An Interview with Anthony Brown

After the wild success of the Fulltone Festival in Devizes in August and the recent spectacular ‘A Classical Explosion, in Concert’ in Marlborough College Chapel (which earned The Fulltone Orchestra a standing ovation), I thought it was time to ask Anthony Brown, Conductor and Musical Director (and husband, business, and musical partner of the dynamic Jemma Brown), a few questions about where he has come from musically, what makes him tick, and where he intends to go from here.

How did you get here, Tone? Give us a quick musical CV then.

Music is in my blood. My great grandfather was a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral for many years and sang in the choir there.  When I was 7 I also joined the local church choir and was Head Chorister at 11 or 12.  I love church music, it’s such a good grounding in music.  Around this time I started studying Flute. I got to my Grade 8 within a few years and then went on to do a Recital Certificate with Trinity College.  Throughout my school years I was in school orchestras and wind bands and I also travelled Europe with the Cotswold Flute Choir. I studied A level music which I absolutely loved and still remember these lessons with Richard Stillman, the only other student in the class – ha!

When I was 18 I started teaching flute and conducted the youth version of the Flute Choir for a few months before the real world of work took over.

My biggest life regret is choosing Accountancy over Music.

I kept up my singing though, and sang in various groups, especially Gilbert & Sullivan although my first principal role was in Sweeney Todd in Cheltenham as Tobias.  Thereafter I started to do many lead roles, usually romantic tenor leads.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Devizes and helped Jem relaunch TITCO (The Invitation Theatre Company) that I started turning my hand to musical direction.  Since then I’ve musically directed Pirates of Penzance, The Hired Man, Into the Woods, War of the Worlds and many other concerts.

What happened that resulted in you starting The Fulltone Orchestra?

I’d been MDing with TITCO for a little while and literally woke up one morning and said to Jem, ‘I want to start an orchestra’. She said ‘OK!’, and the FTO was born!

I plan ahead – I knew I wanted to do Movies first, followed by something with singers, and then something serious. I love all types of music (well, except very heavy metal!) so I’ve set up the FTO so I can do all kinds of genres and nothing is off limits.

Who taught you to conduct and musically direct a large orchestra, Tone?

I’m totally self-taught! I rely on a few people for advice and guidance but most of the time I’m just finding my way – and that’s exciting as well as terrifying! If I were to pick out one person who has influenced me though it would have to be Captain Neil Skipper, Director of Music, Band of the Irish Guards, who is a good friend and mentor and an amazing source of support. He’s taught me so much that I’ve even named one of my orchestral manoeuvres ‘The Skipper Move’!

How many musicians did you have in the orchestra at Marlborough College Chapel?

There were 62 in Marlborough, and there will be 65 in Bath Abbey on November 4th.

How do you decide who plays in which gig – what’s the selection process?

I put a shout out in our Facebook Group of 150 members and ask who’s available and can they attend the rehearsals; I then appoint and recruit for any gaps.  It keeps things fresh and also means that people don’t have to commit to every concert.

How do you select the pieces – why did you choose what you chose for the Marlborough concert?

I’m a walking jukebox! I have so many tunes in my head and I’m constantly listening to music.  As a rule I play what I love to listen to, there’s no point in doing something you don’t like – the passion won’t transfer to the audience. But it’s the audience I think of – what would they like to hear and what goes well with each piece of music.  I knew I wanted to start with the Festive Overture and end with 1812 so I built the programme around that.  I always include a couple of pieces that we’ve just done as well as it builds the repertoire and makes our short rehearsal time easier.

What were you thrilled or not thrilled with in Marlborough?

The resonance in the Chapel is difficult to manage and after the afternoon rehearsal I had to cut the Sabre Dance because of it and reduce the tempo down a bit on some numbers.  Starting a concert nervous isn’t great but we came through it together by working really hard and listening to each other.  Mambo was great fun! And the Adagio was spectacular.

How do you feel the orchestra has progressed since it started in 2017?

We have progressed so much, and it’s with the Strings that you see it the most. We have players coming now from London, Cardiff, and Brighton to play.  They wouldn’t keep coming back if they didn’t rate the experience.  So my string section is bigger – and size really does matter – but also the quality of the players is top rate.  I’ve managed to retain a lot of the good local musicians too, so it really does feel like everybody is coming on a journey with me.

How do you feel about the mix of popular and serious music? Can the orchestra be all things to all men or does the fun stuff take away from the serious stuff? Do people believe that an orchestra who can bang out Born Slippy in the middle of a field (sorry, The Green!) can be up there with old established orchestras? Are you like, ‘Take it or leave it’ when it comes to the FTO?

