Review: The Cory Band | RNCM International Brass Band Festival 2024
The Return of the Dragon: A Celebration of 140 Years of Exceptional Music
Formerly known as the RNCM Festival of Brass, the rebranded RNCM International Brass Band Festival has evolved to celebrate diversity and creativity within the brass band community. As a former participant with Foden’s Youth Brass Band, I have cherished my past experiences at the festival. Now, under the direction of Dr. David Thornton, the festival aims to embrace the global brass band scene, fostering imagination, diversity, curiosity, and openness.
Attending two concerts on Sunday, I witnessed this vision come to life. The festival showcased a variety of music from different parts of the world, highlighting the diverse backgrounds of composers and musical influences. The festival's new direction promises to welcome and promote voices from across the banding world and beyond, inviting exploration and appreciation of the rich tapestry of brass band music.
Speaking on the new direction of the RNCM International Brass Band Festival, Director of Brass Bands and the festival’s Artistic Director, Dr David Thornton said:
“My vision for the 2024 festival is one of embracing the brass band world in the broadest possible way. Let’s encourage imagination, let’s encourage diversity, curiosity and openness.”
From the two concerts I had the pleasure of attending on Sunday, I think this vision was achieved. During the course of a few hours, I was introduced to a range of music from around the world, through both the nationalities of the composers and the influences represented within the music.
This festival offers the chance to hear world premieres, as well as music that you may not have the chance to hear within typical brass band concerts. Therefore, it’s a great opportunity to find your next favourite piece or composer.
I was grateful for the chance to become acquainted with the music of this year’s featured composers, Oliver Waespi and Dorothy Gates, as I came away with more than one of their pieces that I will definitely be adding to my list of favourite music.
Now, I’ve waffled on enough, let’s actually talk about the music that was presented to two packed audiences over the course of Sunday afternoon and evening - starting with the Cory Band.
Grab a brew and get comfy - this is going to be a long one, as I try to transport you, through words, to the RNCM concert hall and the delights offered by the Cory Band’s performance.
From Doppelgangers to Dragons
2024 marks the 140th birthday of one of the UK’s most well known and successful bands, The Cory Band. In my opinion their programme was the perfect celebration of the band, as well as a great example of what a modern brass band programme should be. It managed to strike the right balance of traditional and contemporary brass band writing and showed off both the virtuosity of the band’s soloists, as well as their strong ensemble playing. I’ll do my best to try and articulate with words just how mind-bogglingly incredible Cory’s performance was.
Soaring the Heights by Christopher Bond | World Premiere
As well as celebrating their 140th year, The Cory Band is also celebrating fifty years since its first National Championship win in 1974.
‘Soaring the Heights’ was commissioned from the band’s Associate Composer, Christopher Bond, to celebrate both of these anniversaries. According to the programme notes, Bond’s work aims to “showcase the full brilliance of the band, whilst dazzling audiences along the way.”
And dazzle it did. I would describe the work as cinematic, ‘john williams-esque’ and wouldn’t have been out of place as the soundtrack to a Steven Spielberg movie. With glittering solos from the Principal cornet and energetic ensemble writing, it perfectly encapsulated the hard work, virtuosic talent and proud achievements the band has earned over the years. I’m hoping a recording of this piece becomes available because I need to hear it again soon.
Euphonium Concerto by Philip Harper | Euphonium Solo, Glyn Williams
Next up was the band’s featured soloist in this concert - Principal Euphonium, Glyn Williams, who performed a work written by the bands Musical Director, Philip Harper. This was a concerto with a difference, the difference being that this work told a story.
Commissioned by euphonium player, Micah Parsons, in 2020, the concerto explores the major events that his Great Grandfather, Henry Nichols, experienced in the First World War between July 1916 and March 1917 and is split into three movements:
We begin in Warwickshire, where our young protagonist, represented by the euphonium soloist, starts his journey. Amongst twittering soprano flourishes that mimic birdsong, the euphonium solo line is a cheerful theme with such youthful innocence, it paints a very clear picture of the young Henry Nicholls.
