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All England Masters 2002:

A great Gray day in Cambridge
4BR talk to Russell Gray - a man with a 100% record!

When a band has the difficult task of finding a Musical Director it sometimes becomes a game of hit and hope. You may know the name of the person you want, you may even know that the person is the best conductor in the whole damn world – but its no guarantee that they will do anything of any note when they come to wag the stick with you.

Fodens were in the position of having to find a new MD at the end of 2001 and even though there were many names mentioned (and some with impeccable pedigrees), they finally plumbed for the choice of a former Principal Cornet, gifted soloist and up and coming conductor, Russell Gray, who was currently earning many admirers for his work with the Ransome Band in the Midlands. It would be fair to say there were a few raised eyebrows when he got the job, but following two contests and two mighty impressive victories against high-class fields, there is little doubt that the band made a pretty inspired choice.

We caught up with the winning conductor of the new All England Masters Champions and he was of course delighted with a second successive win with his new band, and in becoming only the sixth conductor to taste victory at Cambridge. In addition, he became only the second man to direct Fodens to victory here as well. As the only other man was Howard Snell, it becomes a mighty impressive achievement.

We asked the easy question first and wanted to know how it felt. “Delighted of course – what can I say…. Fodens are a superb band with a very strong sense of identity and pride in what they do. Since I came to the band they have worked their socks off and so much of the credit for this victory must go to them as players – the commitment they show is at times frightening.”

We asked how he approached the contest and how he managed to generate a performance of such quality from a piece that was not perhaps the hardest test piece ever. “I think the test piece, “Atlantic” was a true test of all the bands, even though technically it was well within all their grasps. I just felt I had to bring to it what I felt in my heart and if that meant taking a few brave decisions here and there so be it. Contesting is more a sport than anything else and sometimes you have to be prepared to take risks if you are genuinely seeking victory.”

One of those “risks” was surely the decision to play the bass end entries at the beginning with “amended” straight fibre mutes. Additional felt was placed as a skirt around the mute so that it deadened the sound yet allowed the instrument to speak clearly. Given that there were a number of entries in the lower end that demanded that clarity it was a very intuitive musical approach.

“I don’t believe it was a risk as such – more a calculated musical decision and something that I felt was the right thing to do. I didn’t move away far from the intentions of the score, but I wanted a more acoustic sound at the beginning.”

Russell also explained that he wanted to find the shape of the music – especially in the phrasing in the second movement and that approach was noted by the three judges. “I felt the solo lines needed space and time to show the musical shape that was there. I’m very lucky the players are so good that they can out my ideas into practice quickly. I thought Helen Fox in particular was outstanding, but all of the solo lines played the music just how I wanted them to so and they were so well backed up by the entire ensemble.”

The decision to go to Fodens has been fully justified then and Russell Gray says that he has no regrets about the hard decision to leave Ransome. “When you are asked to conduct one of the very best bands in the world, you don’t turn down the chance and I feel the move has been so beneficial to me as a conductor.”

The immediate future will see Russell take an ever more active part in the development of Fodens, with a new CD in the pipeline as well as preparation for the concerts at both the British Open and National Finals. “Bram Tovey will of course be taking the band to both the Open and Nationals – a decision I am totally happy with and it will give me the opportunity to work with one of the conductors I most admire. The next few months are going to be very busy, but with the confidence of the band on a new high, I’m sure we can put in the hard work to mount a strong challenge for these two contests as well.”

Finally he just explained that he was totally exhausted and that the phone hadn’t stopped ringing since Sunday night. “I feel totally whacked out and the phone has been red hot with congratulations for just about everyone – never mind though – I could well get used to it.”

Well done to the band and well done to Russell Gray – Fodens have a new and impressive Musical Director – and a 100% winning one as well.

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