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Concert Review

Eikanger Bjorsvik Mussiklag
Conductor: Howard Snell
Wednesday 16th January 2002
Logen Hall, Bergen. Norway.


The brass band world owes a great debt to Wilfred Heaton. His music - for too long almost criminally overlooked and ignored remains a musical monument to one of the greatest talents brass bands have ever come in contact with.


On the 16th of January, Howard Snell and the Eikanger Bjorsvik Mussiklag band gave their annual concert that was primarily a homage to the man and his music and as such deserves the accolades that has been heaped upon both the performance of the band, the musical interpretation and direction from Howard Snell and most importantly, the music itself.

4BR spoke to Howard Snell on his return to his home and he told us that the concert was very much a dedication to the life and work of Wilfred Heaton, man who he feels has been one of the most important and original composers for brass in the post war period.

Howard Snell directed us to speak to Brian Stobart, the son in law of the composer who had with others set up the Wilfred Heaton Trust - the objectives of which are to help promote the understanding and performance of Heaton's work and to encourage educationalists to use the works themselves as teaching tools to help students understand and develop their compositional skills.

The Trust, which will soon have details of the complete catalogue of Heaton's works, not only for brass but also choral and orchestral ensembles on a dedicated website www.thewilfredheatontrust.co.uk has high value aims and objectives and it is hoped will become an invaluable research tool for academics and students alike.

Brian was delighted with the concert and the way in which Howard Snell has championed Wilfred Heaton's music for close on 30 years, from the time Contest Music was rejected as the set test for the 1973 National Finals up until the time of the composer's death. He informed 4BR that Howard had premiered both Contest Music and Partita with Desford Colliery Band at a time when his work was deemed unfashionable and that the success and acceptance of Heaton's music today is a testament to Howard Snell's determination to see Heaton's work given deserved award.

Eikanger Bjorsvik must also be congratulated too he said for the way in which they have continually championed his work and for giving premiers of his most substantive works at such a high profile concert. The performance of "Variations" - Heaton's personal valedictory musical statement was according him "quite exceptional and moving".

Paul Hindemarsh, the BBC Radio 3 producer was instrumental in organising the concert and for producing in brass band form one of the works premiered. We are thankful to him for allowing us to print his personal review of the concert.

Wilfred Heaton's Contest Music is regarded a masterpiece of brass band writing. However, it was not his only one. In the 1980's, after the eventual success of that work at the Royal Albert Hall, other works emerged from the composer's "forgotten corner" thanks largely to the encouragement of Howard Snell. There was the Partita (composed originally in 1947), the Sinfonia Concertante for cornet and band and a Trombone Concerto. For the last decade of his life Heaton worked fitfully on a fifth major work for brass - the Variations, but it was left unfinished when Heaton died in May 2000.

Over the past year Howard Snell, to whom Variations is rightfully dedicated "with gratitude and admiration", has realised the composer's sketches into fully scored form. The world premiere was the highlight of an evening featuring the music of Heaton and Eric Ball, which took place on 16th January in Norway. A capacity audience was present in Bergen's historic Logen Hall, to witness no fewer than three Heaton world premieres and two Norwegian firsts, performed by Eikanger-Bjorsvik Musikklag and their guest conductor Howard Snell - all in their own ways, musical treasures which Wilfred Heaton chose not to publish. All these "discoveries" are now part of the Wilfred Heaton Edition, published by Kirklees Music, in association with the Wilfred Heaton Trust.

The witty march Le Tricot Rouge provided an engaging opening to the programme. Heaton was never one to waste a good idea and in the late 1980's, he sketched out for brass band a Little Suite he'd composed in 1955 for recorder and piano. I dusted down the complete sketch of these five little cameos last year and made a full score, following the composer's instructions where they were written down. The result is his Five Little Pieces - rather more austere in style than Contest Music or Partita, but no less characteristic in style. It is Heaton's most concise and economical score. Eikanger and Howard Snell brought the work to life with exemplary authenticity.

Two other Heaton discoveries were featured later in the concert: his jokey The Golden Pen and his touching little set of Variations on the children's hymn by Sir John Stainer, In Memoriam. Heaton's title is The Children's Friend and although slight in content, it exhibits all the Heaton musical characteristics. It's probably over fifty years old, but the composer prepared this version from memory shortly before he died, the original score having been mislaid many decades earlier.

The world premiere of Variations was, in my view, a landmark event in the history of brass band music. The work lasts half an hour and reveals that Heaton had lost nothing of his creative imagination despite writing so little in his later life. From the remarks that Heaton penned in the margins of the sketches, it is clear that Variations is perhaps his most personal musical statement. One might almost call it his musical autobiography, because it seems to recall images and experiences from his long and at times uneasy musical career. Some of it is deeply serious.

The theme is a long, poignant tune, full of nostalgia. It becomes a musical quarry for the material of the twelve variations. The opening five take the listener on an epic emotional journey, which was wonderfully captured by both conductor and band. Variations 6,7 and 8 are called popular songs. They are Heaton at his most ironic and include a musical joke at the expense of all those "speed merchants" at band contests, who just want to play fast and loud , whilst leaving their musical brains in the band room. The last four variations return to the serious musical argument, although there is a greater air of mystery and tragedy about variations 9 to 11. The latter is a most eloquent Threnody in memory of his grand-daughter Charlotte, the daughter of Brian Stobart, who came with me to Bergen to represent the Heaton family at this wonderful event.

The music of Eric Ball - The Kingdom Triumphant and Resurgam , both idiomatically performed - provided the perfect counterpoint to the Heaton premiere. Here were two Christian composers of widely differing musical styles, but who came from a similar background and whose lives were dominated by the quest for spiritual enlightenment and experience.

Eikanger-Bjorsvik Musikklag are to be congratulated for the enterprise they showed in promoting this memorable concert and performing it so well. This was an evening that will live in the memory for a long time.

P.H.



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