The top brass: Before two dedicated Proms, can brass bands finally get out of clichés? | Balls 2022
IIt’s quite a feat for a British ensemble older than the Proms to make their debut at this year’s festival, but so does the Tredegar Town Band. Formally incorporated in 1876, and with a successful resume ranging from the Rambert Ballet to the Bafta-winning film Pride by Matthew Warchus, it feels like we’re making up for lost time with not one, but two Tredegar Proms this week. First, the band teams up with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Ryan Bancroft for Gavin Higgins’ huge Concerto Grosso for Brass Band and Orchestra, and then there’s their own Late Night Ball the following night.
We must go back to 1989 and Charles Groves with the National Youth Brass Band for the last time that the BBC Proms devoted an entire concert to brass band music. Why wait ? “I wonder if it’s an image problem,” says Higgins, “and people always think it’s kinda twee, that marching bands are just the Hovis advertising. I also think some assume that because it’s amateur, essentially, that means it won’t be as good.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s music of incredible dexterity and enormous power with the potential to overwhelm when heard live, something that Higgins’ multi-set composition – the first Proms command of its kind – augments with an additional orchestral punch.
But the enduring image of brass bands is hard to fathom for those wondering what ‘banding’ means (a popular collective term that suggests a holistic process similar to Christopher Small’s ‘musicking’) among the UK’s network of creators. of music today. The UK brass band movement is inextricably linked to a well-established set of symbols. From its roots in heavy industry, to collecting today’s uniforms, crests, mottoes and banners, to its regular appearances on bandstands and at union rallies, there is a danger that it will be chained by history, especially as the traditional links with the vocation have dissolved.
“Marching bands are no longer the preserve of the working class,” says Higgins. (The fact that banding was a traditional working-class activity is perhaps one of the main reasons for the historical neglect of the form by Proms programmers.) Like many composers now writing regularly for bands, the Higgins’ family were all involved in the local group; the bandage “just happened” for him, taking first the cornet followed by the tenor horn. “A lot of working class people still do it, but Tredegar has lawyers in the group, doctors, people who work for the NHS, all kinds.”
But musically speaking at least, the traditional marching band image is at odds with the decidedly untraditional exploits of previous Proms performances. When they appeared on Proms programmes, the bands were adventurous advocates of new music, with scores by Harrison Birtwistle – himself from a military background – Hans Werner Henze and George Benjamin alongside dishes more conventional. Holst’s A Moorside Suite, Elgar’s Severn Suite and Percy Grainger’s Seventeen Come Sunday softened the blow for Birtwistle’s caustic Grimethorpe Aria in the first half of a landmark 1974 ball shared with the BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC Singers . “The musicians in the band never complain or complain about what you put on them,” says Higgins. “Nobody ever says, ‘It’s really hard.’ It’s the opposite. Either they say, ‘Can you make it a little harder for us?’ Or they say, ‘Well, we just have to go practice.’ you wanted.
Albert Hall itself is no stranger to brass bands. Since the end of the Second World War, it has been the venue for the National Brass Band Championships final, which sees 20 qualified bands travel to Kensington each October to perform their own interpretation of a ‘test piece’ – a grueling composition designed to reveal the flaws in each band’s technique. Imagine 20 orchestras lining up to deliver the best version of a Strauss symphonic poem, and you’ll get a sense of the scrutiny presented.
Marching band competitions are certainly idiosyncratic – a referee sits behind a curtain to ensure fairness, as the same piece of music is played back to back. The moment of victory is immortalized in the finale of the film Brassed Off, with Grimley Colliery Band’s fictional performance of the William Tell overture reminiscent of Grimethorpe’s winning performance of Philip Wilby’s The New Jerusalem in 1992, just weeks later. announcement of the village pit. like the one for closing.
Still, the blue ribbon event in the competition calendar is in trouble, says Iwan Fox, editor of band magazine 4barsrest and president of Tredegar Band. “There was a time when you could only get a ticket for this event from one of the outside ticket vendors.” The latest Championships have sold well under half of its allocated tickets, with a Covid-induced shortfall masking a gradual decline in interest. Once the nirvana for all group standards, only the elite level now compete at Albert Hall, with the remaining four leagues occurring at Cheltenham Racecourse instead.
There are other areas where the banding movement is also struggling. A far cry from big names such as Tredegar and the Cory Band (the South Wales outfit that have topped the world brass band rankings for the past decade), only five bands competed in the usually bustling fourth section, far fewer half the number in the same contest 10 years ago. “Those are the usual reasons,” Fox says. “Education cuts, Covid-19 and the decline of traveling music services. The end result was that the foundations [of the banding structure] was the hardest hit. There is hope for a turnaround in this traditional brass band stronghold, however, with the new Welsh Government Music Service offering children the chance to learn musical instruments from September. “Hopefully the low point has been reached,” Fox says.
Higgins’ piece acknowledges the roots of banding with movement titles such as Coal and Class (if there’s one thing marching bands love, it’s extra-musical narrative). But is it wise, for a movement concerned with dispelling stereotypes? “I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I think you can’t really live without it,” Higgins says. “It’s music that comes out of pits, mines and industrial buildings. Brass band music is truly like folk music for this country.
The world premiere of Gavin Higgins’ Concerto grosso for brass band and orchestra will take place at the Proms on August 8; Late-Night Brass – the Tregedar Band Prom is Tuesday, August 9 at 10:15 p.m.