RNCM Brass Band Festival 2020

Every year at this time, since 2006 when I was invited by the RNCM to take on an official role as Artistic Director of the annual Brass Band Festival, I always take stock. The energy and excitement of the festival weekend have relented, the post-festival ‘thank yous’ (gratefully given and received) are done and it’s time to reflect on events.
What never ceases to amaze me, year after year, is the knowledge and dedication of the audience. The core of regular patrons often comment that the RNCM weekend is the highlight of their banding year outside the competitive calendar, and that gives be enormous satisfaction – to know that what the bands, soloists and myself provide is being enjoyed and admired. I thought last year’s audience was healthy – with the prospect of hearing wall-to-wall Wilf Heaton drawing many new faces to the event, particularly from The Salvation Army. Well, I was greatly encouraged that those number held up really well this year, with large audiences for all the event and a complete sell-out for a couple. We welcomed patrons and guests from around Europe, the United States and Canada. It was a truly international gathering. And what a feat of great brass music and performance we all enjoyed.

Finesse from Foden’s

It would be invidious to single out any one band – they all played to their strengths with evident care and attention from the musical directors, marshalled (I hope) by some decent ideas and planning from the curator (!). Foden’s Band under Michael Fowles and Russell Gray got proceedings off to a thrilling start with no fewer than four blockbuster test-pieces (in their day). To be frank, I’m not a fan of describing contemporary band classics like Dances and Arias (Gregson), Eden (Pickard) or Paganini Variations (Wilby) simply as test-pieces. Yes, they were written or used in band contests, but first and foremost they should, in my view, always be viewed first and foremost on their musical merits, irrespective of their original function or purpose. If we viewed more of the music composed for band contests from that perspective rather than simply as a test-piece, perhaps a wider audience than attends band contests might get an opportunity to appreciate its quality.
In fact my highlight of the evening was a rare concert performance of music form the early 1930s – Granville Bantock’s Prelude Prometheus Unbound. Michael Fowles and Foden’s rolled back the decades to the the period when Foden’s Motor Works Band, under Fred Mortimer, was winning the National Championships year after year with performances as elegant, restrained and personal as Michael coaxed so effectively from his musicians.

Tributes, impressions and epics on day two

The Greater Manchester Youth Brass Band got Saturday’s busy schedule off to a terrific start in the Theatre. They filled the stage and delighted a large audience with a festival debut performance of which they and conductor Mark Peacock can be justifiably proud. I couldn’t hear it all, as I had to depart early to listen in on Fairey Band’s preparations for the morning concert in the Concert Hall. In as it turned out a very successful new venture, the RNCM teamed up with the Worshipful Company of Musicians (now The Musicians’ Company) to honour one of the unsung ‘back room boys’ of banding – Stan Kitchen.

To most within the international communities of brass and wind bands, Stan was Studio Music and Polyphonic Recordings – the publisher of much of what they played or enjoyed listening to on their CD players. However, Stan was far more than just a successful commercial operator. He used his professional experience and encyclopaedic knowledge of the music business to further the interests of bands and especially the writers he believed in and nurtured – composers like Goff Richards and his two ‘right-hand’ men for so many years, Philip Sparke and Martin Ellerby. Fairey Band and Garry Cutt delighted us with their authoritative readings of Cross Patonce, Tallis Variations and Requiescant Aberfan – generous, warm sounds, nothing overblown or out of context as we have come to expect from a Garry Cutt honed performance.
Centre stage on Saturday afternoon in the concert hall was Brighouse and Rastrick Band, with guest conductor Russell Gray on prime form. Their programme was hugely varied in its range of style and thus the musical challenges involved. I was really grateful that they agreed to tackle the contemporary challenge of a new score by Paul McGhee. From Koris By was, for me, a thoroughly engaging soundscape – haunting, aggressive, atmospheric by turns – following the history of his home town of Corby from its Viking roots to its 21st century re-generation. The concert opened with a substantial tone poem by Christopher Gunning.

