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If the shoes fit
Combining performance excellence, explanation and Nike trainers...

The recent Aurora Orchestra Proms concert caught both the eyes and the ears of the audience at the Albert Hall — and its something the brass band movement could learn from.


If the shoes fit... Pavel Kolesnikov in full flight
image: BBC - Chris Christodoulou

There was a zesty freshness about the performance of pianist Pavel Kolesnikov with the Aurora Orchestra at the Proms this week - and it wasn’t anything really to do with the bright orange Nike trainers he wore on stage.

His electrifying account of Rachmaninov’s  ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’  thrilled the audience and critics alike, but it was also the presentation of the concert that raised the eyebrows in appreciation.

Minus socks

For arch traditionists, having a soloist appear in garish running shoes (minus socks) to perform one of the classics of the repertoire appeared to be nothing more than a crass marketing gimmick (Nike executives must have been delighted); further evidence of the dumbing down of serious music making to appeal to the social media obsessed masses.

For those who found it less distracting however, it backed the opinion that further winds of change need to blow through an ‘institution’ that has become ossified by its own conservative attitudes (although not as much as the Henley Regatta it seems).

However, it was certainly an event the brass banding world could learn from.

For those who found it less distracting however, it backed the opinion that further winds of change need to blow through an ‘institution’ that has become ossified by its own conservative attitudes (although not as much as the Henley Regatta it seems).

Acclaim

The Aurora Orchestra, which plays from memory, has become a popular Proms fixture – gaining widespread acclaim. This most recent concert (an afternoon/evening double header) was a particularly fine example.

Even though ‘the artsdesk.com’ critic Alexandra Coghlan observed that; “the young pianist’s orange trainers might have shouted rebellion”, she quickly pointed out that his account was also, “carefully understated, precise – the musical straight man to Aurora’s swaggering excess.”

‘The Evening Standard’ was also impressed; “Elegantly if idiosyncratically attired in white trousers and salmon sneakers…. Kolesnikov offered a beguiling range of tone and phrasing…”


Tom Service led an involved audience through The Firebird

Audience involved

The most pertinent observation however came from ‘The Times’ correspondent Rebecca Franks, who in her review wrote that; “…the whole performance was designed to get the audience involved.” 

Forget the dayglo daps – it is that analysis that should ring the bells in the minds of those who really want to see brass bands reach out to audiences, young or old, fashion conscious or traditionists, in the future. 

The most pertinent observation however came from ‘The Times’ correspondent Rebecca Franks, who in her review wrote that; “…the whole performance was designed to get the audience involved.” 

The concert (which gained generous sponsorship support – although not from Nike) also featured a performance of Stravinsky’s 1945  ‘Firebird Suite’, which was preceded by a 20-minute explanation that as Rebecca Franks wrote, was all about “illuminating and dissecting the music with ease”.

Wholly appropriate

Given by BBC presenter Tom Service and conductor Nicholas Collon, it led the audience through explanations of the tri-tones to horcruxes and even Peppa Pig.  

It was wholly appropriate, entertaining and enlightening - theartsdesk.com stating: “To teach an audience something without patronising or it feeling like school is the hardest trick to pull off, but thanks to bags of enthusiasm they reliably leave us all better informed and - better still - fired up to listen more and more carefully.” 

but thanks to bags of enthusiasm they reliably leave us all better informed and - better still - fired up to listen more and more carefully.” 


Stravinski was brought to life...

And isn’t that approach surely the key to the brass band movement’s future financial as well as concert/contest performance prosperity - in addition to getting someone at the BBC to think seriously about featuring brass bands back at the Proms?

It of course shouldn’t mean a complete commercialisation of our most cherished (or arguably self-indulgent) elements of our ‘heritage’, but it should at least include a re-evaluation of our corrosive inability to embrace any form of change.

Refashioned attitudes

However, given that the past 16 months or more seems to have been nothing more than a survival mode period of hibernating stasis, it will be interesting to see if anyone will be able to feel the slightest breeze of refashioned attitudes, let alone any significant wind of change in the way we present ourselves to the concert or contesting world.

Product placement aside (although brass banding could do with a renewed outlook towards commercial sponsorship), are we really in a position now to “get the audience involved”, let alone, “better informed and – better still – fired up to listen more and more carefully”, 

Better informed?

Perhaps there is no need quite yet for numbered stage jackets, or waistcoats plastered with ‘Big Al’s Pizza House Emporium’ logos, but surely there are new sources of sponsorship income to be exploited without having to perform as a musical ‘small ads’ billboards.  

Product placement aside (although brass banding could do with a renewed outlook towards commercial sponsorship), are we really in a position now to “get the audience involved”, let alone, “better informed and – better still – fired up to listen more and more carefully”,  as The Times pointed out, then we were before Covid-19 struck?

Not if we believe we don’t need to change we aren’t. 


The Wobplay Concert Series has brought a well judged approach to attracting a new audience

Encouragingly, some are embracing a new direction – be in it live or recorded format.

Imaginative

The National Youth Band of Great Britain has certainly rejuvenated itself, with recent hybrid events placing an emphasis on inclusion, education and inspiration - from players to audiences alike.

Imaginatively resurrected, rebranded and reconnected to social media, as well as being revitalised in musical outlook and direction, the 2021 Childrens’ and Youth Band courses were hugely successful.  

Balance

The balance between serious music making and presentation was very well judged - to the extent that just like the recent Aurora Proms concert, the audiences on the lawn of Repton School would have certainly left “better informed and – better still - fired up to listen more and more carefully.”

Meanwhile, the current Wobplay.com ‘Concert Series’ has shown just how a successful balance can be struck between performance excellence and high-class production values; nothing dumbed-down and tradition celebrated, but also backed by relevant, innovative presentation.   

Nike may want to think about providing 150 pairs of bright orange trainers for the players to wear in future. It was some advert for positivity. 


Scope for a bit of new sponsorship?

Meanwhile, the current Wobplay.com ‘Concert Series’ has shown just how a successful balance can be struck between performance excellence and high-class production values; nothing dumbed-down and tradition celebrated, but also backed by relevant, innovative presentation.   

As the Aurora Orchestra concert showed, the scope to presenting excellence in a format that appeals in a way that inspires an audience to return time and again is much more than offering them the chance to discuss the merits of an eye-catching pair of trainers.  

Nike may want to think about providing 150 pairs of bright orange trainers for the players to wear in future. It was some advert for positivity. 

Others such as Brass Bands England and Scottish Brass Band Association to individual concert promoters have recognised that too (from playing at museums and bandstands to online entertainment events) – but others may have some way to go before the penny drops. 

The days of quantity over quality have gone.  We will not regain lost audiences let alone lost interest by relying on providing hour upon hour of musical mediocrity and dated presentation.   

Not even the players of the best brass bands in the world taking to the stage wearing Nike Vaporlfy running trainers will save the movement then.

Iwan Fox 

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