Music is music – none of us like the same records, we don’t all listen to the same radio station or go to the same concerts. The FTO can totally deliver different kinds of music and it’s important to me that we can be respected for more serious classical music as well as the best of popular music. I do want us to be taken seriously as a symphony orchestra.

What’s the vision, Tone? Where do you want the orchestra to go from here?

It’s all about momentum and rebuilding that up again after losing it during lockdown. The FTO will start stretching its legs to new places further afield and playing to new audiences.  Big plans for the next few years.

And lastly, I’ve often wondered – what does conducting an orchestra feel like?

Music is all about emotion and that’s what I love! The first time I stood up to conduct Star Wars in our first concert I do not remember turning the pages, it was surreal, but awesome – I moved my hands and the magic happened!

The FTO don’t rehearse every week, we have a short period of rehearsals before a concert, sometimes only two rehearsals and that creates an energy.  I rely on good talented musicians who can turn up and play – my job then becomes one of adding the flare, the dynamics and drawing out of the orchestra the right sound.

I’m like a kid with the best toy ever!

You can see the amazing Anthony Brown and The Fulltone Orchestra in ‘A Classical Explosion, in Concert’ at Bath Abbey on Thursday 4th November 2021, and follow them for more exciting events (including another unmissable Fulltone Festival!) in 2022 and beyond…

Many thanks to Tone for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions.

Interview and image of Anthony Brown at Marlborough College Chapel @ Gail Foster 2021

Into The Silence Explode the Fulltone Orchestra

A Classical Explosion at Marlborough College Chapel; a review

It’s been a long road and a wild ride since the Fulltone Orchestra burst on to the Wiltshire music scene with ‘Iconic Tunes – 2017’ at the Corn Exchange, Devizes. Back then conductor and musical director Anthony Brown said – ‘We are not your ordinary orchestra. I set it up to not only bring something a bit different, but with the view to thrill…’

The last time they played in Marlborough College Chapel was in February 2019, when they thrilled the audience with out of this world tunes from The Planets and Star Wars. In July of that year, they transformed the Market Place in Devizes into a riot of colour and sound, and in August of this year they pulled off what seemed at one point to be impossible post-Covid – a two-day festival of classical, house, and big band music on The Green in Devizes.

The Fulltone Orchestra is made up of professional and semi-professional musicians from all over the South-West, and since 2017 has increased in size to 60 – 65 players at any one time. It’s not only the size of the orchestra that has changed; under Anthony Brown’s direction they have become slicker, more skilled, and more able to play increasingly complex and ambitious pieces in accordance with his perfectionism and vision.

On Saturday (16th October 2021) they broke the sacred silence of Marlborough College Chapel with their Classical Explosion Concert, starting with Shostakovich’s Festival Overture, and from then on fireworks and heart strings all the way – Grieg’s ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’, ‘Finlandia’, Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, ‘Scheherazade’, ‘Mambo!’ from West Side Story – the interval, and then – ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, Holst, Debussy, ‘A Night On The Bare Mountain’ by Mussorgsky, and ’Suite from the Lord of the Rings’, finishing with the glorious (no cannons allowed in the chapel, though!) ‘1812 Overture’.

This concert was special – whilst the Fulltone Festival was a wonderfully eclectic celebration of music and community, this was a big step up on the classical quality scale. I’ve seen how hard this orchestra rehearse, and the hard work certainly paid off on Saturday. I loved principal violinist Chico Chakravorty’s sensitive and accomplished performance in ‘Scheherazade’ (one of my favourites), likewise Rebecca McGrath’s ethereal harp playing in the same piece. Michelle Krawiec’s flute solo in ‘Suite from the Lord of the Rings’ was magical. I enjoyed ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ (love a bit of percussion) and was surprised to experience what I can only describe as ‘a minor wobbler’ in reaction to the orchestra’s triumphant rendition of ‘Jupiter’.

There were so many surprising and mesmerising moments in this concert. Every time I looked down the dark vault of the Chapel the audience appeared to be transfixed, and after the 1812 Overture they rose as one and gave the orchestra a very well-deserved standing ovation.

I cried with delight and relief at the end, and I wasn’t the only one. The concert was quite simply a massive achievement. Even Tone looked like he had a tear in his eye, but that could of course have been a trick of the light. I had a conversation with a friend along the lines of – ‘That was actually amazing wasn’t it, wasn’t it? Was it?’ ‘Oh yes, yes it was!’, and we had a celebratory hug.

