BENJAMIN Till, composer of the award-winning A Symphony For Yorkshire and Ebor Vox, a choral work performed for York’s 800th anniversary of the royal charter in 2012, commemorates the centenary of the First World War from a uniquely Yorkshire perspective in Brass.
A new commission for the National Youth Music Theatre, Brass takes the story of the real-life Leeds Pals, a battalion of friends who enlisted to fight in the Great War (many of them were actually recruited at the City Varieties) and links their fictionalised stories with the lively lasses of the Barnbow Munitions Factory in Crossgates, Leeds, where many York women worked.
Dubbed the "Barnbow Canaries" because their skin turned yellow from the TNT they were packing into the shell cases, they faced their own dangers, and not only from the toxic dust. In 1916, an explosion killed 35 women, 11 of them from York. There is a memorial in York Minister and a public grave in York Cemetery names four of them.
The accident isn’t included in Brass, but the risk of deadly sparks does explain the nervousness of the factory bosses when the lasses decide to take up brass instruments to keep their local band going after all the male players enlist for Kitchener’s Army.
The fictionalised band story is a Till creation: he understands "the notes that bind" and the fellowship that making music brings, and it works well as a device for both sets of characters. The second-half opener, I Miss The Music, had me blinking back tears, as did I Make The Shells, Eliza’s (Laura Barnard) moving meditation on those other instruments – of death.
The young actors – ages range from 15 to 23 – never put a foot wrong and give a committed and wholly professional performance, as do the equally talented young musicians, who deliver Till’s challenging score with confidence and precision.
As a brass player myself, I must give a shout-out to fellow York "bander" Matt Capaldi on cornet and to on-stage trumpeter Erika Curbelo (Rosaline), who plays an absolute blinder in the final scene.
Brass, National Youth Music Theatre, Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm, 7.30pm on Saturday. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or at cityvarieties.co.uk