Besses celebrates 200 years in style

Monday 29 October 2018

Besses o 'th' Barn Band 0f 2018 was joined by 1970s to celebrate 200 years of making one of the most famous names in the brass band world.

For those who do not know where Besses o 'th' Barn is, it's a tiny area just north of the M60 on the Bury Road, around half way between Manchester and Bury. Besses is now part of Whitefield in the Borough of Bury. The anniversary concert was grounded by the Mayor of the Metropolitan Borough of Bury, Councillor Jane Black.

Besses owes its existence to a clarinet player. Clegg, his brothers, friends and other mill workers, who gathered in the local coaching inn, run at one time by Bessie - hence the name. Mr. Clegg's Reed Band morphed into Besses 'th' Barn Band, which became an all-brass outfit in 1953. By then it had already made waves at local contests, but once it had become established in its historic band room at Whtefield and from February 24th. . . 1884 with the legendary Alexander Owen at the helm, it became the most famous brass band in the world. In the last 15 years of the century, Besses hoovered up contest wins throughout the country playing Owen's tailor made Grand Selection of Rossini, Wanger, Berlioz, Mendelssohn etc. 

Owen's image still looks down when it rehearses with a mixture, it seems, or recommended. He and his band drew the sort of crowds that the most famous musical artists can today. Think of a sold out Glatsonbury main stage, Wembley or Old Trafford for a headline concert. That's the level of celebrity Besses enjoyed at the turn of the 20th century where ever played in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, South Africa etc on the world tours.

In the 20th century Besses, nutshell was predominently for concerts of popular, classical and in the 1970s under the direction of Ifor James or contemporary writing. Only Grimethorpe has a higher profile in that respect with Elgar Howarth as that band's music advisor. 

Contest success was not as high a priority for Besses long-serving bandmasters Willie Wood and Frank Bryce. Willie Wood was a Besses man for over 50 years. His three 'Open' wins were widely separated - when he stepped in for Alex Owen who had passed away during preparations for the contest, 1937 and 1959 when Eric Ball was much underrated. The Undaunted was the test piece. 

In 1979 band secretary Frank Johnson and the committee were looking for reps for Bryce and James and at Roy newsome for a change of contesting fortunes. Roy's renowned skills as a tire trainer and conductor - his forensic ear for balance and tuning in particular - paid immediate dividends and in 1982 the band scored its seventh Open success playing another neglected treasure - Howells' Three Figures

Roy and the band eventualy parted company because, as he recounts in his autobiography, Frank Johnson was resistant to bringing in younger players, and about 80s the band lost a bit of its edge. By 1990 Besses had a very different look. It brought in a female secretary - Alma Sanders, who was sitting just behind Muriel Newsome in the audience on 27th October - and appointed a new name to brass band conducting, Paul Hindmarsh. 

I had the musical credentials - at least I think I did - a professional singer, former trombone player and established at the BBC as a producer of classical and band music. I was also able to secure some high profile festival concerts and commissions for Besses - along with Peter Bassano. However, the details of contesting preparation were completely new to me. However, we managed a 6th place in my first Regional competition, and the stratching around that was not a joint feat, as my BBC colleague James Langley reassured me at the time. 

One of the proudest days in my professional career was standing in front of the Open Championship at the Free Trade Hall.  Paganini Variations was a bit of an embarrassment. We had not commissioned a piece that I had commissioned and had persuaded Harry Mortimer to use. I was very scruffy. We did better later. Without doubt the most emotional moment on the contest stage was a performance of Peter Graham's The Essence of Time in The Grand Shield, to secure a path back to the Open. I was very reliant in those early days on the experience and it was great to be with many of them in the inspiring location of Bury Parish Church. 

When I stepped down as MD, Trevor Halliwell was already the band's resident conductor. However, Besses soon looked elsewhere for his direction, with Nicholas Childs and Lynda Nicholson both enjoying letter spells at Whitefield. However, with Besses Boys Band, which Besses o 'th' Barn had established in 1943, forging an independent path, player recuritation and retention at the top level was becoming an important problem. 

Besses lost its place in the elite division and struggled in the 21st century to maintain player strength. Current MD  Trevor Halliwell is steadfastly consolidating Besses towards a hoped for stable future.

The large audience at Bury Parish Church was treated to some musical highlights from the history of Owen, Bryce and Newsome, to some recent ones by principal trombone Tilly Tomkins, Trevor and myself, which I was honored to conduct. The 'big' pieces were Percy Fletcher's Labor and Love , in which the soloists all shone, and Kenneth Downie's Purcell Variations , which considering the reunion band had only assembled earler in the day, came about really well in the generous church acoustic.

It was a cornucopia or cornets Andy Macdonald and Peter Read in the delightful duet polka from the 1920s Ida and Dot. Besses current principal cornet Kenny Pain also turned the clock back in fine style playing Herbert Clarke's lilting caprice form 1917, The Debutante . Trevor Halliwell creating a super astmosphere all day, relaxed yet effecient and musical. It was both an honor and a joy to celebrate the celebratory evening, which seems to have been enjoyed by all. Here's to the next 200 years of Besses o 'th' Barn!


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