The European Brass Band Championships 2016 was another historic occasion for Cory Band. In this, the most hard-fought and high profile contest of them all, to win both disciplines and assert such an emphatic lead over 11 other national champions is a breath-taking achievement, and we are all very proud of the talent and commitment of everyone in the Cory organisation.
Over and above the amazing thrill at the competitive success, I was extremely pleased also to have been able to make some strong musical statements. Maybe it seems obvious but, as musicians, the most important constituent of what we do is undoubtedly the music itself. In the world of brass bands we see a lot of new music – this is a great thing! However, the downside of the copious quantity is that there is a considerable watering-down of the quality. Of the twelve major test-piece contests I have now done with Cory (four each of British Open, National Finals and European) I consider there have been five test-pieces which have been of the required quality. The remaining seven just haven’t been up to scratch at all in my opinion. Looking at general recent trends, so many pieces are not good enough. Some do not display the required craft, experience and knowledge of writing for brass band; others are examples of where a bad idea should have been culled at source rather than brought to fruition at a major event; and some are victims to a growing culture where artistic sophistication and creativity has been substituted for musical thuggery and charlatanism.
I stress that this is merely my own opinion, and I know others will disagree. However, I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I can demonstrate an alternative in terms of the direction I think the movement needs to be heading to make meaningful musical development.
Brass bands are beautiful. We make a gorgeous, blended sound across the whole group; we can play commandingly loud; we can play heart-stoppingly quiet; and our amateur status enables us to spend as long as we need to perfect the most fearsome of technical challenges resulting in astonishing virtuosity. In recent years however, we have seen major test-pieces which are an actual impediment to making top bands sound at their best. No-one wants to hear solo cornets screeching on top-Ebs, or Bb basses playing super-Gs; no-one wants to see dynamics written as fortissimo (very loud) then multiple subsequent markings of piu forte (louder); no-one wants cornets playing pedal notes, eight timpani, or the brass players breaking into song every five minutes. These are all real examples of some of what the last twelve contests have brought us!
What I would much prefer is a chance to make my band sound at its best. For me, this means music which equally appreciates the brass band’s homogeneity and colouristic possibilities; music whose technique can be hard, but needs to be idiomatic and therefore rely on good honest practice, rather than the conductor having to rewrite all the parts using multiple players and taking out all the sharps and flats (which is a technique we have used on several winning performances!); music which contains qualities of charm, elegance, beauty and tenderness, as opposed to merely bombast and circus gimmickry; music which uses 15 minutes to develop its material thoroughly and with an appreciation of context, rather than just gluing together five three-minute pieces. I could go on.
So why has this situation developed? It seems to me that when major contest promoters look to commission a piece, they tell new composers that brass bands ‘can do anything’ and they should compose without compromise. What a mistake! Yes, brass bands can do most things and, more importantly, will generally do whatever they’re told in a set test-piece in pursuit of the prize, but it doesn’t mean it’ll sound pretty, or that anyone will enjoy the process. Composers need to be given proper guidelines, and to do their homework (which, by the way, includes a lifetime’s study of the laws of harmony and an in-depth knowledge of the world’s great composers and music cultures)
Of course, I don’t want each new piece to be a clone of the previous, and I still applaud imagination, creativity and innovation. I can well remember my astonishment at hearing Philip Wilby’s seminal Paganini Variations for the first time back in 1991. This has all these qualities – kaleidoscopic use of mutes (including for the first time unlocking the potential of the harmon mute); unusual chords (no tonic / dominant / subdominant here); groundbreaking scoring (the WHOLE cornet section playing the Bolero, wow!); and a long-term structural shift from minor to major whose effect is multiplied a hundredfold by its context (the iconic flugel horn solo after the funereal euphonium section). This kind of creativity does not devalue the genre of brass bands like some of our new ‘fashionable’ music does, in my view.
This is why, in my position of being able to commission a new piece for the European contest, I asked Philip Sparke. We have spoken at great length about this subject over the years, and I know he feels exactly the same. For Lille, I wanted a piece which developed organically over its duration, taking us on a musical journey; something which was mainly in ¾ time – a waltz and very uncommon these days; something with gorgeous melodies and sumptuous scoring; something which was hard, but where we had to play every note exactly as it was written – no cheating! He delivered all of that in a simply fabulous 16 minutes of dazzling creativity, and fortunately I have the band to be able to pull it off in performance.
Job done? Not yet. It felt very odd for the players and I to be performing in the own-choice section of the European, and not having the usual shopping list tick box (extended solos; gratuitous high notes; final tam tam roll to deafening major chord etc) It was unnerving when we had finished our performance and we felt uneasy. How would it be received? Would it stand out for the right reasons, or the wrong? Should we just have gone for something full of blood, thunder and semiquavers?
