallard’s great achievement but the official world premiere will be a highlight of Brass: Durham International Festival.

Steamsong will be performed by what John describes as a “slightly eccentric seven-strong ensemble”.

It will feature, among other instruments, violin, harp, accordion and tuba.

Also on stage will be members of a chamber choir, Voices of Hope, a solo soprano and a narrator, actress Zoe Lambert. Simon Fidler will conduct.

John says the piece draws inspiration from across a wide sound spectrum.

Counterbalancing the “rather ponderous sound of the tuba”, suggestive of heavy machinery, will be the more “whispy” sounds associated with steam and also with breath and exhalation.

This juxtaposition of weight and weightlessness, of animate and inanimate, characterises a piece that John hopes will get further performances further down the line, so to speak.

Steamsong will be performed at the Gala Theatre, Durham, on July 12 and 13 at 7.30pm.

Tickets from the Gala Theatre box office on 03000 266600 or via the festival website on www.brassfestival.co.uk

Brass is more than just a brass band festival

Musician Jon Faddis
Musician Jon Faddis

Much more than just a brass band festival, Durham’s annual celebration of brass music has become renowned for the breadth of its scope and appeal.

Officially called Brass: Durham International Festival (July 11-20), it is a rich confection of international and local stars, big artistic ideas and big sounds.

One of the international stars is Jon Faddis, an American jazz trumpet player who was mentored by the late Dizzy Gillespie. These days he is an inspiring teacher and performer.

He is said to keep alive the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and other legendary figures on the jazz scene.

At the Gala Theatre on July 15 he will perform with The Andy Champion Quintet, double bassist Andy being one of jazz’s leading lights in the North East.

An example of the collaborations for which the festival is famous is Sea of Brass, a show – two years in the making – bringing together rock band British Sea Power and the NASUWT Riverside Band.

That one’s on July 17 at the Gala Theatre and looks unmissable.

Flick through the programme – you can find it online at www.brassfestival.co.uk – and you will find how widely this festival casts its net.

Your eye may alight on Hjem (Hyem), a 360-degree film installation at the Music School on Palace Green. Made by emerging film-maker Edwin Mingard and musician Isaac Sakima, it explores ideas of community and belonging.

But those who do like a brass band concert will find plenty of them in the grounds of the DLI Museum throughout the summer months. Many of the region’s big bands will get a chance to shine in front of an audience.


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