The Brass in Concert Festival organising team would like to respond to recent articles by Iwan Fox and Sandy Smith, which featured on 4barsrest.
We wish to recognise from the outset that both are respected opinion formers in banding and that, as a progressive management team, we are keen to consider any proposals for further improvement of the Brass in Concert Festival.
The use of ‘further’ is significant, because part of any improvement process has to be review, and a quick review of the Brass in Concert Festival over the past 11 years reveals regular development. Whether they are ‘improvements’ may be for others to judge, but it would be hard to argue that, for example, the now well-established focus on youth has not improved the overall event.
A checklist of new initiatives and developments at the Brass in Concert Festival, demonstrating the desire of organisers to seek continuous improvement in recent years, would include:
• Moving from Spennymoor Leisure Centre to the world-class facilities of Sage Gateshead - a huge decision with considerable financial risk
• Transformation from a single-day contest into a weekend festival
• Introduction of a gala concert featuring top-class bands and soloists
• Development of youth-based workshops (although not exclusively youth) with leading brass players and personalities as tutor teams
• Introduction of taster sessions as opportunities for first-time players of brass instruments
• Introduction of multimedia and other technology used in main concert hall - added performance enhancement for bands that choose to use it and filling gaps for the audience during band changeovers
• Concert opportunities for workshop band and other award-winning youth bands
• Regular invitations for overseas bands to bring their unique brands of brass entertainment to the event
• Fringe concerts, usually featuring overseas bands
• Masterclasses with leading brass groups
• Patrons’ scheme offering benefits for those committed to attending the Festival annually
The Brass in Concert Festival organising team acknowledges, and is proud of, the event’s 40-year heritage and appreciates regular feedback from banding press and beyond that it has become a showcase festival. However, we would challenge recent statements that suggest it has ‘lost direction and ability to communicate with wider audiences’.
How many current brass festivals or contests could genuinely claim to attract three times the total audience numbers that they did 15 years ago? We suspect only the Butlins Mineworkers Festival, another event that has taken the bold step of implementing significant changes in order to secure an enhanced future, can match or surpass Brass in Concert in this regard, although we are happy to stand corrected if we have overlooked any others.
Sage Gateshead, the home of Brass in Concert, is considered one of the finest concert halls in the UK, and has been publicly acknowledged by some classical conductors as among the best in the world. Our colleagues at Sage Gateshead confirm that Brass in Concert is now the longest running annual large-scale non-commercial hire event the venue has welcomed since opening in 2004, attracting over 24,000 paying customers over the 11 years it has run in the venue, as well as further numbers enjoying free concourse entertainment.
Looking beyond the immediate surroundings and activities of Brass in Concert, it is also interesting to reflect on how the Festival has become a true North East success story. It is estimated that, through staging the event in Gateshead, over £3.5 million has been generated for the North East economy, benefiting not just those who attend the Festival, but wide-ranging economic stakeholders in the North East - from local taxi drivers to hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars and their supply chains. Inward financial contribution to the banding community is estimated over the same period of time at around £300,000.
While we would accept that audience numbers were down slightly in 2015 compared to previous years (primarily for reasons well aired previously in this medium), audiences clearly like what the event sets out to achieve. The somewhat tired grievance that brass bands no longer feature on national TV is, frankly, a cheap shot if aimed primarily at ‘entertainment’ events, but requires very much deeper examination and critical integrity than has been shown in recent articles.
The suggestion that banding has lost its way (which may or may not be true), and that this is the reason why TV companies are no longer interested in what we do, is over-simplistic.
The fact is that televised entertainment has developed beyond all possible expectation over the 45 years since the Granada Band of the Year was first aired, and that development has far outstripped anything that brass bands have achieved in any respect, or that even the wildest dreamers among us could imagine.
Brass bands present a largely static (some may say visually uninspiring) form of music-making which, in the fast-paced reality show-driven world of TV, simply doesn’t stack up for producers of prime-time material. ‘Entertainment’ events exist to make the best of what we have for live, concert hall audiences and, in that respect, the ‘free from artistic restriction’ element of Brass in Concert’s mission statement enables bands to operate from as broad a canvas as possible.
Interestingly, the recent 4barsrest editorial expresses views in complete contradiction from a number of other articles written by the same author as recently as 2012. In that year, Brass in Concert received the ‘4barsrest Best Newcomer Award’ for ‘strengthening the event and waking up the modern banding world’. Further quotes stated that ‘It set about retaining its position as the world’s best entertainment contest by listening to the people who understood the difference between fantasy and reality and as a result it succeeded - rather splendidly’.
Intriguingly, 4barsrest’s report of the 2014 Brass in Concert Championship concluded: ‘An eye popping set from Brass Band of Central Florida certainly showed the Brits what swing should sound like (taking the ‘Best Percussion’ award), even if they didn’t quite show enough contrast to end tenth, with debutants Woodfalls, and Virtuosi GUS finding that well delivered but dated musical sets were some way off the pace of a contest that continues to explore and break exciting new musical boundaries.’
For the same writer’s opinion of the event and its mechanics to have changed so dramatically only 12 months later is remarkable enough, but for this to have happened without actually attending the 2015 Brass in Concert Festival really takes some explaining.
Now the mission statement is under attack, but linked solely to the contest it is just one element of the Festival. Earlier years have seen overseas bands showcased at the Gala Concert, whereas in 2015 independent reviews stated that Black Dyke Band and world-class soloist Philip Cobb represented a ‘brilliant night out’ with ‘jaw dropping and impeccable performances’.