It was an anxious wait until nearly midnight when we received the news (via Twitter) that the risk had paid off and we had won. A great and unforgettable moment for us all. And now I have a few minutes of everyone’s attention, I don’t want to let it go by without taking the chance to get on my soapbox! I hope this debate will develop and continue in the weeks ahead, and ultimately I hope it might refocus where we go next in the musical exploration of our marvellous pastime.
After a coach ride from South Wales, we flew direct to Washington Dulles Airport, arriving late at night and jumping on another coach to take us to our first hotel in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The first concert was at James Madison University (JMU), and I was up early to lead a workshop with the University Brass Band. I was amazed to see examples of our British style of instrumentation in every location we travelled to. In a country dominated by concert (wind) bands, there really seemed to be an interest in our line-up, especially in places where there were knowledgeable enthusiasts, like at JMU where Professor Kevin Stees has been flying the flag for many years. After a delicious lunch, the atmosphere built ahead of the band’s first concert as we learned that a sell-out was expected. And a sell-out it certainly was, setting a trend for the majority of the tour! The band was cheered onto the stage, applauded warmly after every item, and given three standing ovations at the end. The tour was up and running, and the Cory players were all buzzing.
Next stop was the University of Delaware. I worked with the Chesapeake Brass Band in the morning. With the NABBA Championships approaching, I was able to have sessions with many of the participants, working through some of the test-pieces with them, in this case ‘Fanfares and Love Songs’ by Gavin Higgins. The bands were filled with mainly trumpet players and French horn players who made the switch to their ‘British’ instruments every week for band practice. Another superb sold-out concert followed and the band were really hitting their stride. After the gig I worked with the Atlantic Brass Band on its own-choice selection for the NABBA Competition.
It took us nine hours by coach to travel down to North Carolina and at the end of a long day, Principal cornet Tom Hutchinson and I worked with two youth bands from the Triangle Brass Band organisation. The following evening, after some sightseeing in the city of Raleigh and a brief stop for me at the WRAL TV studios for an interview, the band performed its biggest concert of the tour, at the 1,800-seater Meymandi Concert Hall – again fully sold-out. The audience comprised 900 high-school students (aged 14-18) and a good proportion amongst the rest of people who were listening to the British style line-up for the first time. As some of the photos show, this was a simply fantastic experience for the band who performed brilliantly throughout, and were joined on stage by Triangle Brass Band for the final few items. WRAL weatherman Greg Fischel had introduced the concert on stage, and after the gig had gone back to work to do the evening forecast, during which he referenced the concert on numerous occasions!
A day off followed, and the band took the chance to visit Washington DC, having photos taken by the Lincoln Memorial and the White House, and staying at a hotel in one of the suburbs. Some players took the chance to visit the karaoke bar, treating the locals to a memorable rendition of Tom Jones hits.
The next day saw the band travelling again, this time to our northernmost venue in Mansfield, Pennsylvania and another University practicing the art of British-style brass. I did another workshop with the band who again responded with huge enthusiasm and thirst for learning, before Cory performed its evening concert to yet another large and appreciative audience. By this time, our first encore of ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ was becoming a big hit, especially with soprano player Steve Stewart performing the famous piccolo obligato part. After the concert we were taken to a local micro-brewery, sampling many local specialties.
Once again we took to the coach the following day, with the evening concert taking place in Arcadia University. This is in the same state as Mansfield (Pennsylvania) although still took five hours to reach – they do things on a different scale in America! After another excellent gig in Arcadia, followed by a reception at the venue, it was back to bed and onto the last day of the tour.
Our final concert was part of the Mid-Atlantic Brass Band Festival, organised by Margie Craver, and before the concert I took workshops with the Rockville Band and the Princeton University Band, both of which were participants in the festival, which took place at Rowan University in New Jersey. This audience, by contrast to most others, was the most knowledgeable and experienced in the ways of our style of music-making, which made for a truly part atmosphere for our final, farewell concert. Standing ovations and encore performances abounded, although we decided to leave everyone with a very understated version of the Welsh tune Calon Lan, before we left the stage for the last time and most of the band headed straight back to the airport, with so many magical musical memories etched in our minds forever.
It was a superb tour and, after a forty year absence for Cory in the USA, we all hope to return again in the very near future
On the Stands
(Published 23rd January, 2015)
I always feel it’s right for Cory Band to include some original and classic brass band repertoire on its concert programmes. Currently on the stands is Gilbert Vinter’s 1963 piece Symphony of Marches. Vinter holds a very important position in the development of repertoire for brass band, and throughout the 1960s he brought a fresh new voice to the genre – sometimes shocking, often delighting. He was the first to use percussion instruments in a colouristic way for instance, rather than just supporting the main lines in the brass. It is true to say that, like Gregson in the 70s, Sparke in the 80s and Wilby in the 90s, he changed the landscape of brass band composition.