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2023 RNCM Brass Band Festival
Praise, plaudits and possibilities for the future

4BR Editor Iwan Fox looks back at a memorable RNCM Brass Band Festival, as well as examining what the future may hold for the person that takes over its artistic direction...


Praise indeed for Paul Hindmarsh...

It was wholly appropriate that the final work to be heard at the 2023 RNCM Brass Band Festival was Wilfred Heaton’s march ‘Praise’,  conducted by its outgoing Artistic Director, Paul Hindmarsh.

The reception both he and the little gem of a rendition gained from the packed audience  summed up the feeling of collective gratitude that under his astute stewardship the festival has long become the most important showcase of brass banding excellence in the world. 

Whoever follows him will take on a huge responsibility. 


Where else can you get to hear such important works such as 'Grimethorpe Aria'?

Stealth

Over the last 30 years, and in particular since it came to the RNCM, it has maintained its momentum by almost surreptitiously reflecting his sense of musical inventiveness. 

As both composers Edward Gregson and John Pickard said in their personal tributes, the event has grown almost by stealth from being a somewhat ‘English’ experience to become one of the most significant contemporary music festivals in the UK and beyond, with well over 50% of the repertoire performed written by living composers.  

Given the brass band movement’s inherently conservative approach to new ideas and major compositional voices, that alone is an achievement worth celebrating from the rooftops.  

Given the brass band movement’s inherently conservative approach to new ideas and major compositional voices, that alone is an achievement worth celebrating from the rooftops.  

The works of Gregson and Pickard have been chief amongst them (and this year was no exception), but where else has an informed brass band audience been able to hear substantial compositions from important figures such Judith Bingham, Howard Blake, Gavin Higgins and Philip Wilby, alongside exciting possibilities from talents such as Callum Au, Tom Harrold, Kelly-Marie Murphy and Joel Kirk?

Restrictive noose

And whilst death has robbed us of future works from Bramwell Tovey, Arthur Butterworth and Harrison Birtwistle, what major compositions may come our way if we can persuade the likes of Lucy Pankhurst and Simon Dobson to write for the medium without the restrictive ‘noose’ of contest requirements hanging over them?

Paul Hindmarsh has expertly trod the path between exploration and expansion. More importantly perhaps has been his ability to do this by loosening purse strings for new works to come to life. His little black book of generous donors and commission supporters is worth its weight in gold.

Paul Hindmarsh has expertly trod the path between exploration and expansion. More importantly perhaps has been his ability to do this by loosening purse strings for new works to come to life. His little black book of generous donors and commission supporters is worth its weight in gold.

Contrasts

The core repertoire of the movement has been celebrated, whilst long forgotten works and intriguing detours have been resurrected and revived by expert arranger’s hands (including his own skilful adaptations and realisations). 

This year alone we enjoyed the contrasts of life and death with ‘Comedy’  and ‘Resurgam’,  Shakespearean tragedy, mathematical allegory, American vistas and reflections on history, let alone the infinity of space, Elizabethan renaissance and Kick-Ass heroes. 


James Fountain has been one of the world's finest brass players to perform at the event 

Balance

That balance has come through his deft collegiate approach to working with the bands and their conductors. 

There is give and take, but it has been underpinned by a huge respect for his opinions and outlook in being able to link works to wider musical hinterlands.  Anniversaries and birthdays have been celebrated, but so too thematic threads that shed new light on ingrained perceptions (including Wilfred Heaton this year).

The general absence of theatrical contest posturing and artifice is a reminder that the banding world is blessed by serious conducting and performing talent when we turn our gaze away from silver pots and prizes.     

We have been educated and enlightened in the process – notably by the very best bands and conductors who have also explored even the most established works with a renewed sense of non-contesting perspective. 

The general absence of theatrical contest posturing and artifice is a reminder that the banding world is blessed by serious conducting and performing talent when we turn our gaze away from silver pots and prizes.     

Demanding programmes

That said, it is hard to think of too many other elite level bands and conductors in the UK at present who could successfully deliver on such demanding programmes, and to such a consistently high level.  

European and American bands have performed here in the past (and it would be wonderful to welcome them again), but the festival certainly provided the clearest evidence yet that the likes of Foden’s, Grimethorpe, Tredegar, Black Dyke, Cory and Brighouse & Rastrick inhabit a different level of artistic substance to their UK counterparts.


