Millar's Hill Accordion Orchestra

Dungannon enjoys an eclectic programme and special guest appearance from Britain's Got Talent's Ashley Elliot

In this part of the world, we generally associate the accordion 'squeeze box' with Irish folk sessions or bands parading on the Twelfth of July. Yet in Europe and elsewhere the more popular classical accordion frequently features in the study syllabus at music colleges.

Formed more than 40 years ago in the village of Charlemont in County Armagh, the Millar’s Hill Accordion Orchestra evolved from a marching band attached to the local Orange Lodge, but the group assumed orchestral status when they acquired classical instruments.

Under the direction of their current conductor Ferenc Juhasz – an Ulsterman whose Hungarian father married a lady from Lisburn – they recently retained the NIBA All Ireland Championship title, which has mostly been theirs since their first win at the Ulster Hall back in 1971.

For their intimate concert in the Square Box theatre at Dungannon’s Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre, the regular raked seating has been concertinaed to create a cabaret style, candlelit setting for an audience that is disappointingly small in number.

Arrayed in a semi-circle at floor level, the orchestra includes 11 accordionists, two of whom are women, a kit drummer and a timpanist. Two musicians play Victoria piano accordions, eight man Mengascini diatonic button accordions, and one of the ladies is in charge of an amplified Bugari Armando electronic bass accordion.

The special guest for the evening is Britain’s Got Talent finalist Ashley Elliott, who plays drums with the orchestra before performing his stand out xylophone solo. The sound balance is perfect and the acoustic excellent.

The programme opens with a medley of hymns arranged by Juhasz himself and named appropriately ‘Charlemont’. Crowd pleasers like Robbie Burns’s ‘My Love is Like a Red Red Rose’ and Thomas Moore’s ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ are worthily rendered, but somehow lack the emotion of the memorable vocal versions by Kenneth McKellar and John McCormack.

'Let’s liven things up,' suggests the baton-wielding conductor, and the band strikes up ‘The Rambler’, its rollicking rhythms seeming to break through the confines of the Square Box to conjure up an open air fete, a gaily decorated bandstand, balloons billowing and kites cascading.

The orchestra show off their aptitude for expressive part playing and nice dynamics in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Music of the Night’, and ‘Elizabeth’s Prayer’ from Wagner’s opera Tannhauser. Likewise there is precision and expression in the ‘Celebration Hymn’ set to music by Mozart, in Gustav Holst’s ‘O Valiant Hearts’ and Tim Parker’s sound track for the TV programme Ground Force, but it is the military marches that bring on the real bizazz.

Adapted from a piano solo by Arnold Safroni, ‘Imperial Echoes’ is now the regimental march of the Royal Army Pay Corps. A rousing ‘Lumberjack’ demonstrates the classical accordion’s ability to simulate trumpet and trombone lines and, collectively, the pomp of a brass band on parade.

First performed at a Highland games in Germany in 1982, the majestic ‘Highland Cathedral’ was composed by Michael Korb and Ulrich Roever for military band, pipe band and choir. The orchestra’s version opens with an accordion solo but then adequately conveys all of those sounds.

18-year-old Britain’s Got Talent finalist Ashley Elliott now shows off his dexterous xylophone wizardry in the bustling fairground soundscape that is ‘Helter Skelter’. He has performed the piece with the Roughan Silver Band, and one hoped to see the accordion orchestra join in, but on this occasion he uses a backing track.

Next up ‘Free World Fantasy’, composed by Jacob de Haan for a freedom festival that took place in the Dutch province of Groningen in 1987. An exhibition piece, it includes changes of key and tempo – here a theme and variation, there a tantalising tango – that will test the true abilities of any group of musicians.

The Millar’s Hill men and women prove they have the technique and talent to master such a piece, however. Furthermore, it is the highlight of the evening and makes one think that a modicum of flamboyance and flair, both sartorial and musical –how about smart jackets and a selection of Astor Piazzolla tango pieces? – would further increase the entertainment level of their show.

'Band, quick march,' directs Juhasz as the final march, ‘Lest We Forget’, marks the Remembrance season.

It is gratifying that a group that was formed in a village near the Moy just across the motorway from Dungannon can perform locally in such ideal conditions. Yet as we step out into the main square, there isn’t a soul in sight and all those folk who may be nodding off by their firesides are sadly oblivious to the orchestral manoeuvres that have just taken place in the former bank building at the top of the town.