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Conductors to Watch - ref feat004

David King:
In terms of being the form man, David King is on a roll that only Tiger Woods would recognize. Wins at seven of the last eight contests is a record that deserves the accolades that are regularly used to describe the Australian. The “Wizard of Oz”, like Woods is at present, is head and shoulders above the chasing field and seems to be plying his trade on a different level to the rest of his fellow conductors, but doubts still remain about how good people really think he is. The missing part of the jigsaw is that he is yet to win the Nationals (and he has had quite a few goes) and until that comes many believe, as well one thinks the man himself, that he cannot be classed as a truly “great conductor”. None have achieved the “Grand Slam” of National, Open, European and Masters wins but when he does (and it is only a matter of time) he will secure his reputation in full.

It is well to remember that the early years saw success as well failure, with his Dyke experience in particular being the source of great disappointment. He was given the chance at the biggest band in the world, and even though he won two European crowns the period at Black Dyke was a failure and one that possibly gave him the resolve to create his own banding piece of history at an organisation that he could mould into a vehicle that he alone could control and develop. Like those who followed Sir Matt Busby as manager at Manchester United, none were quite strong enough to control what he had left and so suffered by comparison. David King possibly realised that being gifted, young and hungry was not enough for an institution as old and set in their ways as they were at Queensbury and so left, licking his wounds to create his own Black Dyke at Yorkshire Building Society. The rest is of course history – David King’s history.

Nicholas Childs:
Nicholas Childs is a big man in the brass band world. Whatever the title – euphonium player, conductor, entrepreneur, Nick Childs is a big man, and what do big men like? – big challenges that’s what, and they don’t come any bigger than trying to revive the corpse of what is the world’s biggest brass band – Black Dyke.

That Dyke should be his greatest challenge is appropriate, as for all his achievements in all of the fields he has chosen to play on, he is still seen by many as someone who has yet to realise his full potential as a conductor. The job at Dyke will see him not only try and revolutionise that grand old lady into becoming a force again, but will possibly in the process give him the band to finally secure his own reputation as a musical director. It will not be easy, as Dyke has decayed in terms of contesting in the past five years or so to become almost “just another band”. Too many easy concerts and audiences unwilling to see the most traditional of bands encompass the future means that Dyke have ground to make up, and Nick Childs knows this. He has complete faith in his own ability and has a personality that can forge a band into his way of thinking.

His early success at Tredegar made way to him taking over the reins at Fodens, who he developed through sheer force of will into one of the best bands in the country. One National win however means that he has yet to secure that all important reputation as a “great conductor” and even though he had numerous success in other lesser contests, he remains some way behind David King and other lesser conductors in the “majors won” stakes. He surely sees Black Dyke with it’s history of success as the vehicle to meet his own personal ambitions. Whatever the outcome, it will be an interesting ride.

James Gourlay:
The most enigmatic yet strangely the most interesting of all the conductors currently plying their trade, James Gourlay seems not quite to belong in the world of brass bands, and especially brass band contesting.

Brought into brass band conducting through a fairly oblique early career with the BTM band of South Wales, Gourlay has carved himself (a horrible word to describe this most elegant of conductors) a place as one of the leading musical directors in the banding world at Williams Faireys. He won’t be with them this year, but someone will surely sign him up to spearhead an assault on Jazz – especially as he’s the one conductor of our bunch to have actually won on the piece. He has won the Open and the Masters more than once but has yet you feel, really to fulfil both his and his bands potential, yet somehow you feel the business of winning prizes at contests is secondary to the business of him being able to create fine musical performances. This is why people think of him in a different way to other conductors in that he doesn’t seem to have that instinct for winning at all costs – he’s almost Corinthian in his approach.

Unlike David King and Nicholas Childs he is still a working musician and unlike them has made a notable reputation as clever and thoughtful arranger of music for bands. This approach means that his mind is not just geared to the somewhat insular world of contesting and means that he brings to his interpretations, even on a contest stage, an almost orchestral reading of a score. This is why he possibly doesn’t win so many contests as the other two as he doesn’t sacrifice the musical content for an extra point or two from the adjudicators and why other conductors rate him as possibly their own personal favourite. His style (the use of a pencil instead of a baton) and his musicality mean he is a conductor apart. Catch him if you can.

Alan Withington:
Never has a man had to work so hard to gain his reward as Alan Withington. The past three years in particular have been (excuse the pun) a real “purple patch” for his band, Brighouse and Rastrick, but people forget that Withington is no “Johnny come lately”.

For the years prior to him guiding Brighouse to their first National title, Alan Withington had the task of pulling the band up off it’s backside from a position so far behind their arch rivals Black Dyke that it was seen as an almost impossible task. As Dyke wallowed in the glory of National, European and Open wins by the plenty, the boys (and they have always been boys) from “Briggus” found themselves languishing in 20th place at the Open and not qualifying for the Nationals. He decided something had to be done and he did it.

His own work ethic started to pay off with a younger band of committed players and within two years he had two Nationals, a European and Masters title to his and their name. Not since the early 80’s were Brighouse the band to beat and today they remain a most potent force in contests. The Open has eluded him however, perhaps due to the fact that Brighouse are one of the loudest bands in the country and tend to go “all out” in effort and dynamic to win. The Open in an acoustic a million miles from the Albert Hall has therefore been less forgiving, but Withington is a clever conductor who learns his lessons well. Like David King he is one title short of the “Grand Slam” and so he will certainly be trying harder than most to secure his destiny.

Howard Snell:
Strange thing to say really, but when it comes to winning the title as “Unluckiest Conductor”, Howard Snell should win it by a mile. Strange, because knowing his luck at brass band contests, even he could lose out at the last moment to somebody no-one as ever heard of before.

A record of three European wins, four Masters wins and a National title would be something most men would be happy to retire with, but Snell should have (and that’s not just my opinion) won so many more. Three second places in four years at the Nationals, every place in the frame except first at the Open in the years 1984 to 1994 and missing out at the European by a point in 2000, would be enough for any sane man to give up and retire to his farm, but Snell remains a man apart. No other conductor in our list has produced so much new and arranged music for bands, revolutionised the “entertainment contest” or given so many memorable performances with so little in return, yet still comes back for more.

He is a consummate director of bands on stage, with him giving this year an absolute master class in conducting technique and musicianship at the Europeans. King and Childs choose Wilby’s Dove to showcase their talents, but both were blown away by Snell and his interptretation of Bourgeois’ “Concerto Grosso”. He was spellbinding and brought an amazing performance from his band. Luck of course meant that he had to be content with yet another second prize, but the audience knew who was the best conductor by a mile on the day. Perhaps he’ll conduct badly one day and his band split a thousand notes but still win the Open – whatever- no one would complain. Howard Snell deserves it.

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