2008 RNCM Festival of Brass: - Festival Preview


Chris Thomas looks forward to the treats in store at the RNCM this weekend - which all starts tonight with Black Dyke.

RNCMSince its studio based inception in 1991 as the BBC Festival of Brass, the RNCM Festival of Brass has both carved and retained a unique and vital place for itself in the brass band calendar. 

Yet it could all have so easily come off the rails in those early years. Four years in many of us will remember the BBC’s decision to ditch the event, in doing so virtually abandoning its last commitment to brass bands on Radio Three and leaving the then producer of the radio programme Paul Hindmarsh battling against the odds to find a way of continuing the event. 

What is perhaps least acknowledged about the Festival these days is that it was Edward Gregson, in his capacity as the Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music, that proved the financial saviour of the event, taking it on as a public festival under the banner of the RNCM and the continued inspired artistic guidance and programming skills of Paul Hindmarsh. 

And the rest as we say….is history.


With the vision of Paul Hindmarsh and the administrative skills of Philip Biggs, the Festival has developed into a weekend long brass extravaganza, featuring the very best in brass music and attracting visitors from all over the world. 

These days it’s not just the finest brass bands we get to hear. Workshops and Masterclasses by the best in the business as well as the stars of the future in the form of RNCM students ensure that there is hardly a minute without music throughout the entire weekend, whilst new music is given a chance to shine with the annual generous sprinkling of first performances throughout the various programmes.

Paul Hindmarsh’s ingenious ability to create cohesive and multi layered themes running side by side through his programming is again on display at this year’s Festival. 

Vaughan WiliamsAnniversaries

As we enter the fiftieth anniversary year of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, “RVW” and his friends are generously represented, with Vaughan Williams himself heard through his two original major works for band and several new arrangements including the suite from his film score for “The 49th Parallel”. 

The 50th and 80th birthdays of Peter Graham and Thea Musgrave respectively are celebrated whilst a mini retrospective of Philip Sparke’s music sits alongside significant contributions from George Lloyd and Edward Gregson, the latter in his final year as RNCM Principal. 

Let’s hope his newfound retirement might give him the time to turn to the brass band as a source of inspiration once again!

Solo accent

The solo accent this year focuses on the lower end of the band, with Katrina Marzella, Joe Cooke, David Thornton, Leslie Neish and Mark Frost taking centre stage whilst Stephen Mead and James Gourlay both lead individual Masterclasses. 

And of course let’s not forget the aforementioned first performances, over a dozen in total, being liberally spread throughout the various concerts and side events.

Here then are some of the highlights we can look forward to over the course of the weekend. 

GourlayWorkshops, Masterclasses and the Stars of Tomorrow

Events in the Lord Rhodes room will get off to a bright start at 10.00 am on Saturday morning with a Besson sponsored workshop by James Gourlay in which he will showcase some recent music for the tuba. 

James Gourlay has been instrumental in the commissioning of a good deal of new music for his instrument so there is bound to be plenty to interest.

Following on from James Gourlay the RNCM Brass Band under Nicholas Childs and Chris Houlding, along with an Inter-Collegiate Ensemble directed by John Miller will take to the stage with David Thornton as the soloist in Peter Meechan’s Requiem Paraphrases. 

Malcolm Arnold’s 'Little Suite No. 1' and an 80th birthday tribute to Thea Musgrave in the shape of her rarely heard Variations will be heard in the first half although chief interest is likely to rest on the premiere of Spooks, “An Outrage for Bass Trombone and Brass Ensemble” by Elgar Howarth. With Mark Frost as the “outrageous” soloist there is sure to be plenty of entertainment value as well.

Chris Houlding takes the baton for the second half of the concert with 'A Forest Symphony' by Gavin Higgins and Sparke’s 'Tallis Variations' providing the principal interest, following which the Junior RNCM students get their chance to shine in the Studio Theatre. 

Back in the Lord Rhodes Room and a mammoth five hour session will see a number of Brass Quintets locking horns in competition on Paul Patterson’s 'Mean Time' (remember his 'Cataclysm' and 'Chromascope'?).

FarrFringe events

Finally for the “fringe” events on Saturday Paul Hindmarsh and Ray Farr will chair and open discussion on Vaughan Williams and his composing friends in the Lecture Theatre at 6.30pm.

Sunday morning will see Steven Mead conduct a euphonium Masterclass with the spotlight switching at 2.00 to a showcase by the 2007 British Open Quartet Champions, the Scherzo Brass Quartet. 

Rounding off events prior to the final evening concert Philip Sparke, a man whose views are never less than interesting, will take audience questions in the Lecture Theatre.

The Bands and the Music

This year’s band events in the Haden Freeman Concert Hall are framed in some style, with Black Dyke opening proceedings on Friday evening and Grimethorpe bringing matters to a close on Sunday. 

Black DykeBlack Dyke

Chief interest in Black Dyke’s programme will partly revolve around Edward Gregson as he conducts the band in his 'Prelude for an Occasion' and an intriguing, newly revised and extended version of his 'Variations on Laudate Dominum'. 