But when you’re emotionally invested in something and not very well musically educated you can never be quite sure of your ability to be objective, so after the concert I asked someone better informed and less emotional than me what they thought of the night.

‘It was enjoyable with a good selection of music’ they said, which believe me from some is praise indeed.

When I reviewed ‘A Night with Bernstein and Gershwin’ back in February 2018 I said that the orchestra were ‘not perfect by any means, but somehow really rather brilliant’. What’s changed since then? The orchestra are still imperfect (is any orchestra ever perfect?) but oh my goodness they are getting even more shiny and brilliant by the moment.

What I also said back then was ‘More, more, more from the Fulltone Orchestra over the next few years, please!’

There’s a lot more to come from this orchestra, and it’s not just about the music – it’s about the story, the energy, the challenge, the community feel, the shared joy amongst the musicians that spills out into the audience.

The Fulltone Orchestra are going places, don’t say I didn’t tell you so. Next stop Bath Abbey on November 4th and then, who knows.

Come and see them for yourself!

Come along for the ride!

Rehearsal image and concert review © Gail Foster 19th October 2021

TITCO do Spamalot!

The Invitation Theatre Company at St.Mary’s, Devizes ~ a dress rehearsal review

England, 932 AD, and the country is ravaged by plague, purposeless, pestered by the French, and in need of a firm hand at the helm.  Enter Arthur, King by virtue of the fact that once he was given a sword by a watery tart, and his hapless servant Patsy, coconut clip clopping across the land in search of knights to save the day, the funniest fart joke, and the nebulous Grail.

Such is the plot of Jemma Brown and TITCO’s production of Monty Python’s musical comedy Spamalot, loosely based on the film ‘Monty Python and The Holy Grail’ and first performed on Broadway in 2005.

There’s been a real buzz in town about this show, and I’m sure I’m not the only person to eagerly anticipate sinking into a pew in St. Mary’s and sighing with relief at having escaped from Britain’s current woes and impossible quests for a couple of hours.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Apart from being unable to resist comparing the England of Spamalot with the country today and our own search for a nebulous Grail I was completely lost from the outset in the world of mirth, magic, and medieval silliness that TITCO had created with a little help from their friends (knights who scaled the walls to black the windows out, masters of the lights and smoke, knights with needles and an eye for fabric and design) in what has to surely be the perfect venue for such a show.

For all its silliness, Spamalot is a complicated and fast paced show involving a lot of physical comedy and choreography, and multiple costume changes for some of the characters (particularly Ian Diddams, who can’t quite remember exactly how many but was most memorable as Tim the horny Scottish enchanter).  The cast did a great job of keeping up the momentum throughout, which bodes well for the rest of the run.  Fish slapping and Finnish dancing, creepy monks and can can dancers, flying cows and Trojan rabbits, loose-bowelled knights and mystical misunderstandings – at no time did the action flag and if anyone fluffed a line there was far too much going on to notice.

Anthony Brown stepped out of his role as Musical Director to give a creditable performance as the idealistic but naive Arthur with Debby Wilkinson doing a fine bit of character acting as Patsy; Terésa Isaacson with her powerful voice was an imposing presence as The Lady of the Lake; all the knights were hilarious, although I have to say how much I enjoyed the performances of Chris Worthy as the not-so-brave-or-continent Sir Robin, and Matt Dauncey’s macho-but-underneath-it-all-totally-gay Sir Lancelot (steady with that lance, sir, you’ll have someone’s eye out – just saying); and Will Sexton as Prince Herbert was wonderfully wet.

Then there were the nicely played cameos – melodious mischievous minstrels, legless knights and dancing nuns, political peasants and obstreperous Frenchmen – the old songs (who doesn’t need to be reminded to ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’?) and familiar jokes, and – my favourite Python thing ever – the Knights of Ni (‘Ni.’ ‘Ni.’ Etc.).

The only negative in my view (aside from the obvious stereotyping of gay people and the French) related to the script, and that was the ‘We Won’t Succeed On Broadway If We Don’t Have Any Jews’ song.  I’m still thinking about that and about what is acceptable in this day and age in the context of performance and historical record.  It didn’t sit well for me at all, but I’m sure that TITCO thought hard about including it and decided to keep it in in the spirit of authenticity rather than racism.

There’s so much that is good about TITCO’s show but for me the best thing about it is that this motley group of people, many of who would not be out of place in professional productions, are one big talented dancing singing and joking happy family, and their wild enthusiasm at working together shows in both the energy they display and the quality of their performances.

And who doesn’t like a good fart joke?

The Invitation Theatre Company’s production of Spamalot, despite its archaic political incorrectness, is just the kind of silliness we need in these ridiculously serious times.

