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An open letter to the music panel
As the round of area contests draws to a close it is perhaps apposite to reflect on the test piece choices used recently.
The panel are to be applauded for the choices in all five sections, pieces which have provided the bands with ample opportunity to really make music while focussing on the fundamentals of good brass playing. There have been problems though in the execution of these fundamentals, particularly the seeming continual erosion of many players abilities to control their instruments at softer dynamic levels and in passages where the scoring thins out. It is more and more evident that this is becoming an increasing problem in our “championship” section bands.
For all the naïve comments on social media, some from rather surprising sources, that Pageantry is no longer a “top section” test piece it bared its teeth in many ways exposing frailties in playing technique which don't sit well with bands of supposedly championship section status.
It proved to be an enema to some of the pointless excesses in some modern writing where, as we all know, it can be easier to hide your individual shortcomings as a player, and indeed collectively as a band, behind a barrage of semiquavers, cross- rhythms, excessive percussion and loud dynamics.
There have also been problems with a lack of understanding from conductors in how to approach some of these pieces. Excessive tempos are never going to impress if the detail and clarity is lost and in an age where it is easier than ever to do the background research and groundwork on pieces which have been around for a bit it seems either rash,foolish or perhaps arrogant to fail to at least consider the best of what can be gleaned from this research.
The five composers used all displayed an innate understanding of how to write effectively for band, providing well structured works with a skilful understanding of scoring which gave bands and conductors all they required for effective music making. The fact that many, both players and conductors, did not take full advantage of this is not the fault of the composers. We must continue to provide music of a high compositional standard for the areas and national finals which will, in the long term, see an improvement in overall standards of playing in all the sections should the conductors and players accept the challenge to take a hard look at where they can make the most improvement in their performance standards. For the vast majority this will mean focussing on improving each individuals control of their chosen instrument in exposed passages and at softer dynamic levels.
One of the best ways to do this is to continue to provide music written by composers with a real understanding of how to write effectively and sympathetically for band. Those who focus on giving us music which is idiomatic for each instrument and gives the players a chance to express themselves musically rather than attempting to trip them up with cheap tricks.
It is with this in mind that I submit the following list of suggestions for consideration for future use at both the areas and finals.
I would also add a caveat to the list in as much as it does not, by its very nature, address the crucial need for newly composed music. I would still like to see area and finals test pieces being chosen on some kind of rotation – eg. an established “classic” piece / a “modern” work / something new. All I would ask is that any “new” piece being considered displays the same high standard of compositional craft and skill in scoring as the suggestions on this list.
The lists for the lower sections are a little shorter as historically the compositions which still stand the test of time tend to originally be from the higher sections. Perhaps there is an extra opportunity here to encourage more new compositions?
I have marked with an (A) or an (F) any pieces with I think would be more suitable as areas or finals choices. This may be due to either difficulty or, in the odd instance, just the performance time. I have also added a few notes to explain what may at first seem any unusual choices.
The list is not exhaustive but hopefully will stimulate some discussion and debate.
Partita Philip Sparke
Cloudcatcher Fells John McCabe
Contest Music Wilfred Heaton
The Year of the Dragon Philip Sparke
Blitz Derek Bourgeois
Of Men and Mountains (F) Edward Gregson
Variations on a Ninth* Gilbert Vinter
* Can cornets & horns still triple tongue? On the recent evidence of Pageantry the cadenzas would still sort the soloists out.
Diversions for Brass Band (A) Derek Bourgeois
A Kensington Concerto (A) Eric Ball
Vistas (A) Martin Ellerby
Cantata (F) Andrew Duncan
Gallery (F) Howard Snell
Raveling Unraveling (F) Philip Sparke
A Symphony of Colours (F) Simon Dobson
Montage Peter Graham
Revelation (F) Philip Wilby
Spectrum Gilbert Vinter
The Essence of Time Peter Graham
Four Dances from “Checkmate” Bliss arr. Eric Ball
Connotations (F) Edward Gregson
High Peak Eric Ball
Variations for Brass Band Ralph Vaughan Williams
John O'Gaunt Gilbert Vinter
A Caledonian Suite Buxton Orr
A Downland Suite (F) John Ireland
Fire In The Sky Peter Meechan
Symphonic Music Paul Huber
Endeavour Philip Sparke
Fireworks (F) Elgar Howarth
Pantheon (F) Jacob Vilhelm Larsen
Tombstone Arizona Gareth Wood
Introduction, Elegy & Caprice Morley Calvert
Tournament for Brass (F) Eric Ball
Sinfonietta Gordon Langford
Dimensions Peter Graham
Three Impressions for Brass Arthur Butterworth
Triptych Philip Sparke
Culloden Moor Gareth Wood
Rococo Variations Allan Street
The Saga of Tyrfing Jacob Vilhelm Larsen
Tam O'Shanter's Ride Denis Wright
The Pilgrim's Progress (F) Rodney Newton
The Ages of Anxiety (F) Roger Payne
Penlee (A) Simon Dobson
Three Haworth Impressions Gordon Langford
Divertimento Bryan Kelly
Sinfonietta Joseph Horovitz
Variations on a Theme by Handel* Gordon Langford
* The composer's instructions on the score would allow a version of c. 12/13 minutes to be performed if required. A neglected gem by a master craftsman.
A Leadsman, a Lady and a Lord David Stanhope
Four Spanish Impressions Rodney Newton
Music for a Festival Philip Sparke
The Graces of Love (A) Oliver Waespi
Glasshouse Sketches (A) Barrie Gott
A Malvern Suite Philip Sparke
Three Inventions Pi Scheffer
Aspirations Derek Bourgeois
A Saddleworth Festival Overture Goff Richards
Edinburgh Dances (F) Bryan Kelly
1st Suite in Eb Gustav Holst arr. Sydney Herbert