Article written for Brass Bulletin N. 108 – unabridged)


On the map of Spain, 40 kilometres below Valencia, one can find the town of Cullera (approximately 22,000 inhabitants and 220,000 in the summer). A nostalgic nineteenth century mind used to travelling through fictional literature or traveller’s biographies may imagine it to be a quaint fishing village full of small white houses with characteristically Spanish ornamentations. Air travel and satellite brings one back to reality, none the less quite pleasant, in which the initial shock of the incumbent 10 to 20 storey buildings is mitigated by the well kept gardens, with hibiscus flowers and palm trees bordering the immaculate, 14 kilometres long sandy beach and the exceptionally warm and friendly welcome of the Spanish people, not to speak of the Musicians…and their excellent cuisine.
However, the old original part of Cullera, behind the beachfront and at the bottom of a hill, on which a medieval castle and several Arabic walls enclosing even a sanctuary, resembles more the town of the nostalgic traveller. Amongst a number of very well restored 2 to 3 storey, 18th and 19th century houses one can find the recently built (1991) 3 storey building of the “Sociedad Musical Instructiva Santa Cecilia”. Upon entering, the first thing that one is struck by is that there seem to be no offices, but just one very large restaurant full of tables and comfortably padded armchairs, usually filled with joyous musicians in concentrated conversation. At the back is a bar, behind which is a delightful kitchen, both tiled in colourful Valencian ceramic. The restaurant is the focal point of the “Sociedad” where most of the musical and spiritual exchange takes place amongst its pupils, professors and visiting musicians. Life-long love and dedication to Music and strong friendship between its members and its most affable and enterprising president, Joan Oliver Grau are the solid foundations of the “Sociedad” created in 1909. These are the ingredients for one of the most harmonious musical environments. Above the spiritual-culinary space lies the rest of the music school: the offices and classrooms, as well as a large rehearsal room, all perfectly sound-proof and well maintained. Furthermore, an astounding vertical extension is under construction which will hold a large music auditorium. The hall will seat 500 people, but above all, the stage will hold a large symphonic orchestra. The auditorium is over two floors high with the artists changing rooms on a level with the balcony seats. The complex is due to be finished next year and one can imagine that the inauguration will be a musical marathon in the Spanish tradition.
And of Spanish traditions there are many. There are in fact several music schools of this kind in the region of Valencia, though at different levels. Taking the above as a typical example amongst the best, it not only offers tuition in all instruments but it has its own “Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil”, a “Banda Juvenil” and a “Banda Sinfonica Santa Cecilia”, the latter originally created in 1907. Unique to Spain is the great tradition of the “Banda Sinfonica”. There are over 400 only in the region of Valencia. However, no more than 8 or 10 are of very high standard. It is not just a normal wind and brass band of the military kind, but a mixture of this and a large symphonic orchestra in which the violins are substituted by clarinets, the violas by saxophones and there are 6 to 8 or more fluglehorns and tubas. Cellos, Double Basses, Percussions, Harp, Piano, etc. remain the same as in a symphonic orchestra. The acoustic effect is grandiose and the expressive possibilities are multiple, thus the music (either purposefully written for this particular medium or transcribed from repertoire) can be performed in wide open spaces such as the “plaza de toros”. The tradition of this kind of civic “banda” goes back to the middle of the 19th century in imitation of the French military bands but with the addition of clarinets and saxophones. The strings were added about the middle of the 1950’s. Considering that there are roughly 100 to 150 performers per “Banda Sinfonica” one is highly impressed by the number of young people who love and study Music in Spain.
During the month of July 1999 two closely related events produced a rare combination of exceptional musicians and circumstances. The “Banda Sinfonica” of the “Sociedad Musical Instructiva Santa Cecilia” of Cullera, under the baton of its excellent, young principal conductor Alvar Albiach Fernandez, participated in the annual “Certamen (competition) International de Bandas de Musica Ciudad de Valencia”, a most important event in Spain, held in the magnificent, 100 year-old bull arena of the city. 32 bands, including some From Russia, Hungary, Italy, Austria and Holland competed during the 5 days of the Certamen. The Banda “Santa Cecilia” de Cullera arrived second though the ovation of the public and the newspaper reviews clearly showed the general disagreement with the jury. First place was assigned to the Banda “La Armonica” de Bunol, third place to the Banda “Primitiva” de Liria, fourth place to the Banda “Union Musical” de Torrent and fifth place to the Banda “Santa Cecilia” of Eisjen (Holland). The conductor, Albiach, is not simply a “band” conductor but a highly talented “symphonic” conductor, who emerged by far as the best during the competition and showed musical and technical qualities that can compete at international level.