A composer highly regarded for his award-winning scores for tv and film, including ITV’s long-running Poirot series, Christopher chose to depict a day in the life of one of the country’s last remaining pockets of fenland, Wicken Fen, for his first major work for brass band. Having spent many hours walking in the Cambridgeshire location, I think Christopher caught its magical atmosphere to a tee with typical clarity and understatement – a calm summer’s morning gives way to the activity of the day (birds, deer, wild ponies and humans!) and returns to a sunset and a pint or two and the village pub!
In the late 70s Manchester composer John Golland wrote a tuba concerto with orchestra. The manuscript remained undisturbed until it was discovered after John’s death in 1993 by
Andrew Duncan, who gave the premiere at a Halle Prom. Shortly after that Philip Harper made a brass band version which when I started to research the work I discovered had gone missing. So, with the agreement of my fellow John Golland Trustees I had another go, with the excellent Les Neish in my mind as a possible soloist. I was delighted when he agreed to perform it, and what a terrific job he made of it. I was also pleased with my transcription in as much as it didn’t drown out the soloist. It’s pretty tricky though, demanding considerable agility from cornet in particular as they try to imitated violins and high woodwinds. The score will eventually be added to the catalogue of Studio Music, where this work now resides.

Les Neish didn’t have much of a rest as within an hour or so of playing the Golland concerto he was on his feet over in the Theatre conducting the Junior RNCM Brass Band in an exciting programme. Once again, I wasn’t able to enjoy the performance as I had relocated to the Carole Nash recital Room to prepare for the Meet the Composers session. Our featured composers Edward Gregson and Philip Wilby were joined by Thierry Deleruyelle from France and Oliver Waespi from Switzerland, both of whom were present to hear the premieres of new concertos. The primary focus of an absorbing 40-minute discussion was the place of the composer in the international brass band community.
The results of that collaboration were amply in evidence in the evening’s gala concert, in which Black Dyke Band and Nicholas Childs included four major essays by Gregson and Wilby along side a brand new work, God in the Machine, by the band’s young composer in association, Andy Wareham, and Oliver Waespi’s tour-de-force for trombone and band, Scene Change, performed to the manor born by Brett Baker. How we describe the ‘big’ repertoire is epitomised in Black Dyke’s concert. Take Edward Gregson’s Symphony in two movements, which ended the first part of this spectacular evening. Commissioned jointly by the National Youth Brass bands of Great Britain and Wales, it has also been used in competitions, but is about as far removed from the traditional concept of a brass band test piece as one could imagine. In terms of the compositional craft and cogency of the musical argument, it is in my estimation Gregson’s most complete essay for brass band and a work that can stand without any compromise alongside his orchestral music, particularly the series of concertos that form the spine of his output, in its artistic and stylistic ambition.
There were two epic works in part two, in which the colour of the brass band was enhanced by voices, piano, harp and organ. Commissioned by The Salvation Army in the USA, The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of a number of concert works involving brass band by Philip Wilby with a Christian theme. A Bronte Mass and The Holy Face are essentially choral works with band or orchestra. The Christian ethos of service is at the heart of so much of Wilby’s finest music for band, from his very first work for the medium The New Jerusalem, via Revelation (a symphony for brass band) to his latest major piece Ascension. Edward Gregson’s An Age of Kings is on an even larger scale. Composed originally as incidental music for the Royal Shakespeare Company, it comes across in this concert format with cinematic clarity and impact.