However, underneath this theme there is an essence of foreboding in the lower brass writing, a foreshadowing of impending horror and destruction perhaps? We fall into rank during a march-like section where the lower brass takes on the cheery tune we heard our protagonist hum earlier in the movement, before we descend into a beautiful melodic section where I could picture Henry saying a tearful goodbye to his family.
Musical chaos ensues as we are transported to Olvillers- La-Boisselle in France and our protagonist’s youthful innocence is tarnished with the horrors of war. Shell fire is unleashed upon us from timpani and tom drums in the percussion sections. The fear felt by Henry, represented by Glyn’s incredible playing is so evocative, it’s like I can hear his (Henry’s) internal monologue through the notes. A final blast from the whole band closes the first movement.
December 1916. Our protagonist and his fellow soldiers have been relieved of their front line positions for a brief period. Icy tones from the glockenspiel and vibraphones open a wintry scene. The melody from the soloist is despondent with a prominent three-note motif creating a sense of longing, despair and hopelessness. A counter-melody from the Principal cornet is sweet, almost like the caring words of a friend. The three note motif returns within a muted cornet section and is passed between the soloist and Principal Cornet, as percussion adds a twinkling backdrop - an image of our protagonist staring into the night sky, the horrors of war keeping him awake.
As we come to the conclusion of the second movement, the men are preparing to return back to the front line. Glyn’s performance was filled with so much emotive musicality, the sense of fear, sadness and despair is visceral as he descends down the octave. It was beyond heart-wrenching. A moment of reflective silence brings this movement to a close.
A whistle from the percussion section signals the call for our protagonist to go ‘over the top’. Glyn’s technical virtuosity was really showcased within this movement, as his solo line weaved within the terror-filled polyphonic ensemble writing. We can see our protagonist ducking and diving through the battlefield. Driving percussion and basses with blasting chordal moments, illustrates the scenes of terror that surround Henry. The music builds into a climactic moment before the cacophony of war ceases into devastating silence. A morose ensemble section introduces a beautiful and intensely emotional, slow melodic solo from euphonium.
As we come to the end of the piece, the mood shifts. With a change of key. The birdlike Soprano flourishes return. In my head, dark, barren, blood-soaked earth is replaced by lush green pastures with patches of red poppies, a reminder of the memories the land holds.
As the last note lingered around the hall, I was left in awe with a lump in my throat.
This was a masterclass in musical storytelling from both Philip Harper’s writing and the expert, emotive and technically precise performance from Glyn Williams.
Dance No. 1 by Mihailo Trandafilovski | World Premiere
In the words of Philip, ‘now for something completely different’. It was time for another world premiere, this time from Macedonian composer, violinist and educator Mihailo Trandafilovski. It was great to hear the composer’s intentions and inspiration behind the piece, first hand, as he introduced the work in person on Sunday afternoon, before the band performed it. Mihailo was introduced to the British-style brass band in 2018, after British composer Nigel Clarke invited him to the National Brass Band Championships. From there he became a fan of the Cory band.
Dance No.1 is an exploration of instrumental techniques within brass band instrumentation and writing. Complex textures, experiments with time signatures and harmonic and rhythmic eclecticism makes this piece a real challenge. It’s fiery, with anticipatory forte-pianos, tambourine flourishes and dissonant interjections. As a player, watching both conductor and band, I imagine this piece to be a tricky one to read with plenty of subdivision required - but, naturally, it was handled with laser-point precision by the band.
Other Lives | Oliver Waespi
Now this is a piece that I really fell in love with - so much so, I’m listening to it again as I write this.
‘Other Lives’ by Swiss composer, Oliver Waespi, was commissioned by the Valaisia Band, but it was performed by Cory at the European Championships. During his introduction of the piece, Philip said, “if you like watching people under pressure, then this is for you”, as the work is filled with many challenging solos.
The opening chords are taken from Franz Schubert’s, “Der Doppelganger”, a supernatural song where the narrator sees the ghostly double of themselves. Dark and atmospheric, I feel like we’re whirling through the space time continuum faced with the many versions of life we can possibly lead across parallel universes.
The first section of this work, entitled ‘Rage’ is in minor tonalities, based on the interval of a minor third and is aggressive, chaotic with rising xylophone passages, a driving snare drum, bongos and timpani. We build into a whirling, heavy handed section, before everything starts to calm down just a little, as we head into the section of the piece entitled ‘Reflection. Solo lines from around the stand are contemplative, yet that dark edge provided by the minor tonality is still prevalent.
