Hats Off to Coates!

Copyright © Fred Flaxman, 2000


One of my earliest childhood memories is being driven to elementary school each morning in Palisade, N.J., by our next-door neighbor, Marvin Kleinzahler. I don't remember any of the conversations we had, but I do recall very vividly the music on the radio. Mr. Kleinzahler always tuned to WQXR, the New York City classical music station, and WQXR used to play light, bright, sprightly, short classics at that time of the morning.

Although I moved from Palisade some 42 years ago, the Kleinzahlers still live there, WQXR still plays classical music, and I still enjoy the music I was introduced to every morning a half-century ago.

All this came to mind recently with the release on the Marco Polo label of a series of CDs called "British Light Music." I have 17 of these CDs, and there may be some I've missed. I highly recommend them for the few remaining radio stations in this country which play classical music in the early morning. What a happy way for listeners to wake up, have breakfast, and drive to work!

By far my favorite of the British composers of light music is Eric Coates. He is represented in the "British Light Music" series on CD 8.223445, which features "The London Suite," the "London Again Suite," "The Merrymakers," "Cinderella," "The Selfish Giant," "Calling All Workers" and "The Dam Busters." But this Marco Polo CD is put out by the same company that issues Naxos compact discs, which are less expensive. For this reason, and because a Naxos CD devoted to the music of Coates (8.554488) also includes his "Three Elizabeths" suite, I recommend the latter disc.

"The Three Elizabeths" is my favorite Coates composition, although it is not one that I remember from my trips to elementary school. I heard it every week for a while on public television, where the fanfare opening of the score was used as the theme for the British import, "The Forsythe Saga." If you remember that great series, you'll want to have this CD, too! It features the Royal Artillery Band conducted by Major Geoffrey Kingston.

The best collection of Coates music, however, dates from 1991 and appears on the ASV label (CD WHL 2053). It starts with "The Three Elizabeths" and includes "By the Sleepy Lagoon" (which served as the theme of the British radio series "Desert Island Discs"), "The London Suite," "Ballad," and "The Three Bears." The East of England Orchestra is conducted by Malcolm Nabarro. I think you'll find many of these themes familiar, especially if you are my age or older, and certainly if you grew up listening to a station like WQXR or, better yet, the BBC.

But, getting back to the multi-volume "British Light Music" CD series, there are CDs devoted to the music of Richard Addinsell, Ronald Binge, Robert Farnon, and several others. If these names are unfamiliar to you, the same will not be true for some of the compositions.

Addinsell, for example, wrote the famous "Warsaw Concerto," which, I think unfortunately, is not included in this CD. The producers probably felt there are enough recordings of that piece already, but those recordings are invariably in collections of works by several other composers. It would have been nice to have had all of Addinsell's best work on one CD. What Marco Polo did include on this CD (8.223732) are Addinsell's themes from "Goodbye Mr. Chips" and "A Tale of Two Cities," the overture to "Tom Brown's Schooldays," a selection from "The Prince and the Showgirl," and seven other pieces.

The most famous tune on the series' "Miniatures" CD (8.223522) is undoubtedly the snappy"Jamaican Rumba" by the Australian-born composer, Arthur Benjamin. In its original form for a two-piano duo popular before, during and after World War II, the piece was so successful that it earned for Benjamin an annual barrel of rum from Jamaica in thanks for the world-wide fame the composer had brought to the island. This compact disc, which features the RTE Concert Orchestra conducted by Ernest Tomlinson, also includes "Beau Brummel" by Edward Elgar, "Beachcomber" by Clive Richardson, "Vanity Fair" by Anthony Collins, and "Coronation Scot" by Vivian Ellis, among others.

Two of the pieces which I prefer from the "British Light Music" collection are by Canadian-born Robert Farnon (8.223401) and Ronald Binge (8.223515). Farnon's rollicking "Jumping Bean" is very familiar, having been used more often as a theme song around the world than any other piece (it once introduced weather forecasts on radio in the U.S.). It's delightful, quirky and humorous. And so is Binge's lively "The Red Sombrero," which combines samba and conga rhythms and sounds more Brazilian than British. (Come to think of it, I seem to enjoy British light music even more when it doesn't sound British!)

Much of the music on these CDs, however, is of less interest -- pieces which are fine in the background on the radio when you're getting ready to face another day, but not lasting enough to want to add to your collection and play over and over again. Which makes me wish that Marco Polo would issue yet one more CD in this series: "The Best of British Light Music." That would be a winner!

When it comes to light music, the British have a style all their own. With some exceptions, it is more restrained and less jazzy than the American brand, less oompah or waltzy than the Germans or the Viennese, not as sensual as the French. But, at its best, as in Coates' "The Three Elizabeths," it is melodious and moving, energetic and invigorating, monumental and memorable. In my case, it also brings me back to my youth -- not in Britain, but in the suburbs of New York, and to WQXR and Marvin Klienzahler. Long may they continue!


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