Prom 68 - Rossini - ‘Semiramide’ - Sir Mark Elder - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

As a young lad, if I showed any reluctance to attend a rehearsal I was given the choice of: 'band, ballet or bed'. I ruled out ballet immediately and always chose band eventually. To a six-year-old, the prospect of going to bed early seemed like a punishment - how times change! Being allowed to stay up late was a privilege reserved for very special occasions - one such occasion being the Last Night of the Proms performance broadcast live from the Royal Albert Hall on BBC 1. Dad even tuned in to BBC Radio 3 to create a kind of simultaneous surround sound in the living room. I particularly remember staying up late for the Last Night of the Proms in 1994 - with Sir Andrew Davis and baritone soloist Bryn Terfel. I was clearly inspired by this and the tradition of staying up late to watch the Last Night of the Proms continued.

I would never have imagined that playing in a band - and continuing to attend rehearsals in favour of going to bed - would eventually lead to me playing in a ‘banda’ in the BBC Proms twenty-two years later - obviously with many intermediate steps along the way.

I performed in Prom 68 on Sunday 4th September 2016. I played with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Rossini’s tragic opera ‘Semiramide’, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. They were joined by the Opera Rara Chorus and soloists: Albina Shagimuratova (Semiramide), Daniela Barcellona (Arsace), Mirco Palazzi (Assur), Barry Banks (Idreno), Gianluca Buratto (Oroe), Susana Gaspar (Azema) and David Butt Philip (Mitrane).

In addition to the on-stage brass section of the orchestra (two natural trumpets, four horns and three trombones), Rossini had originally employed the services of a ‘banda’ that would play from the wings of the stage. According to information conveyed to us by Sir Mark Elder the original military ‘banda’ had travelled from Esterházy to participate in the first performance of ‘Semiramide’ at the Venician opera house ‘La Fenice’ on the 3rd of February 1823.

For Prom 68 in the BBC Proms 2016, our ‘banda’ consisted of the following instruments and players:

Piccolo: Judith Treggor
Eb clarinet: Jernej Albreht
C clarinets: Emily Worthington, Rosie Taylor, Sarah Thurlow
Horns: Ursula Paludan Monberg, David Horwich, Finlay Bain, Lauren Reeve-Rawlings
Trumpets: Sebastian Philpott, Peter Mankarious, Russell Gilmour, Will Russell, Gareth Hoddinott
Trombones: Hilary Belsey, Adrian France
Ophicleide: Tony George

We played three entries in the first act of the opera. The 'banda' was situated on the highest riser on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall. For the second act, the ‘banda’ relocated to the Gallery (the highest tier of the Royal Albert Hall), playing high up on the conductor’s left side. From there we performed one more entry (Act II, No.8: Duetto: Semiramide & Assur) intended to sound distant and reminiscant of one of our previous entries from the first act, albeit in a different key (E-flat major). I had a recurring natural trumpet call to play:


The trumpet parts for the ‘banda’ posed some interesting questions with regard to which instruments we should use. Each trumpet part needed several instruments in different keys and some of the parts had notes outside the harmonic series - perhaps for early valved-trumpets or keyed trumpets. Between the five of us in the 'banda’ we had trumpets in the keys of:

Natural Trumpet in G (2nd part)
Natural Trumpet in A-flat (1st part)
Natural Trumpet in A (3rd part)
(Valved) Trumpet in A basso (3rd part)
Natural Trumpet in B-flat (2nd part)
Natural Trumpet in C (4th part)
Natural Trumpet in D (5th part)
Natural Trumpet in E-flat (3rd & 4th parts)
Natural Trumpet in E (2nd part)
Natural Trumpet in F (4th & 5th parts)

The only keys of trumpet that we did not need from the whole chromatic scale were: F-sharp, B natural and D-flat.

I played the third trumpet part, beginning on a part written for a trumpet in A basso. It had several chromatic passages so I used an 8-foot D trumpet with rotary valves, transposing by a fifth. This old trumpet is a military band style instrument from the mid-19th century. I had conveniently bought it from an antique shop in Warsaw during a project where I was recording music by the Belarusian / Polish Romantic composer Stanisław Moniuszko. I was required to perform on an old rotary valved trumpet in F for that project and coincidentally, the antique shop where I bought the old rotary trumpet in D was in close proxmitity to the building where Moniuszko lived in Warsaw, marked by a blue plaque. The trumpet was a good find and inexpensive. I never thought I’d be playing it in the BBC Proms. The later entries in my part required the more familiar natural trumpets in C and E-flat.


The Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, simply wowed the audience. During the first half of the concert I particularly enjoyed listening to the stunning overture and I was in a great position to enjoy the wonderful playing of the four horn players in the orchestra. It was fascinating to see their hand horn technique from behind them and I learnt a lot from just observing the ease of their approach. There were many other examples of wonderful music making going on in the orchestra under the the excellent direction of Sir Mark Elder.

“...the OAE played tirelessly throughout the near four-hour performance, holding out longer than many of the audience, who crept away early to catch Sunday night transport home. Elder found silky lightness in Rossini's score, with colourful woodwind roulades dispatched with character, exciting martial brass, and thrilling timpani playing from Adrian Bending. A feast of Rossini, greedily consumed in a single sitting.” - Mark Pulling, BachTrack - 5th September 2016


The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and it is available on BBC iPlayer until 4 October 2016.

Many thanks to Oonagh Lee for taking this photograph.


Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.