Mark Wilkinson has graced the stage at the RNCM Festival 

Highlights

The highlights this year were many and varied, but chief amongst them was the solo performances from James Fountain and Isobel Daws – although they were not alone. 

Daniel Thomas and Michael Cavanagh with Black Dyke, James Blackford with the RNCM Brass Band, Tom Hutchinson with Cory and pianist Roksana Dabkowska all delivered with artistry worthy of the plaudits that deservedly came their way.

The highlights this year were many and varied, but chief amongst them was the solo performances from James Fountain and Isobel Daws – although they were not alone. 

Paul Hindmarsh’s ability to persuade the finest professional players to perform at the festival has been a remarkable achievement;  Ian Bousfield, Peter Moore, David Childs, Ross Knight, Philip Cobb, Jens Lindemann, Rex Richardson, violinist Mark Fewer, a keyboard full of classy pianists, singers and narrators amongst them.  

The movement’s own stars have spotlighted their talents too – from Roger Webster and Richard Marshall to Mark Wilkinson, Steven Mead, Katrina Marzella, David Thornton and Les Neish as well as many more.


Talking about highlights: Kenny Crookston, Paul Hindmarsh and Chris Thomas

Eikanger and Moore

It was interesting to hear Paul in conversation with Kenny Crookston and Chris Thomas in the Sunday afternoon presentation of some of the personal ‘highlights’ of his tenure.  

Each (from Eikanger’s extraordinary ‘Romeo & Juliet’ programme of 2007 to Peter Moore’s sensational solo appearance in 2022) was placed a wider context than merely the when and who. 

It was an invaluable insight into the how and why they created such a lasting impact on those fortunate to have heard them.    


A reflection of the event's inclusion - with Wardle Academy taking part this year

Future generations

Thanks to that enlightened approach to inclusion and diversity, it has also seen investment and promotion in the future generations – showcased this year by the likes of the Junior RNCM Band and Wardle Academy.

All that has stemmed for Paul Hindmarsh’s vision, and the huge support he has received from the RNCM itself to promote a festival that looks outwards for the banding movement it celebrates.

All this and the festival has managed to pack in compositional awards and performance prizes, talks and presentations to widen understanding of our heritage as well as our future as a movement, and to shed light on some of the composers whose works first see the light of day here.

All that has stemmed for Paul Hindmarsh’s vision, and the huge support he has received from the RNCM itself to promote a festival that looks outwards for the banding movement it celebrates.

The two have worked together superbly well in recent years in balancing his musical ambition with their appreciation of financial realism.


Giving things some future thought...

Challenges

Challenges and thoughtful considerations remain however. 

Whilst the bar area at the RNCM hummed to the sound multiple linguistic accents during the weekend, there remains a notable absence in representation from domestic contest organisers and brass band organisations. 

Whoever takes on the role of Artistic Director then will have to have a skill set that not only appreciates the need for the festival to continue to celebrate as well as explore, but also embraces the powers of persuasion, mediation and an occasional strong arm tweak of stubbornness to bring it all together too.

The festival cannot stand alone as a beacon of excellence if those who wish to bask in its glow are not prepared to make the trip to experience what it is all about themselves.  

The open invitation that has readily been offered by the festival and Paul Hindmarsh has been taken up by the likes of Brass Bands England, the ABRSM and others keen to be part of its inclusive ethos, but too many remain stubbornly luddite in their outlook.

Whoever takes on the role of Artistic Director then will have to have a skill set that not only appreciates the need for the festival to continue to celebrate as well as explore, but also embraces the powers of persuasion, mediation and an occasional strong arm tweak of stubbornness to bring it all together too.

And whoever is able to do that will deserve just as much ‘Praise’ as Paul Hindmarsh.

Iwan Fox  

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Olney Brass

May 23 • Friendly & ambitious 2nd section L&SC area brass band, based in Newport Pagnell (near Milton Keynes) currently seeking a REPIANO CORNET player to complete our line-up. We have a good variety of contests, concerts & community events throughout the year.


Olney Brass

May 23 • Friendly & ambitious 2nd section L&SC area brass band, based in Newport Pagnell (near Milton Keynes) currently seeking a Eb BASS player to complete our line-up. We have a good variety of contests, concerts & community events throughout the year.


Chris King

MBA, BMus(Hons), LRSM, AoBBA
Conductor, Arranger, Adjudicator, Compere, Band Trainer


               

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