The competition was immediately followed by an international conducting course held by the Italian conductor Gilberto Serembe with the “Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil” of the same “Sociedad”. The connecting thread between these two events was the combined efforts of the two conductors (the second having been the teacher of the first) as well as that of other musicians, such as the renowned American Tuba player and professor, Mel Culbertson, in charge of all the Brass. This was in order to achieve the highest quality of performance in view of the competition and also in order to help the career of Albiach and other Spanish and foreign conductors by giving them a chance to study with the renowned conductor and teacher Gilberto Serembe.
The rehearsals for the competition took place the previous week. Gilberto Serembe and Mel Culbertson were invited to attend, the first as adviser to the young conductor Alvar Albiach Fernandez, the second, not only as supervisor of the brass section, but also as performer. The meticulous detail, the powerful “velvet” sound and the musicality with which the brass played (though fewer in number than in other bands) was also due to Culbertson’s supervision.
It is a Spanish tradition to sleep and eat meals at very late hours compared to other countries. At first it is difficult for a foreigner to get used to this, but the general atmosphere is so pleasant and receptive and one loses track of time so easily, confusing day with night, that after a while one cannot but be naturally drawn into this way of life. Rehearsals started around 11pm and ended around 3am. Around means 11.20,11.50, 3.30 or even 4am at the general rehearsal. (Please remember not to phone anyone in Spain at 9am unless he is a bank clerk!). Meals are also late, lunch usually being around 3pm. or later and dinner after 9.30pm. It is quite normal to find oneself feasting on large quantities of delicious specialities (especially rice and fish) and talking at full speed and volume without feeling tired and without even realizing what time it is. Notwithstanding the general relaxed atmosphere of the rehearsals, what surprises is the serious attitude and the silence when at work (the first interval usually comes after two hours or more). One must also remember that the performers are not paid because they are students, former graduates and professors. This particular band chose its performers from a list of 411 musicians. Of these about 140 were professionals from top symphonic orchestras and professional bands throughout the country, though not all were available to participate at this year’s “Certamen”. In Spain it is a very characteristic and moral obligation to return to the band of one’s area and help defend its reputation.
Though the “Banda Sinfonica Santa Cecilia” de Cullera came second in the “Certamen International de Bandas de Musica Ciudad de Valencia” its performance was very expressive, full of fantasy and precise. The excellence of this band is certainly due to the evident joy and team work with which its members perform. One is liable to comment that the 1st prize was given more for “ideological” than “musical” reasons, though rhythmical precision was appreciated. In fact the winning band chose to perform Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra (a very “intellectual” work loved by juries) whilst the “Banda Sinfonica” chose a more musical and beautiful work of contemplative symphonic thought (originally written for orchestra) called “Hemeroscopium” by the most renowned Spanish composer Anton Garcia Abril.
The “obra obligata” for all the competing bands was another most musical, pleasant and fantastically varied work in 6 movements called “Dialegs Descriptius” by Raphael Talens Pello, another renowned Spanish composer of works specifically for “Banda” and as well as other instrumental formations. Some of the bands also chose works (all pasodobles) of this prolific and imaginative composer.
On the final night of the competition the public in the arena was numerous (four or five thousand). Groups arrived by bus from their native towns to cheer their local “banda” and also rival bands, but were completely silent during the performance. The competition was a great marathon for it started at 8pm. (punctually!) and ended at 3.30 am. A great sense of joy pervaded throughout and even the delusion of not having won first prize was short lived. The elements of the “Banda” de Cullera feted all night, spraying champagne bottles and tearing one another’s shirts to bits (women excluded). They retired to bed at 10 am.! Sunday morning.
On Monday the conducting course held by Gilberto Serembe started during the late afternoon and continued for 10 consecutive days excluding Sundays when all the students and the professor went on a well organized tour of the historical sites of Valencia. The first three lessons were theoretical whilst every night Serembe would supervise the rehearsals of the remarkably good “Orquesta Juvenil” conducted by Alviar Albiach Fernandez which prepared the works to be conducted by the students on the fourth day. The conducting course ended with a trip to the summer house in the hills of one of the students. The purpose was to view and comment upon the videos taken of each pupil…..and to eat the famous Valencian paella. Gilberto Serembe is not only a renowned conductor but is very much appreciated for his teaching capabilities. Some of his Italian pupils from the Accademia di Alto Perfezionamento of Pescara followed him to Spain. He has a rare capacity for communicating his artistic and technical mastery.
Thus a rare combination of exceptional musicians and circumstances took place in the month of July 1999 to the joy of everyone, last but not least, to the public of Cullera. One cannot but mention the public for so much “silence” during concerts. Concerts full of music lovers of all ages, including babies in prams and toddlers sitting quietly in their chairs. The only sound to be heard was the swishing of colourful Spanish fans….and Music.