Brett Baker will be the soloist in the first performance of 'Knightmare' by Derek Bourgeois with Joe Cooke taking the solo role in a new arrangement by Philip Littlemore of the sparkling Vaughan Williams 'Tuba Concerto'. 

With 'Diversions on a Bass Theme', 'Variations on an Enigma' and a birthday celebration of Peter Graham’s 'Montage' thrown in for good measure, it’s an energy sapping programme that is likely to be right up Dyke’s street.


Returning to the Haden Freeman Concert Hall on the Saturday afternoon, it will be the reigning British Open Champions Cory and Robert Childs that take to the stage with a fascinating first outing for Luc Vertommen’s new arrangement of George Lloyd’s Symphony No. 10 “November Journeys”. 

Originally written for the brass section of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, the work charts visits made by Lloyd and his wife to several English Cathedrals and the major impression they left on the composer. 

Another first performance sees Gareth Wood’s 'Actaeon' come to life, a gruesome tale rooted in Greek Mythology. 

David Childs’ enforced withdrawal due to a recent operation has given RNCM student Oliver Browne an exciting opportunity to perform Edward Gregson’s popular 'Tuba Concerto' with Cory rounding off their programme in rousing and somewhat appropriate style in Philip Sparke’s 'Year of the Dragon'.  

BrighouseBrighouse & Rastrick

Last year’s Festival was the first major outing for Brighouse and Rastrick following the appointment of Alan Morrison as Musical Director. 

With the band now very much settled under the cornet maestro’s baton Saturday evening will see them taking on another demanding programme, commencing with John Ireland’s effervescent 'Comedy Overture'

The first performance of Bruce Fraser’s 'Tuba Concerto' sees a man the band know well in James Gourlay join them, whilst Peter Meechan’s 'Macbeth', fresh from its successful use as the test piece for the Scottish Open and Philip Sparke’s 'Harmony Music' all add to the spice. 

The centrepiece in many ways though will be an all too rare chance to hear Vaughan Williams’ masterly 'Variations', a work that is perhaps unjustly neglected in comparison to Holst’s 'A Moorside Suite' or Ireland’s 'Downland Suite' but which occupies a crucial place in the brass band repertoire.


On Sunday morning Leyland’s programme will again exploit several of the underlying themes of this year’s Festival in the shape of Gary Westwood’s arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ much loved 'Overture to The Wasps' and Philip Sparke’s 'Mountain Song'. 

Katrina Marzella will provide the solo contribution in David Gillingham’s 'Vintage' and particularly intriguing for anyone who heard Brass Band Oberösterreich at last year’s European Championships, Leyland take on Hermann Pallhuber’s Mahler inspired 'Titan’s Progress', a truly fascinating prospect. 

Further interest is provided by Kenneth Hesketh’s 'Infernal Ride', Hesketh currently being engaged as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Orchestra’s “composer in the house” and the first performance of the complete version of Simon Dobson’s 'The Drop', again heard in Birmingham as the European “B” section test piece. 

FodensFodens Richardson

Garry Cutt and Bramwell Tovey will share the baton with Foden’s Richardson on Sunday afternoon as Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries again figure in VW’s own music from 'The 49th Parallel', a mouth watering prospect for anyone who knows the original orchestral version. 

Cyril Jenkins’ 'Life Divine' and Holst’s 'A Moorside Suite' compliment the VW, the latter bringing the concert to a conclusion in wonderful style. 

Along the way we are treated to a new 'Tuba Concerto' by Andy Scott, safely entrusted to Leslie Neish, Sparke’s lively 'Jubilee Overture' and the exciting prospect of 'Masters of Space and Time' by that master of the film score Bruce Broughton, bringing a touch of Hollywood to Manchester.


It’s left then to National Champions Grimethorpe to close the Festival in style on Sunday evening with the rousing Vaughan Williams overture 'Henry V', launching proceedings, a piece that gathered dust for many years until it was thankfully rediscovered. 

Another rarely heard work will close the first half in Herbert Howells’ 'Three Figures', a piece that all too often falls undeservedly into the shadow of 'Pageantry'. In between, Steven Mead is sure to revel in Vladimir Cosma’s 'Euphonium Concerto', another work that will plenty of curiosity value. 

The second half will see the first performance of Gary Peterson’s 'Vocalise, Fanfare and Rondo', a fitting tribute to the late Bengt Ekland in Frode Ryland’s simply entitled 'Song' and a wholly fitting finale in Philip Sparke’s 'Music for Battle Creek',  which is sure to bring events to a blazing close.

Minor miracle

The fact that Paul Hindmarsh has once again come up with a musical mix of such breadth and diversity is a minor miracle. 

In his thirteenth year of artistic direction it would appear at first glance that he has masterminded a festival with the potential to intrigue, delight and stimulate as much as ever. Equally important though is his influence in engaging the support of the BBC in continuing to broadcast highlights of the Festival on Radio Three. 

The 2007 Proms Brass Day was a huge step forward in what we would hope to be the BBC’s renewed commitment to the brass band movement, yet the fact remains that we would be considerably the poorer were it not for the crucial link with the outside musical world that the Festival of Brass provides. As such it warrants nothing less than our total support and commitment.  

Christopher Thomas 


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