Premieres, innovations and a grand finale

The excellent RNCM Brass Band, conducted by senior tutor in brass David Thornton, began the final day with two world premieres, no less. The first was especially intriguing, I thought. The composer is Jay Richardson, a recent graduate of Cambridge University, where he encountered a brass band for the first time, and now forging a professional path as organist, composer and sonic artist. His piece Freespeed was the outcome of a John Golland Award at the 2919 RNCM Festival, for which he composed Clamour. Where that first work was an interpretation of how we might receive sound images, the sequel was all about perceptions of time and speed and how we experience motion. Having the sections of the band placed round the concert hall added to the sense of flow and travel. The pace was leisurely but subtly varied and layered between the sonic elements.
Freespeed proved to be an ideal opener – in which concept, composition and execution seemed well-balanced. Thierry Deleruyelle’s new Cornet Concerto, commissioned and beautifully performed by RNCM alumnus Kathleen Gaspoz was also about travel, but more physical than symbolic. Crossing Worlds takes its inspiration from the notion of a performing artist travelling from home to a performing venue by air, the anticipation of the journey, the flight itself and then the meeting and greet upon arrival. The concerto follows an emotional journey from the energy of anticipation and preparation, through the high flying lyricism of the flight (for which Kathleen was joined by her partner, euphoniumist Phillipe Schwartz – a lovely moment indeed), to the spirit on musical collaboration that unites musicians wherever they travel. The end result was an attractive virtuoso concerto for which we all enjoyed.
Peter Meechan’s Epitaph (for Hillsborough) never fails to move me every time I hear it. It is a poignant and personal memorial to those who Liverpool FC fans who lost their lives in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster composed by a life-long fan. The hints of You’ll Never Walk Alone, the repeated tolling of the lone bell – for each life lost – and the sombre atmosphere created by the composer’s slow moving theme combine to create , in my opinion, a miniature masterpiece of the band medium.
While we were enjoying a thoroughly enjoyable lunchtime recital from Siobhan Bates (tenor horn) and Thomas Nielsen (cornet), the RNCM staged a conducting workshop for female conductors with the busy RNCM Band. The idea for this workshop came about a couple of years ago when baritone ace Katrina Marzella suggested that I might consider the idea. Given that the gender balance on the brass band podium is by no means as even in terms of opportunity as it is now in the classical music scene, I proposed the idea to both RNCM and Brass Bands England and through their collaboration, three conductors currently working with community bands – Cathryn-Jane Rogers, Jane Ellis and Helen Douthwaite-Teasdale – were able to benefit from the experience and advice of Norwegian conductor Halldis Ronning and RNCM acting head of conducting Mark Heron. They told me afterwards that the learned so much from the session, which was based around Elgar’s A Severn Suite.

Tredegar Town Band was up next with a blockbuster of a programme that was book-ended by the music of Richard Strauss (my adaptation of his 1909 Solemn Procession ) and Edward Gregson (his tribute work Rococo Variations ). With Ian Porthouse at the helm, a Tredegar programme is always interesting, inventive and above all authentic. I was blown away by the visceral power and detail in their performance of Daniel Hall’s darkly dramatic A Dialogue of Transmogrifying Souls. However, the highlight of the afternoon was Philip Cobb’s mesmerising account of Ernest Tomlinson’s fiendish Cornet Concerto. Composed in 1974 for a previous LSO Principal Trumpet, the late great Maurice Murphy, this virtuoso showpiece rarely gets an outing not only because of the challenges it poses the soloist, but also the demands Tomlinson places on the band. He pulled out all the stops for this major opus and I’m sure he would have been as impressed as we were by the skill, sound and authority that Philip brought to it.
While many of our guests and visitors packed into the Carol Nash Recital Room for a stimulating session on the experiences of women in the brass band world presented by Brass Bands England, I was over in the concert hall preparing for the grand finale. Cory Band and Philip Harper brought the weekend to a close with a programme befitting the number one band in the world. Christopher Bond’s attractive commission marking the 125th anniversary of Bratton Silver Band entitled The Lost Village of Imber revealed how skilful this composer has become in tailoring music to the demands of the broader brass band community. It deserves a wider audience, and would be ideal for second, third or youth band section contests. Having heard principal tenor horn Ayla Russell perform Philip Wilby’s concise Fantasia Concertante last year at Philip’s 70th birthday concert in Harrogate given by the brass band of the British armed forces, I was delighted that she agreed to play it again for us at the RNCM, and a very capable job she made of it. Many thanks Aylsa! The band brought the house down ( with the roof in tact-just) with the final item, Explorers on the Moon (Paul Raphael, aka Philip Harper himself). However, my highlight was a rare and very welcome performance of Gregson’s symphonic tone poem Of Men and Mountains, a work that deserves to be performed much more often than it is.
And with that concert a 20th festival of brass band music in Manchester was done and dusted. I had a wonderful time as always listening to fine brass band music and performance and meeting and greeting so many friends and fellow enthusiasts of the substantial, original work for the medium. I’m already beginning to think of next 2021, when we will be in birthday and anniversary mode once again – Philip Sparke at 70 (can you believe it!), the centenaries of Malcolm Arnold and Robert Simpson, Simon Dobson at 40 and much more besides. I hope to see you in Manchester, 22-24 January 2021.

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