Now, back to looking for that Grail…

(‘Ni.’)

© Gail Foster 25th June 2019

 

 

TITCO does Queen

A review of The Invitation Theatre Company and Full Tone Orchestra’s Queen show in the Corn Exchange, Devizes

‘It’ll be alright on the night’ is a phrase often said following a dress rehearsal of dubious quality.  As I watched TITCO perform their Queen medley prior to their sell out show I wondered if this would prove true on this occasion.  Seems like a big ask, I thought as I watched the cast fumbling through the numbers and trudging round the stage with what seemed to be very little direction or enthusiasm.  It’s rock, I thought, for goodness sake give it some welly!  ‘Another one bites the dust’ it said on the back of someone’s tee-shirt.  Indeed.  It was so bad that I didn’t feel I could review it, so I decided to go back on the first night to see if it was any better. TITCO have produced some great shows in the past few years, and the Full Tone Orchestra are a class act.  Both have reputations to keep up and fans to please, and both take pride in their work.  A fail at this stage would not be good for either. What if, heavens forbid, TITCO didn’t pull it off…?

From the moment I walked into the Ceres Hall on Friday it was abundantly clear that TITCO had been on the glitter, and that all would be well.  Energy levels on the stage and in Antony Brown’s orchestra were through the roof, and the audience were buzzing with excitement.

The format of Chris Worthy and Jemma Brown’s production was simple.  A programme of iconic songs alternated with less well known tunes and short audio clips of interviews with Queen members, the entire cast dressed in black Queen tee-shirts in front of a plain black backdrop, a thirty piece orchestra and four guitarists to do justice to the music, solos and duets from Sean Andrews, Will Sexton, Chris Worthy, Simon Hoy, Paul Morgan, Lottie Diddams, Jemma Brown, Naomi Ibbetson, Mari Webster and Lucy Burgess, rousing altogether-now ensemble numbers by the whole company, and more glow sticks than you could shake a glow stick at.

The usual suspects gave good song, as is to be expected given their wealth of experience, but Will Sexton’s Mercurial ‘I Want To Be Free’, Jemma Brown and Mari Webster’s mellow and melancholy ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’, and Chris Worthy’s delightfully raunchy interpretation of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ were the performances that did it for me on this occasion.  And everyone loves ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and ‘We Will Rock You’, and (it was acceptable in the 70s, really it was) ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’…

The show wasn’t perfect, but on the Friday night the cast brought just the right amount of attitude and anarchy to the show to make any little slips irrelevant and unnoticeable, and their obvious enjoyment in delivering the songs and interacting with the audience was infectious.  The choreography was a bit dodgy, but there had been no opportunity to rehearse in the performance space prior to the dress rehearsal, so I might let them off that one.  And anyway, nobody cared…

Because on the night the Full Tone Orchestra upped the pace and TITCO upped their game, and between them they totally smashed it.

I’ve not seen an audience react quite that strongly to a musical show.  They sang, they waved their arms, they clapped their hands (‘Buddy you’re a boy, make a big noise’ etc), they stood up and whooped in appreciation.  Maybe it was something in the beer.  Maybe they were blinded by the glitter.  Maybe the dream combination of TITCO, Queen, and the Full Tone Orchestra tipped them over the edge.  I know that people love TITCO, but I didn’t realise anyone still loved Queen quite so much.  Maybe there is a little bit of Freddie or a Killer Queen inside us all.

By the end of the show the entire audience was up on its feet, singing and swaying and waving their glow sticks wildly to ‘We Are The Champions’, and demanding an encore.

Brilliant.

So what happened between the frankly dire dress rehearsal and the show, I wonder?

Someone really needs to check that glitter.

© Gail Foster 1st July 2018

Green Tears for Beauty

img_1137

*

for jemma brown and the invitation theatre company
on the occasion of anthony brown’s production
of ‘war of the worlds’, at st. mary’s in devizes

*

a mellifluous light

cello ripe and butter sweet

slides through the silence

a river of silver

flute bright and sugar spun

streams through the shadows

forever the autumn’s

melancholy melodies

play on the heart strings

suddenly remembering

past loves and passion plays

men become young again

 …

envious angels

up in the rafters weep

green tears for beauty

 *

© Gail Foster 20th November 2016

The War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s; a preview

img_1090

The Invitation Theatre Company rock ‘War of the Worlds’ at St. Mary’s, Devizes

On hearing of this production my thought process went something like this; War of the Worlds, that’s that old 70s album, right?  The Invitation Theatre Company, didn’t they make Jesus Christ Superstar kind of interesting?  St. Mary’s, oh, visuals, now you’re talking.  Steampunk?  Sold.

