Centenary Firedances

For full symphony orchestra including a large group of percussion instruments (together with marimbas, bongos, cowbells, tom-toms and an Irish drum) and two sets of timpani.

Friday March 3rd 1989, 7.30pm
Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham
Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Jonathan Del Mar

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More info on this work

An account by his wife and publisher, Cynthia Downes, posted on February 8th, 2018

More info on this work

For the Birmingham Centenary celebrations, the City Council were looking for a new piece of music to accompany a grand midsummer fireworks display in Cannon Hill park.  They contacted Roy Wales, the then Head of Birmingham Conservatoire, who recommended that Andrew should compose the music!

Andrew felt thrilled and honoured to be asked.  From the outset of composing his piece, he wanted to reflect the cultural mix of the City in his music.  The first movement is inspired by rock music with African drumming and rhythm.  The third movement pays tribute to the Irish Community in Birmingham and features a bohran.  Throughout all the movements there are influences of Indian music and English pastoral music.  A 14 man percussion section is required!  Andrew had great fun rehearsing with his composer students, who all played percussion in the performance.  Unrepeatable lyrics were created (mainly by Andrew) to all the rhythms!

Centenary Firedances were digitally linked to the fireworks by Dragonfire Ltd, who did a wonderful job sculpting all the sounds with light in the sky.  It was an amazingly exciting event.  30,000 people came and brought picnics.  A video which was made showed the delight on everyone's faces.  People of all races came.  No incidents were reported by the police.  The Birmingham Post said: "For once Birmingham got it right!"

Video of the event in Canon Hill Park:

The Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Del Mar, performed the work that night, also on the recording which they made and in a concert in the run up to the event.  At the premiere in the Adrian Boult Hall everyone realised how exciting the music was.

Advertising for the premiere at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham in March 1989:


Letter from the conductor:

Both of our daughters, Anna (12) and Paula (9) were old enough to attend that first Cannon Hill performance in 1989.  Several friends and family members joined us in the 'VIP house' for the Fireworks Fantasia, including our next door neighbour, who said it was his best evening since his wedding decades previously!  The recording made by the Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra of the music was made into a souvenir cassette, which sold out on the night (3000 copies).  It was later made into a CD, together with Andrew's choral work, The Marshes of Glynn, and continues to sell out and be re-issued.

Andrew was very nervous about the first performances of Centenary Firedances.  All the organisational stress and nerves caused a terrible flare up of his ankylosing spondilitis in his neck.  He had to wear a collar lined with 'ralgex' wadding for all the rehearsals.  He was in great pain, but always remained cheerful and encouraging to his students.

Advertising for the event in Canon Hill Park:



Letters received after the event:

A further two performances of the work were given by the Paradise Sinfonietta of Birmingham Conservatoire School of Creative Studies at midsummer events at Cannon Hill Park in 1991 (conducted by William Joss) and 1992 (conducted by Steve Mayer) to audiences of tens of thousands.  During the daytime hours Andrew had bands of students from his School of Creative studies performing around the park.  He went from group to group, checking they were ok, and must have walked miles!



1991 programme:


Letters afterwards:

Andrew Downes' notes for the Fireworks Fantasia 1992:

Cynthia Downes' programme note:

Advertising for the 1992 event:



Front left to right: Stuart Pickford, Anna Downes, Katie Pickford
Back left to right: Andrew Downes, Cynthia Downes, Paula Downes

Letters afterwards:


Letters from the BBC about broadcasts of the work:

Several performances of Centenary Firedances were given in August 1994 in Lima, Peru, by an orchestra formed and conducted by Stephen Ellery and led by Richard Leigh, both former students of Andrew's.  Richard Leigh had also introduced the work to his colleagues at Northamptonshire Music services, where he worked, with the result that the Northants County Training Orchestra, conducted by Alaster Thorn, perfomed it in their July concert of that year.  


Subsequent performers of Centenary Firedances also include the Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Gee in the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham (February 1996 - concert to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Adrian Boult Hall),  and Exeter University Symphony Orchestra, directed by Steven Lloyd (October 1999 in the Great Hall of Exeter University).

Advertising for further performances, and programmes:

8 years later, Anna organised a performance (in 2002) with her orchestra, Central England Ensemble, conducted by Eric Hinton, in the CBSO centre, Birmingham.


I myself directed a performance with my Hagley Community Orchestra in the 2007 Hagley Music Festival (Worcestershire).  For this Hagley performance I invited a number of our piano teacher friends to play in the percussion team, some of them playing the more exotic instruments on keyboards.  Reverend Richard Newton, an excellent organist, made his debut as cymbal player extraordinaire.  Andrew himself put in all the brass parts on his keyboard!  Everyone took their roles very seriously and we all, including the audience, had a great time at that concert!

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The scores and parts for all of the above performances were written out by an excellent student at Birmingham Conservatoire (Andrew was extremely busy at the time).  The student copyist had to work in a hurry to produce everything in time.  

I proof read his work many years later for a performance by Anna's Central England Ensemble in May 2023.  I was working on the checking and correcting, when Andrew fell ill, and was taken into Worcester hospital on Christmas Day 2023.  Devastatingly, Andrew did not come out of hospital, and died there on January 2nd 2023.  As I continued with my work on Centenary Firedances after Andrew's death, the comfort which they brought me was incredible, as is all of his music.  I finished the work in time for the performance, which took place in St Philip's, Dorridge, Warwickshire, and formed part of the numerous concerts during 'Andrew Downes Year of Remembrance'.  I played in the concert.  The players gave their all, and everybody, performers and audience alike, loved it.  It was a very emotional experience for me


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