Creative conduct in Leeuwarden - Allan Withington's Conductors Summer School

24-Sep-2009

John Ward recently enjoyed a fine time at Allan Withington's innovative Conductors Summer School.


Summer School
Full to the brim: Delegates enjoy the music making in Leeuwarden

Ask most people in banding about Allan Withington and, almost certainly, they will point to his achievements as a contesting conductor.

Impressive

His record is impressive, having rejuvenating Brighouse & Rastrick in the mid 1990’s with Regional Championship titles, a National Championship double, three ‘Masters’ wins and a ‘European’.

Further to this, he picked up two further National doubles with Fairey and Grimethorpe Colliery. He is the current professional conductor of Stavanger Band and is due to take Grimethorpe at the forthcoming British Open Championship.

However, there is much more to the man behind the exciting and meticulous contest performances we so often hear.

For over 20 years, he has been a member of the formidable trumpet section of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and has produced over 35 themed concerts with the same orchestra, aimed at attracting new audiences and generating an appreciation of classical music.

Creative spark

He has brought this same creative spark to banding with The Story of Maria von Trapp performed by Grimethorpe at The Sage, Gateshead, and Bridgewater Hall in Manchester earlier this year, and those present at the Brass in Concert Championship last year will remember the innovative programming and presentation of Stavanger under his direction.

A number of months ago, it was announced that the first Allan Withington Conducting School would take place in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, in Summer 2009, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend the School and find out just what the week was all about.

Summer sunshine

On Sunday 28 June, 17 students from eight different countries arrived amid beautiful summer sunshine. Leeuwarden is approximately 90 minutes north of Amsterdam, and is the home of Soli Brass, one of the leading bands in Holland.

The band was to be an integral part of the week, by providing the course with a quintet, a ten-piece ensemble and, towards the end of the course, the full band. Upon meeting at the Soli Brass rehearsal room, delegates were given a warm welcome, which was a mark of the band’s friendliness and hospitality throughout. 

School
Talking things through: Allan Withington leads the discussions

Conducting technique

On the first morning, the delegates had their first opportunity to hear from Allan Withington himself in a session on basic conducting technique, which set a basis for work throughout the week. There followed the first workshop session with a quintet from Soli Brass.

The chosen repertoire for this group was Victor Ewald’s Symphony for Brass and Andre Previn’s Four Outings for Brass. The light, breezy nature of the Previn work could not hide the challenging changes of metre, while the Ewald quintet posed questions of the how each conductor might cope with five beats in a bar and still keep a sense of flow.

From this early stage, it was clear that there was a diverse range of abilities and experience within the group. The delegates included conductors of UK Championship Section bands, a newly appointed Salvation Army bandmaster, youth band conductor, students of conducting from various conservatoires and Lower Section band musical directors.

Careful observation

Through careful observation and considered responses, Allan Withington was able to find a way of improving the technique of every conductor, revealing the potential that existed within them to develop during the week. 

Prior to the course, it was made clear in press releases and information to the students, that the course was not just about conducting technique, but there would be a strong creative element too.

Those who saw Stavanger’s performance in Gateshead last November, or who have listened to the band’s latest CD release, Jubilani, will be acutely aware that Allan Withington is not afraid to experiment with new ideas. He said: “In my time of producing concerts with the Bergen Philharmonic, we have produced well over 30 projects, some very successful, some less so.

However, each one has been a worthwhile experience and had something from which we could learn. There is no problem in conventional programming and repertoire - there is still, very much, a place for that - but why not think ‘outside the box’?”

Ready, Steady...

The School was to give two concerts at the end of the week, the second half of each would involve a creative programming concept, entitled Ready, Steady, Create, that the students would devise themselves and would work on with the band throughout course.

To help them, there were around 20 or so scores, provided by the School’s sponsor, Gobelin Music, and the delegates had full use of the band.
Extra help and guidance came from Robin Dewhurst, Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Salford. He was a special guest on the course, having worked with Allan Withington last year on programming concepts for Stavanger Band.

Many of the arrangements on the Jubilani CD were written by Dr. Dewhurst, and many will remember works from his pen being recorded by the YBS Band under David King some years ago.

School
Creative thinking: Allan and Robin use the latest innovations 

Creative thinking

His lecture on the Tuesday morning was fascinating and involved an academic look into creative thinking, and some impromptu examples of his extraordinary talents as a pianist, to help demonstrate the process of composing music for film and TV. Robin was always on hand during the week and provided invaluable advice and expertise throughout.

