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Review: Brighouse and Rastrick Band | RNCM International Brass Band Festival

Coasts, Colours, Fire and Flowers - A Musical Tour de Force

Brighouse and Rastrick band concert banners on stage at the International Brass Band Festival at the RNCM.

After a thoroughly enchanting afternoon in the company of the Cory Band (click to read the review on their concert), I was treated to even more exceptional music on Sunday, this time from the Brighouse and Rastrick Band. Once again, I was able to enjoy pieces that have become so iconic within our community and had the opportunity to be introduced to works I hadn’t heard before.

So, fasten your seatbelts (it’s another long post) and get ready to experience Brighouse and Rastrick’s performance at the RNCM International Brass Band Festival. 

On the Cornish Coast by Henry Geehl

The band opened the first half of their evening concert with Henry Geehl’s, On the Cornish Coast. It comes from the pen of English pianist and film composer, Henry Gheel who had a real love for music written for brass bands. This rhapsodic work was chosen for the 1924 National Brass Band Championships and was hailed as a ‘veritable triumph of really clever brass writing’ by the British Bandsman after the event. 

The piece opens with a fanfare from trombones and has a nautical air about it. It is similar to something you would expect to hear in Fantasia on British Sea Songs, with a military style snare and regimented ensemble work from the cornets followed by the trombones - a flourish of the soprano cornet on top of this regimented sound. It does encapsulate the beautiful majesty of the Cornish coast. 

We’re treated to beautiful solo moments from Mike Eccles on Flugel; the band’s Principal Cornet, Tom Smith and the band’s Principal Euphonium, Chris Robertson, with all three soloists boasting stunning sounds, musicality and fantastic control. These solo lines are respectfully accompanied by delicately balanced ensemble work that really allowed the soloists to shine. A duet between Dan Thomas and Ste Cavanagh on baritone conjured up images of the hustle and bustle of a Cornish village, before we head into a cheery, almost dance-like section. Before long, we’re back to that upright ‘British sea song’ style as we head towards the end of the piece. An expertly navigated rallentando provided the pullback within a musical slingshot that then fired the band with momentum into an energetic finish. 

It was quite a contrasting opener -  descriptive with bags of personality that moves through beautiful melodic passages, technical elements and jaunty moments. 

Colors by Bert Appermont | Trombone Solo Performed by Ellena Newton

Brighouse and Rastrick Band's principal trombone, Ellena Newton performing Bert Appermont's Colors for Trombone at the RNCM International Brass Band Festival.

It was a solo performance from the band’s Principal Trombone, Ellena Newton that stole the show for me. Ellena performed Bert Appermont’s (A Brussels Requiem) trombone concerto, ‘Colors’. This was the first time I have ever heard the work performed and I’ve exhausted pretty much every recording I can find since - I cannot get enough of it. It is incredibly listenable, imaginative, musically vivid and descriptive. 

Written for Belgian trombonist Ben Haemhouts in 1998, the work comprises of 4 movements, each encapsulating a colour and its associated mood:

  • Yellow - inspiring and stimulating

  • Red - dynamic, passionate, developing into a dramatic, furious and fighting. 

  • Blue - melancholic, dreamy and introvert

  • Green - hopeful and full of expectation

Movement 1 - Yellow

The first movement of this work would be fitting of a protagonist from a Disney film - it’s heroic and motivational -  fitting its attributed mood of ‘inspiring and stimulating’. This movement has a similar style to music found in Studio Ghibli movies, so if that’s your thing - you will LOVE this. Ellena’s beautifully soulful tone lends itself well to this warm, majestic movement. Even in louder dynamics, her sound is sweet and effortless. Once again, the band showed incredible skill in accompanying their soloist - never overshadowing, but supporting her with matching musicality and playful energy. 

Movement 2 - Red

As we head into the second movement ‘Red’, this is where Ellena’s virtuosic technical ability was showcased. Frantic technical sections were handled with ease and musical flair - every bar was full of character, not one note was thrown away. Again, the synergy created between the band and soloist made this so exciting to both listen to and to watch. 

Movement 3 - Blue

If I’m ever worried or stressed, I’m going to sit in a darkened room and listen to this movement - it is just blissful. A complete shift in mood compared with the previous movement, Blue is whimsical, dreamlike and wistful. I had images of aquariums and underwater palaces, with similar vibes created by Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’.  It’s melancholic without losing any energy - making it uplifting rather than a sad mood. 

