4BR Interview - Robert Redhead

1-Mar-2007

4BR's Chris Thomas interviews the composer of the Championship Section test piece Isaiah 40.


RedheadAs bands prepare for battle in the forthcoming round of area qualifying contests, we welcome back Robert Redhead's Isaiah 40 eleven years after CWS Glasgow and Howard Snell secured victory with their performance of the work at the Royal Albert Hall.

4BR's Chris Thomas caught up with Robert Redhead at his home in Canada ahead of his forthcoming trip to Yorkshire.

Chris Thomas: Isaiah 40 was borne out of a joint international commission involving band organisations in Britain, Switzerland, Holland and Norway. Could you tell us something of the circumstances surrounding the commission?

Robert Redhead: I was guest conductor for the A-Band of the National Youth Brass Band of Switzerland in 1995 and during the week the President, Markus Bach, asked me to consider writing the test piece. Up to that time the Salvation Army had not allowed active officers to write for non-Salvation Army groups. Their agreement for me to follow through with the commission became a landmark decision, which greatly assisted the wider dissemination of SA music creating a much closer relationship between SA and non-SA brass bands.
 
Chris Thomas: Knowing that the work was to be performed in the contest arena did you set out with any particular agenda in respect of the required technical or musical demands to be placed on the competing bands and players?

Robert Redhead: The challenge for a composer in writing a test piece is that it should principally be good music and secondly a genuine challenge for the conductor and each player. Thus I started with the concept and scope for the piece but then in scoring tried to adequately challenge the players. Because of my SA experience where the music, although often quite difficult, principally has a functional focus within the SA as a church, I was concerned that the finished article might not be difficult enough. Thus I was somewhat relieved by receiving comments received during rehearsals and after the contest, that many players and conductors felt it was a good challenge in rehearsal and kept the interest and momentum going right up to the contest.

Chris Thomas: What are your memories of the National Championship Finals at the Royal Albert Hall when the work was premiered in 1996?

Robert Redhead: Although I am not sure that Dr. David King would agree, from a composer's point of view it was marvellous that his band was drawn number one. The performance was very good and established the piece in the minds of the audience, including myself who was also hearing it for the very first time. Although as a composer one ‘hears' the music in one's mind, the life, energy and breadth of sound produced in performance always takes one by surprise. I found it a very rewarding experience and felt that CWS deserved to win. The ‘added' quality brought to their performance of the two major solos by Roger Webster and Stephen Mead created a great finish to the day.

Chris Thomas: Did you find yourself searching for a subject for the work for a lengthy period of time prior to commencing composition?

Robert Redhead: No, but I took quite a time thinking about the concepts and how to express them before commencing writing.

Chris Thomas:What in particular drew you to the passages from the Book of Isaiah that preface your score?

Robert Redhead: First of all I spent time in prayer about where I feel the Spirit of God would lead me in my composition. I have always appreciated the 40th chapter of Isaiah and in this case felt drawn to it. As I studied the concepts I realised the chapter's relevance to our age. It has been said in these days that the ‘only constant is change'. These verses reveal the reality of this fact but within the truth of the constancy of God. Thus I decided to base the music on this chapter.
 
Chris Thomas:Given that the work follows in a great tradition of tone poems for brass band, how closely linked in your own mind are the work's various musical themes and mottos to the specific elements of the biblical passages quoted at the head of the score?

Robert Redhead: Very closely. Most of my major works are in this style. Again, this is part of my SA church music background. The music is always meant to have a message!

Chris Thomas:Did you find that the passages from Isaiah also dictated the overall structure of the work?

Robert Redhead: Yes, after I had chosen which passages within the chapter to use. This process took some time, for inevitably I was simultaneously thinking of musical forms and shapes as I studied the various concepts which are developed in the chapter. I don't think a composer would isolate these two elements in the process.

Chris Thomas: Do you feel that the years you spent as a tuba player in Salvation Army brass bands have shaped or coloured the way you write for bands?

Robert Redhead: Only in the sense that I suppose I appreciate the necessity of facilitating the potential of the full tonal colour the tuba section can bring to the totality of the tone of the brass ensemble.

Chris Thomas: Is the spirit of affirmation felt at the close of the piece a reflection of your own essentially optimistic view of life?

Robert Redhead: Yes. I believe God is God and that he is a totally loving God. Thus although earthly life, full of good and bad, ups and downs, health and sickness, might challenge the premise that God is love, my own experience of his presence is that it is exactly in the very centre of that vicissitude that he becomes so real to me. So I have an optimistic view of life because I have hope in God.

Chris Thomas: Your forthcoming visit to the UK will take you to what for many is still the finest and most hard fought of the area contests in Yorkshire. Have you experienced the battle of the Yorkshire bands previously?

Robert Redhead: No, I have never been to any Regional Contest. That's why I am so pleased I am going to Yorkshire, the very heart of real contesting.

Chris Thomas: From the composer's point of view, what will you be listening for from the performances at the Yorkshire Area Championship?

Robert Redhead: That the performances express artistry, meaning and a sense of the unity of the piece, evoking an emotional response in the listeners. The wonderful thing about the quality that I am sure I will hear at this particular venue is that there will be many performances which will bring me much satisfaction.

Chris Thomas: Given that over ten years have passed since you wrote Isaiah 40 would you relish the opportunity of writing a major contest test piece once again?

Robert Redhead: Good question! If I were to be asked I don't think I would say no. But on the other hand my focus in these days as a Salvation Army officer, along with my wife, is helping the Salvation Army around the world re-vitalise its worship in its many varied expressions in the 115 countries in which it serves. Thus, although I love creating music, I am very fulfilled in the ministry we are doing.

Chris Thomas: Thank you for talking to us and please accept our best wishes for your stay in the UK.   

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