It was the very end of the nineteenth century when HG Wells penned his tale.  Men have a habit of fearing the apocalypse at these times, and Wells gave those fears form in this science fiction story of war between Martians and humanity.  It took till 1978 for Jeff Wayne to pick up the ball with his album, and until now for Anthony Brown to take a chance and run with it in Devizes.

I’ve been to the tech rehearsal.  I’ve been to the dress rehearsal.  I have been playing the album all day.  I want to go again.  Sold to the barking poet.  Utterly.

The visuals first.  It’s a medieval church for starters.  There are Martian lights in the lofty arches, soft reds and greens tickling the pinnacles, shimmers of Victorian velvet and shifting shadows on the walls.  Above the main arch the conductor’s shadow moves like a demon possessed, and the Red Weed (just say no, kids) doth spill across the stone like blood.  A lightfest, so it is, a delicious smorgasbord of colour.  The set; minimal, just the narrator’s chair on high and a tall tower o’ drums on the other side of the stage.  And cogs.  Massive wooden cogs.  No Martians.  No one dressed as aliens.  Thank goodness for that.  All conveyed with lights, it is, with lights, and sound, and a well placed stare.  Clever.

The band take up over half the stage.  There are (deep breath) four keyboards, four guitars, four violins, viola, cello, a big fat double bass, percussion, drums, and a conductor.  It’s a wonderful score, besides which everything else is mere illustration and tableau, beautiful but secondary to the sound.  The band are great, despite the fact that they have played together less times than the fingers on my hand.   Flutes from keyboards, sweet violins, drums, and old stone walls drowning in sound.   Nice.  Very nice indeed.

So nice in fact that when ‘The Eve of War’ kicks in I experience a sudden ‘wild trembling exultation’.  I do hope no one noticed.  Although one is prone to these reactions it is surely only a man with no soul or rhythm who would not shift a little in his seat at some point during this production.  Or shiver at Jemma Brown’s voice.  Or at some point during ‘Forever Autumn’.  Or at the haunting ‘No Nathaniel, no’ refrain, so sweetly sung by the elegant Mari Webster, in ‘The Spirit of Man’.  Oh dear, now I am listening to it again.  I blame TITCO.  Help me.

Opportunities for serious acting are thin on the ground in this show, but what parts there be are played very well indeed.  There’s real talent here.  Paul Morgan’s voice of the journalist is reminiscent of Burton and old wirelesses; perfect, archetypal.  His reading provides the cues for the music so his timing has to be right.  Safe hands, methinks, safe hands.  Jonathan Paget; excuse me but is he actually from this century; great look.  Chris Worthy as the Artillery Man giving ‘Brave New World’ everything he has…er, why isn’t he acting and singing professionally…just asking.   And Ian Diddams, channelling the angst of all humanity with a look, a stance, a hammer and a melodious tone; presence, man, presence.  All good.  All really good.  But my prize for best actor goes unreservedly to Sean Andrews, as the demented and religiously deluded Parson Nathaniel.  His duet with Mari Webster is stunning.  When he raises his cross and the light hits it…well, what can I say.  ‘Tis a moment, to be sure.  Well done, that man, take a bow.

What else?  Oh yes, great backing vocals, particularly in the chilling ‘Ulla’ Martian song of death.  And the women look gorgeous.  When you’re done with the dresses, if you’re stuck for somewhere to store them, I might have a bit of cupboard space.  Top hat and ribbons?  Why thank you, I don’t mind if I do.

Tricky moments?  The odd sticky mic.  And, to call a spade a spade, moments in the choreography that could do with tweaking.  It’s all so complicated, with so many factors to co-ordinate, and very little space.  Fingers crossed it will be alright on the night.  No, I’m going to stick my neck out and tempt fate by saying that it’s going to be more than alright on the night.  It’s going to be glorious.

Special mentions?  Anthony Brown, ably assisted by his partner in crime, Jemma, for being brave enough to direct and conduct such a complex production.  You may have played a blinder here, sir.   And behind the scenes, Tracey Lawrence and her crew; so much sourcing, so much sewing, so much work, and all so very beautiful.

And, finally, the band.  That’s some sound you’ve got going on.  Thrilling.  But also rather challenging, methinks.  So break a leg, bow, drumstick, whatever.  For you and the sound guys hold this whole show in your hands.

No pressure…

War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s, Devizes, in a nutshell?

Just go.

For yea verily, it is seriously spot on.

© Gail Foster 15th November 2016