The output of Rob Goorhuis was also a point for discussion during the week. He is a busy freelance composer in Holland, involved in writing music for wind and ‘fanfare’ bands, and, on occasions, the brass band.

Illuminating

He visited Leeuwarden during the course and gave an illuminating talk about his compositional method. He made it very clear that, when writing music for contests, his prime consideration is always ‘music first’, and that he cared little for the ‘circus acts’ and trickery that some modern test-pieces employ.

Three conductors were chosen by Allan Withington to work with Soli Brass on Goorhuis’s extended work, A Tribute to Henk Badings, someone whom the composer described as ‘one of the greatest 20th-century Dutch composers’.

The students’ encounter with the composer of the music proved an inspiration, as they worked through the various complicated layers and lines contained within this fascinating work.

In full flow

Wednesday saw the course in full flow. By this point, all the conductors had worked with the quintet and ten-piece group from Soli Brass and the creative programming concept was taking shape.

Philip Wilby’s Masquerade is a modern take on Verdi’s opera Falstaff and Shakespeare’s character, Sir John Falstaff, was something of a ‘ladies’ man’, and got into hot water because of it!

The students decided that excerpts from the Wilby work would be used to start and end the second half of each concert, and they would use the Falstaff story, fusing it with the concept of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and introducing characters from history who were in the grip of personal vices, telling their stories in the hope of showing Falstaff the error of his ways.

School
The end result: Great playing for the enjoyment of listeners

Seamless

The presentation would be seamless, with a narrator linking the various pieces of music, which portrayed various rogues, including Henry VIII, James Bond and Silvio Berlusconi! There was a surprise event in the shape of a lunchtime concert arrange by two students, who were asked to utilise the quintet and 10-piece groups.

They would also be asked to coordinate the involvement of the other students for the practical elements of stage preparation as well as the promotion and marketing of the event among the population of Leeuwarden.

Soli Brass is, without question, a very young band and is patiently working towards the goal of being the very best band in the Netherlands. Full rehearsals took place on the Wednesday and Thursday evenings (three hours each) followed by a four-hour dress rehearsal on the Friday, plus two concerts the same evening!

Stamina

The band required stamina and flexibility to deal with a schedule involving lengthy playing sessions with 17 different conductors, as well as demanding, quick fire ‘rounds’ on Masquerade with Allan Withington. Soli Brass emerged with a huge amount of credit, supporting the conductors impeccably throughout, and this was personified by its long-serving principal cornet, Johan Breetveld, who was involved in all the playing groups during the week.

Extraordinary

His playing maintained an extraordinary level of consistency on this course, and, in a few weeks time, he will swap chairs with Soli’s young soprano cornet, Saleem Khan, bringing down the curtain on his period as principal cornet of the band.

Saleem Khan is former principal cornet of the European Youth Brass Band and a formidable talent: Johan Breetveld’s continued involvement with the band will surely help this fine young player to develop.

Mention too, must go to Anja Abma, a cornetist with Soli, who was the administrator for the week, who worked tirelessly to ensure the smooth running of all proceedings.

The week drew to a close with the above-mentioned concerts taking place in the centre of Leeuwarden.

Paid dividends

The publicity in the early part of the week had paid dividends, and sizeable audiences enjoyed both concerts (especially in the evening outdoor concert) and all the elements of the week came together in impressive fashion. 

Summing up the course, Matthew Pollard, one of the UK students, commented: “The week has been amazing; rarely have I experienced such a positive and productive atmosphere.

Personal improvement

Since my return, I have conducted a concert and two rehearsals with my band, and I can honestly say that my conducting has improved dramatically - even my musicians have noticed!” 

Joely Eijssen, one of the handful of students from Holland, also commented, “It was great to work on this course: I am still feeling the creative drive now. I think we all learned a lot from each other - and Allan and Robin, of course.”

Next year

Allan Withington concluded by saying, “It is intended that this course is to become an annual one. Plans are well underway for next year already and I would be delighted to hear from those interested in participating on the 2010 course, commencing on 27 June and concluding on 2 July.”  

For more details, contact Allan Withington by email at a.withing@c21.net or telephone him on 00 47 9225 3220.  

John Ward

This article first appeared in British Bandsman on 18th July.

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