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Catalyst: National Youth Orchestra & National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain

Gavin Higgins' music rooted deep into the musical earth feeds the blossoming talents of the UKs leading brass and orchestral ensembles.

Conductors: Tess Jackson, Jessica Cottis
Royal Festival Hall
London
Sunday 14th April

Gavin Higgins’ music is rooted in the communal earth beneath our feet. It speaks of time and place, its beguiling mystery and historical exploitation.

From his early ’Forest Symphony’  (2009) drawing on the ancient landscape of the Forest of Dean, to his ‘Horn Concerto’  (2024) inspired by the elemental beauty that springs from its dark, fertile soil, it feeds the nutrients of his engrossing sound world. 

Deeper still are the stanchions driven into mythical underworld found in his acclaimed opera ‘The Monstrous Child’  (2019) as well as the political underbelly to ‘Dark Arteries’ (2015), his ballet (with brass band score) inspired by the 1984 Miners’ Strike.   

Embedded

The connection is embedded into the heart of his immense ‘Concerto for Brass Band and Orchestra’  – premiered at the 2022 Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, and performed here, just a couple of subterranean tube station stop offs at the Southbank by the NYO and NYBBGB under the impressive Tess Jackson. 

Higgins places the band in the centre of it all (literally surrounded by the orchestra) – a focus of emerging textures and dissolving melodic lines to open, followed by the brittle mechanics of industry and danger in the mole-dark seams of coal.

An emotive ‘love letter’ to the brass band movement, it is written in two distinct parts: The first of topography (‘Island’), geology (‘Coal’) and ideology (‘Class’); the second of celebration (‘Sentimental Music’) and pride (‘Contest Music’).   

Higgins places the band in the centre of it all (literally surrounded by the orchestra) – a focus of emerging textures and dissolving melodic lines to open, followed by the brittle mechanics of industry and danger in the mole-dark seams of coal.

Expressive heart

Tensions of a questioning kind follow, before we find the expressive heart of the work – and a densely sublime feel of lost nostalgia. It lingers like a haze before the virtuosic, dazzling finale of competitive urgency.   

24-year-old Tess Jackson drew an immensely mature response from her players (the main soloists of the NYBBGB in particular) – tautly balancing the subsidiary role of the orchestra in response to the core of bubbling metallic expression sat around her.

24-year-old Tess Jackson drew an immensely mature response from her players (the main soloists of the NYBBGB in particular) – tautly balancing the subsidiary role of the orchestra in response to the core of bubbling metallic expression sat around her.  It was a triumph of collaborative ambition and artistry.

Brilliant prelude

The second half also opened with work in brass, with a short 'Fanfare'  from Dani Howard, (rescored from a university graduation fanfare written about a decade before) to include full brass from both ensembles. 

It was a brilliant prelude to another epically proportioned work in Prokofiev’s ‘Symphony No. 5’  – burnished with ten horns, nine trumpets, three tubas and army of woodwind. 

Huge sounds, textures and colourings were drawn with powerful purpose – in turn beautiful and angry, glossy and pastel, brazen and sumptuous. 

Jessica Cottis never slackened her control of the most intimate of detail – the musical canvas packed with pointillism detail and broad-brush majesty.

Iwan Fox 

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Howard J Evans

MA (Dist), Mus.B (hons), ARCM (hons), LRAM, LTCL, PGCE
Conductor, composer, arranger, tutor and pianist


               

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