Truth be told, I didn’t want this movement to end, Ellena held the entire audience captivated; creating such a beautiful state of calm. Delicate entries from the soprano cornet, Martin Irwin, provided a little sprinkle of glitter above the melody, like the sun reflecting on water. 

Movement 4 - Green

A melody similar to that of the opening movement, opens up the final movement. Again the music perfectly captures the mood of this colour, hopeful, motivated. The same drive from the first movement pushes ‘Green’ along. There is so much for an audience to take in from both the band and the soloist. My ears were flitting from the gob-smackingly virtuosic playing of Ellena Newton to all the little moments happening around the stand within the ensemble - both band and soloist executing their parts with technical precision. The ending is sonorous, triumphant and made me wish I could rewind time so I could go back and experience this piece for the first time, all over again. 

This is the best concertos I have ever heard, presented with incredible style, musicality and technical prowess by Ellena Newton.

If you listen to one piece of music from this article, please listen to Bert Appermont’s Colors - there are plenty of recordings out there and I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I do. 

Invisible Fire by Dorothy Gates

My second introduction to the music of Dorothy Gates came in the form of ‘Invisible Fire’ which was commissioned for the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain for their 2023 Easter Concert. The theme for the concert this piece was commissioned for was ‘Hope, Joy and Love’  of which the three movements within this piece take their names. The work is loosely based on the hymn, ‘Blaenwern’ and it was performed by the band with such warmth and dynamic control. As a movement, we may have moved on from dedicating a large part of our repertoire to hymn tunes, but this performance was a reminder of why brass bands are known for our hymns. Simply stunning. 

Movement 1

The opening of the first movement is magical and whimsical, with solos from flugel and euphonium, as well as a trio of the soprano, repiano and second cornets. We then descend into a fiery rhythmic section with so much detail displayed around the stand - it was so perfectly balanced you could hear every single part. 

Movement 2

Trombones open the second movement with a beautiful, emotive solo line performed by the band’s second trombone, Charlotte Horsfield. This solo line is then passed around the stand to the Principal Cornet, soprano cornet and then to the flugel, where the principal cornet joins in again to form a duet. Chris Robertson on euphonium provides a stunning solo moment with a warm sound that fills the concert hall and such evocative musicality, I was nearly brought to tears. This is followed up with a tender solo line from the band’s solo horn, Andy Moore. This movement has an air of melancholy with funereal timpani underpins a morose yet sonorous ensemble section. That beautiful trombone line from the opening of this movement can be heard again, with an air of hope spreading from the trombone line across the band, changing the mood from sombre, bordering on despair to a more reflective, hopeful tone. 

Movement 3

It’s an energetic start to the third movement with almost a celtic bounce. Huge chordal moments fill the hall with sound, as the ensemble gradually rises in dynamic, aided by the driving force of the percussion section. Then the subject that formed the basis of the work, Blaenwern, can be heard in all of its hymnal, divine glory. The dynamic is powerful but through its depth of sound; warm and impassioned rather than loud and forceful - just glorious. 

Tour De Force by Jim Self

Brighouse and Rastrick Band onstage at the RNCM International Brass Band Festival.

The term ‘tour de force’, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is: ‘a feat or display of strength, skill or ingenuity’. Brighouse and Rastrick’s performance of Jim Self’s work was its European premiere and what a display of strength and skill was displayed by the band in this whirlwind of a piece!

Originally written for orchestra, the piece is set in a series of nine episodes that connect within one movement. Coincidentally, the number of episodes equal the nine concerts the Pacific Symphony Orchestra played in Europe, which (although the episodes have no musical connections to those concerts) represents a positive time in the composer’s life, in which this piece was born. 

It opens with an exciting flourish before settling into a whimsical section with a dream-like vibraphone and solo offerings from flugel and soprano cornet. A menacing four note entry from the lower brass signals the end of this section and we’re met with a driving timpani and bass drum with twirls of tambourine that throw us into a military-style section, akin to something you would hear an American marching band play. The style is very playful with syncopated rhythms building anticipation for what to come. 

We have arrived in funky town, with a groovy feel around the stand and percussion having plenty to do with layers of percussion, as the cornets are allowed the freedom to ‘get their funk on’. It’s giving Bernstein’s ‘Mambo’ from West Side story. There was an excellent cow bell performance given from the band’s third cornet in this section too! Then we’re treated to a spell-binding marimba (I think - I always get the marimba and xylophone mixed up, so my apologies, if I’m wrong!) solo moment - I couldn’t take my eyes away! This section of the music exudes latin flair. 

