Friday 2 November 2018

The cast list for the 2019 Royal Northern College of Music Brass Band Festival (25 - 27 January) reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the best that the brass band world has to offer. Two world class soloists, Ian Bousfield (trombone) and David Childs (euphonium), lead the way performing two major concertos, while a retrospective of the life and work of Yorkshire composer Wilfred Heaton, marking the centenary of his birth (2 December 2018), provides the primary musical focus.

David Childs adds to his substantial collection of concerto commissions a work from Edward Gregson, which we hear in its brass band version.  Ian Bousfield is presenting one of the ‘everests’ of the trombone repertory, the Concerto which Wilfred Heaton prepared in 1992 at the suggestion of Howard Snell for the Britannia (now Foden’s) Band and its principal trombone player Nicholas Hudson.  Ian will join the present day Foden’s Band, 2018 National Champion Band, for the festival opener. Ever imaginative in its programme planning, Foden’s is paying tribute to two of its heroes of the past. Composer and sax virtuoso Andy Scott brings his 10-year Foden’s residency to a fitting conclusion with Edwin, a tribute to the band’s solo cornet ace Edwin Swift, who lost his life in WW1. Elgar’s late A Severn Suite and Henry Geehl’s elegiac In Memoriam call to mind the band’s legendary conductor Fred Mortimer, while the choice of opener, John McCabe’s colourful overture Salamander is the first of three 80th anniversary tributes to this versatile composer. 

    Over the years, anniversary celebrations have enriched the thematic content of the festival programming and this year is no exception. Indeed, exceptional is an apt to description of the music of Wilfred Heaton, who is best known for a handful of highly skilled, adventurous brass band pieces - Praise, Just as I Am from his pre-war youth and Contest Music and Partita from his mature years. However, he was more than a ‘four work’ composer, with a work list extending to 75 extant titles, excluding many now lost brass quartet arrangements he made from classical sources in the 1950s and 60s. The name Wilfred Heaton might be rarely acknowledged in the wider musical world, but the brass band community recognises the hand of a master craftsman in all his work.

    On the afternoon and evening of Saturday 26 January, the RNCM Brass Band Festival 2019 presents a comprehensive centenary celebration of the life and work of this enigmatic figure. Making a welcome return to the festival, The International Staff Band of The Salvation Army under Bandmaster Dr. Stephen Cobb, surveys Heaton’s association with The Salvation Army, in which he was brought up in Sheffield.  Heaton was a solitary soul even as a child. When others would be out in the street playing football, he would be indoors with his music or, as he matured, his spiritual reading. That time studying paid rich rewards in the inventiveness and quality of the music he composed between the ages of 17 and 20: Praise, Passing By, Just as I am, and My Treasure - the music which when published after WW2 quickly became classics of the SA repertory.

    Heaton’s post-war agenda was more adventurous, leaning towards the classical mainstream of the 20th century - Sibelius, Walton, Hindemith, Bartok. Only one of the works he composed with SA bands in mind between 1946 and 1952 was accepted for publication. It was a tough time because the Salvation Army was his only creative outlet. In later years he came to understand the reasons why these pieces were held back, and was always grateful, if surprised, when they were brought out of what he called his ‘unregarded corner’ when their time was right. The music from the 1940s that eventually appeared in the 1970s onwards - Victory for Me, My Master’s Will, Mercy’s Light, Celestial Prospect - point to a composer at the height of his powers with strong musical personality, sophisticated style and refined technique. Heaton’s connection with the ISB goes back to the 1940s, so it is entirely appropriate that this fine band should present Wilfred Heaton and The Salvation Army.

    For six months in 1971-2, Heaton was the resident conductor the Black Dyke Mills Band. It was through this association that Contest Music was commissioned. The band’s professional conductor, Geoffrey Brand, was also the organiser of the National Brass Band Championships at that time. In the years since Heaton’s death in May 2000, Black Dyke and the ISB have recorded all of the performable music that Heaton left to posterity, including many previously unknown or unrealised pieces. In the first half of the evening gala concert, Black Dyke Band and Professor Nicholas Childs shed some light on The Heaton Legacy, opening with an entertaining parody of a traditional road march, Le Tricot Rouge, an energetic Scherzo composed originally as a quartet in 1937, followed by an ambitious work based on the Welsh hymn tune Aberystwyth. Following SA convention, he called it a Meditation, but in scale and substance it is more like a dramatic tone poem. In the 1950s Heaton began to write on a large, symphonic scale and in a more complex, though never atonal language. The original orchestral versions of Partita and the Trombone Concerto date from this period, as does the original material of Contest Music. The rest of the concert comprises items that have been adapted or arranged from sketches of other works. Pilgrim’s Song brings together movements from incidental music he composed in around 1955-56 for a dramatisation of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The march Glory! Glory! was composed in the late 1940s and re-composed from memory in 1989, while the selection My Treasure enshrines Heaton’s high regard for the sacred songs of SA Bandmaster George Marshall.

     Saturday’s musical offering opens with the students of the RNCM Brass Band. Talented RNCM student Seth Livingstone tackles Philip Wilby’s much-admired Euphonium Concerto and the focus on young artists extends to the concert finale - a brand new work by A4 Brass and Foden’s principal horn Jonathan Bates. The Junior RNCM Band opens a window on the future of the brass band culture, as do the concerts on Sunday morning. Foden’s Youth Band makes its second appearance, while Fairey Band will be showcasing the talents of the rising generation of composers in the final of the 2019 John Golland Award. A £500 prize is on offer for the most outstanding of the submitted works, to be judged by Martin Ellerby and Edward Gregson.  The accent on youth is completed with a debut solo appearance in the UK of Swiss baritone player Felix Geroldinger, Winner of the 2018 European Soloist Competition in Utrecht. He plays Ellerby’s testing Concerto with Brighouse and Rastrick Band and David Thornton, whose quality programme also includes two evocative gems of the test-piece repertoire, Three Figures (Howells) and Cloudcatcher Fells (McCabe).

     Sir James MacMillan, one of the leading composers of our time, was brought up with brass bands in Cumnock, Ayrshire. To mark his 60th birthday in 2019, Tredegar Town and Cory bands will feature two of his shorter brass band pieces, Jebel, composed for his local school band in Glasgow, and The Gallant Weaver, a transcription for band of a haunting choral setting. David Child’s joins Tredegar for a performance of Gregson’s new Concerto, and soprano cornet ace Steve Stewart will give the concert premiere of the showcase specially written for him by Dan Price.  Hans Werner Henze’s brilliant confection Ragtimes and Habaneras is sure to set the feet tapping. Cory brings the festival to a close with Heaton’s final opus, Variations. He laboured fitfully for over eight years to write it and it is a unique valedictory statement from one of the most original composers of the 20th century to have emerged from the brass band world.  

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