Elland Silver Youth Band also presented a very slick set based upon its award-winning Charlie Chaplin programme and demonstrated that it will be a more than worthy English representative at the European Youth Contest in Lille.
A large audience enjoyed the performance by the Workshop Band on the Sage Gateshead Foyer, while our Saturday afternoon ‘coffee’ concerts, thus far given by Brass Band Schoonhoven (2014) and Yamaha Neo Brass (2015), have proved immensely popular with our audience, many of whom now spend full weekends in Gateshead for the Brass in Concert Festival.
Very good description
While we accept that the mission statement may appear ‘wordy’, it is a very good description of what the event sets out to achieve and, in our opinion, goes a long way to providing the type of guidance that Sandy Smith called for in an interview in British Bandsman in December 2011, when he was quoted as saying: “There is a certain lack of sophistication, and what is seen as ‘entertaining’ is becoming narrower all the time, but the bands may also benefit from some guidance from contest organisers. You can have a shot at goal if you know where the goals are!”
We do not see it as our role to tell other organisers how to run their events, but there are relatively few band contests that provide any such ‘guidance’ to their competitors. It should also be recalled that, at a meeting early in 2012, representatives of the bands that attended Brass in Concert regularly actually requested that we examine the system used previously, principally on the basis that they had achieved results that contrasted vastly with their own expectations under a method that had so many perceived weaknesses.
After much consultation and soundings from around the banding world, including the bands themselves, the organising team, seeking to encourage more innovative programming, refreshed the adjudication system for the 2012 event, meeting with resounding favour and support from 4barsrest, including the award referred to above.
There now appears to be complete misunderstanding of some aspects of the system, in which only placings (in each of the three categories) are awarded by the judges, which are then allocated a pre-determined points value. The mathematics are really very straightforward and guarantee that the weighting of the overall result is based exactly 60 percent upon quality of music performance, 20 percent on programming and 20 percent on entertainment and presentation.
No tick boxes
Recent articles mention ‘tick boxes’, which do not feature anywhere in the system, each adjudicator merely ranking the bands from top to bottom in their specific area. The only firm instruction given to each judge is that they work solely within their allocated area of responsibility i.e. the ‘quality of music performance’ adjudicators judge only that, irrespective of whether they like the choice of programme or how entertaining they found it. There is not a tick box in sight!
Vitally, every element of the marking scheme has its genesis in a mission statement that encourages the widest possible approach to programming from the bands, whilst the elements of the mission statement that are open to comparison can all be found within the three categories of the marking scheme. On that basis, Iwan Fox’s claim that it is ‘an inward looking marking system that is a confusing contradiction of the mission statement that spawned it’ appears itself a rather confused contradiction of the real situation.
In essence, the contest seeks to encourage innovation and new music being presented in an entertaining manner, with no music or format being mandatory (as was the case in the original Brass in Concert Championship back in 1977, when bands were required to play a set test-piece, with the inclusion of a march compulsory from 1985).
Such requirements and limitations have been dropped in the interests of the ‘free from artistic restriction’ ambition outlined in the mission statement. Perhaps there has become a perception in bandrooms that new music equates to better results. This is a judgement that bands are entitled to make - they are there to win a contest after all - but it is a matter for individual judgement. The aim of the organising team is to create a platform, housed within world-class facilities, from which bands have freedom and scope to perform programmes that communicate with, and entertain, their audience.
Ultimately, of course, it is the bands that choose their programmes, and while the design of the event seeks to encourage entertainment and innovation, the absolute choice of music lies with the bands.
What is entertainment
Much discussion has been aired (for many years!) in seeking to determine an answer to the question ‘what is entertainment?’ and even who should judge it. This question can never be answered satisfactorily, other than to suggest that music that may entertain one audience member may not succeed in doing so with another.
The potential for a dichotomy of views is precisely the reason that entertainment adjudication at Brass in Concert is now shared between two non-conferring judges, thus allowing for a spread of opinion which, when aggregated, offers a more representative view than that provided by one isolated judge.
Serious consideration has been given to using audience members for this adjudication, either at random or through a voting system. Indeed, Roy Newsome’s original guideline for this function was that it should represent the view of ‘Joe Public’.
However, all current options are fraught with difficulty in transparency, organisation and cost control, plus we sense that bands prefer carefully selected adjudicators with experience to reflect what, in their opinion, is the best and worst performances in all categories. We will, though, continue to liaise with bands on this matter.
Returning to where this response commenced, the desire of the organisers of the Brass in Concert Festival is for further improvement and in that respect public debate is very healthy.
We want to listen to innovative and creative ideas, and will always welcome any well-intended input. Regrettably, the recent editorial by Iwan Fox and subsequent article by Sandy Smith, whilst making a number of snappy ‘sound-byte’ statements and criticisms, appeared to add very little of a positive nature to the debate.
This is a sad commentary on the role that 4barsrest appears to adopt over certain matters and we would urge the proprietors of, and contributors to, what is in many ways an excellent media vehicle to avoid destructive, negative journalism in favour of that which makes a determined effort, whilst no doubt involving justifiable criticism, to add value and improve the brass banding culture about which we all feel so passionately.
Trevor Caffull – Chairman, the Brass in Concert Festival
For and on behalf of the organising team