As the piece progresses, it becomes a real melting pot of musical styles from latin to jazz, as well as blues and funk. Further on in the piece there is a syncopated section that featured a technical solo line from Tom Smith, which finished with a very tastefully executed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’-style glissando. Following this, the bass carries the melody - a feature of the piece that is of particular significance to the composer that  he outlined in his programme notes about the piece:

“Oh and yes, I wrote a fun tuba part that is more interesting than many other orchestral tuba parts. If ‘Tour de Force’ gets other performances, I want the tuba player (at least) to enjoy it.”

If I ever decide to properly dip my toe into composing, the flugel player will always have something fun to play…

Moving on.

Heading towards the ending, the music has turned into something that I would imagine accompanying a Gene Kelly solo dance number from one of his films - like American in Paris. If you’re a Gene Kelly fan, you’ll know the type - where there’s lots of symbolism and character work, with a bit of a dark edge. Then we’re transported (in my head anyway) to the football fields of America, standing in the ranks of an American marching band with whistles and military-style snare drum before it’s a nose dive towards an energetic ending.

A tour de force indeed!

Variations by Thea Musgrave

Written in 1966, commissioned from the Scottish Amateur Music Society and premiered by the National Youth Band of Scotland, of which the conductor James Gourlay was a player, ‘Variations’ is a short brass band work by Thea Musgrave. The piece is filled with unusual harmonic writing across its theme and five variations. As outlined in the piece’s programme notes, Musgrave was ‘intrigued by the unusual colouring, which the brass tones offered’. Throughout this inventive work, Musgrave does leverage the vast possibilities twenty-plus brass instruments playing together can offer with interesting textures, rhythms and tonalities for both players and audiences to explore. 

The piece opens dramatically and I really like the use of dynamics amongst the different sections of the band. It’s like somebody is sitting at a mixing desk and manually sliding the volume buttons up and down at different times around the ensemble. It’s a very contrasting work with moments of beautiful reflection and slightly mind-boggling (in a good way) technical passages. The piece comes to an abrupt end, which caught the audience a little off guard - I don’t think I’ve seen so many people rush to put their hands together simultaneously, as they realise that the piece has finished. 

Wondrous Cross by Philip Wilby

Brighouse and Rastrick Band performing at the 2024 RNCM International Brass Band Festival.

Wilby is always a name I get excited about when I see it on a programme. This is one of the few pieces of Wilby’s that I hadn’t heard before Brighouse’s performance - I’m not sure why. I wasn’t disappointed, it was absolutely sublime. Seemingly simple writing, but delivered with such effortless musicality; again it is a reminder of how brilliant a hymn sounds when played by a brass band. 

Emotive and song-like solo lines from Tom Smith that were so beautifully crafted amongst a warm ensemble accompaniment. I had to stop writing for a moment, because I just wanted to take this piece in, such was the beauty of it. 

A stunningly controlled crescendo as we approached the end of the piece was welcomed by a sunbeam of cymbal rolls. Brass band writing that may seem simplistic, yet it’s the most magical. Moving, melodic, perfectly balanced - top class banding! 

Diversions on a Bass Theme by George Lloyd

Similar to Sparke’s ‘Year of the Dragon’ in Cory’s programme earlier on in the day, this piece needs very little in the way of introduction, such is its iconic status within our community. As the kids say - it is an absolute TUNE! So I won’t waffle on. It encompassed everything that had been put on display during Brighouse and Rastrick concert - incredible soloists, inspiring musical dexterity, laser-focussed precision and emotionally intelligent musicality. 

A Floral Encore

Brighouse and Rastrick Band onstage at the 2024 International Brass Band Festival

This programme, even with an interval in between, was a challenge for the player’s stamina as well as every other aspect of their playing. So, I would have been grateful for Diversions on a Bass theme being their last piece of the night before they scooted off stage for a well-earned pint! However, they treated us to one last iconic piece. The piece that put them on the map for wider audiences - ‘The Floral Dance’. It was great to see both band and audience having great fun with this encore and it was the perfect end to a fantastic concert, which put a smile on the face of every audience member. 

Excited for the Future

All in all, it was a fantastic afternoon and evening of brilliant music. A huge congratulations is owed to Dr David Thornton on his debut as the Artistic Director of this event and all who were involved in making the festival a success. This was the first RNCM International Brass Band Festival and it was impressive, so I’m excited to see what treats next year’s festival has in store. I will certainly be making an extra effort to attend all three days! If you’re interested in attending next year’s festival - here are the dates for your diary: Friday 24th to Sunday 26th January 2025.

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