Then there it is, the transition from minor to major by flipping the minor 3rd interval into a major 6th. Warm, hymn-like tones provide a beautiful soundscape. This entire section, entitled ‘Redemption’ is just awash with cosy, mellow colours - like a warm brassy hug. It really shows off the typical brass band sound we are known for in all its glory, with soprano cornet providing a lovely beam of light above the band.
The finale is just simply stunning, bringing a tear to my eye. A little rhythmic moment with driving snare builds a similar energy to the opening, but the stressful mood from the beginning is replaced with a more motivational vibe. Technical passages build around the stand. It’s a rollercoaster ride to the finish, with a spirited display of technical, musical and stylistic capabilities from every member of the band.
A real treat.
The Living God by Dorothy Gates
This was my first introduction to the music of Dorothy Gates and it fuelled my appetite to devour more of her work. This piece had the same effect on me as the first time I heard Goff Richard’s “I’ll Walk with God”. It is a beautiful, honest work written during a time of grief.
Composed in 1997, following the death of Gates’ father, this work is an expression of her grief and the questioning of her faith. It is an incredibly sensitive work, which leveraged the emotive power of the brass band sound and was performed with such depth of feeling, that I felt immersed within the composer’s thoughts and internal struggle.
It opens with a haunting and emotive flugel and repiano cornet duet, performed by Helen Williams and Hannah Plumridge respectively. The flow of the piece is wave-like with a repetitive, two-note rhythmic motif underpinning a sombre, hymn-like chordal movement from the flugel and horns. The sweet tone of the band’s principal cornet, Tom Hutchinson was perfectly suited to the solo line, which felt like a musical illustration of the composer’s inner turmoil - coping with the grief of losing her father and questioning her belief in God.
A crescendo paints a moment of anger and the piece ebbs and flows between minor passages that edge towards grief-stricken rage and epiphanic moments of light - to me this vividly portrayed inner turmoil caused by the traumatic events life can throw at us. Flashes of soprano cornet seem like fleeting doubts as the piece reaches a calm, reflective final chord - representing acceptance maybe or the composer offering up her doubts, grief and sadness towards God?
Year of the Dragon by Philip Sparke
Written 40 years ago for the Cory band’s centenary, I think it’s safe to say that Philip Sparke’s,’Year of the Dragon’ has reached iconic status within the brass band community, so needs very little introduction.
In the Chinese calendar, 2024 is the year of the dragon, so, it was very fitting to see ‘the dragon’ return to commemorate the band’s 140th anniversary.
Now, I have to be honest, this was the one piece in the programme where I put down my pen and notepad - partly because I was getting cramp in my hand, I had taken so many notes throughout the performance - but mostly because I just wanted to soak up the moment of watching Cory perform this work.
Year of the Dragon was one of the first pieces of iconic, original brass band music I was introduced to when I was little. I fell in love with it instantly and it has held a special place in my heart for nearly two decades. So, to see the band who commissioned the work, performing it in such a special year for the band was a bucket list moment.
From the laser-focussed staccato opening to the lush second movement and flourishing final movement - it was a whirlwind of a performance. The highlight of this piece came in the form of that legendary trombone solo performed by Steve Sykes. He saw his moment and he took it with both hands, delivering the solo with such suavity, effortless style and charismatic flair - I felt like I should have been sat in a jazz bar, a tumbler of whiskey in one hand and a cigar in the other.
An Exceptional Display of Musical Mastery
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me - I know it’s a long one, but I didn’t want to leave anything out, such was the standard of the performance!
All in all, the Cory Band’s performance at the International Brass Band Festival is one I will not forget in a hurry. The musical intuitiveness and technical dexterity of both soloists and ensemble members, coupled with the outstanding programme, expertly led by their dynamic Musical Director Philip Harper, was really something to behold. It was like the music was coming from Philip’s fingertips, the control he has over such a powerful musical machine that is the Cory Band was mesmerising to watch.
This was my first time watching the Cory band live away from the contest stage and, my goodness, I cannot wait to watch them again!