A week to remember at the NYBBS summer course - report by Damian Martin

Tuesday 30 July 2019

With the country sweltering in record temperatures, the well-manicured lawns of Strathallan School rang to the sounds of Scotland’s finest young brass and percussion talent, as the National Youth Brass Bands of Scotland returned for their annual summer residential course.

A total of 174 students descended on rural Perthshire on Sunday 21st July, drawn from the length and breadth of Scotland, with some travelling in from as far afield as the Isle of Man, Devon, Switzerland, Belgium and France. There was certainly plenty to keep the students busy over the course of the week, with four concerts, a recording session, three solo contests and two talent shows to be packed into a hectic schedule.

Of the three bands within the NYBBS family, two were under new musical direction this year. Leading the cream of Scotland’s young players in the Senior outfit was new Musical Director Ian Porthouse, under the watchful eye of redoutable Musical Director Emeritus Richard Evans. The Children’s Band, featuring players aged from 9-13, was eagerly marshalled for the first time by the inspirational Alan Fernie, while John Boax returned to direct the intermediate Reserve Band.

Despite a few nervous faces prior to the seating auditions on the first afternoon (and not merely from the students; an event of this size requires a not insignificant amount of organisation!), it was quickly down to Business As Normal as the students settled into their first full band rehearsals that same evening.

Two days of hard work followed, as each band prepared for concerts on the Wednesday. The Children’s and Reserve bands performed to a packed house at the Forgandenny Village Hall, in a performance full of exuberant energy that left the audience clamouring for more. While for the Senior Band it was an afternoon trip to Edinburgh to play on the world-famous Ross Bandstand. Tourists taking advantage of a rare, but fortuitous, break in the Scottish rain were treated to a memorable performance amid the stunning backdrop of Prince’s Street Gardens, as the band powered into life with a conductorless Blackbird Special. Works by Jacob Vilhelm Larsen, Matthew Hall and Gavin Higgins followed, among others, before Richard Evans climbed to the stage to lead a version of the march ‘Where Our Flag Waves’ that showed the old maestro still has plenty of swagger left in the locker.

With just two days to prepare such a tricky programme, there was clearly a lot to for the seniors to do in a short space of time. Nonetheless, the students rose to the challenge admirably, as Ian Porthouse explains:

 “Once again the NYBBS impressed me immensely with their enthusiastic desire to reach the highest musical level. The band’s firm grasp of the repertoire from such an early point in the week allowed us to spend time discussing and honing more detailed technical and musical elements. It’s the ability to be aware of and to master such details that I think is so important to consider when nurturing the future of our movement.”

There was little time for students or staff alike to catch breath before Thursday’s solo contests, and with 39 entries this year there was some fabulous playing on show from all age groups. Adjudicators Brett Baker and Ailsa Russell eventually plumped for young Baritone star Charlie Boax in the Children’s Band and fast-rising Soprano talent Gregor Koziel in the Reserve Band as their champions. In the Senior Band contest, adjudicator Nigel Durno had no hesitation in awarding the trophy to a stunning performance from Principal Trombone Robyn Anderson.

Friday evening offered a chance for all to let their hair down, as the now-traditional ‘NYBBS’ Got Talent’ night returned in all its raucous glory. There were tears, there were tantrums (and that was just the staff), but eventually the title went to young Ethan Deane of the Children’s Band, whose comedic singalong Bohemian Rhapsody had young and old alike helpless with laughter.

And then, somehow, it was Saturday. Concert day.

Kicking proceedings off at Strathallan was the Children’s Band, delivering a joyful performance described by no less an authority than Richard Evans himself as “simply mindblowing”. He continued, “I was so pleased when Alan Fernie was appointed as the new MD, but in the space of a week this man has turned the band into an unbelievable ‘superteam’. I just love what he does.”

“It’s been a brilliant week with a brilliant band!” reflected Alan, continuing “It is such a privilege to conduct these fabulous kids. We set them huge challenges - two concerts, a recording session, a test piece, three world premieres - and they responded magnificently. If only our local authorities here in Scotland could see just what music can do for young people. I hope the band enjoyed it as much as myself and our fantastic team of tutors and house staff did. Plans are already afoot for next year and I can't wait!".

A long but rewarding week then finally drew to a close with the Reserve and Senior Bands’ concert at Stirling’s Albert Halls. First to the stage were the Reserves and MD John Boax with a performance of real contrasts, the six-strong percussion section impressing particularly. The main test for the band came in a well-measured performance of Kevin Houben’s substantial work Lake of the Moon, while Tom Davoren’s Embers and Frederick Schjelderup’s Concordi provided slow counterpoint.

Proud MD John explained “It was clear early on that this was going to be a successful week with a well-balanced band, enabling us to pick repertoire specially chosen to highlight different sections. The final concert has really showcased the hard work the students have put in. It’s been another great week with the NYBBS family, with happy, smiling faces all round tonight and many already looking forward to next year.”.

With Ian Porthouse unavailable for concert day, it was then left to the indefatigable Richard Evans to lead the senior band in a musical tour de force that provided a fitting finale to what he described as a “wonderfully exhilarating” week of music-making. With a suitably Wagnerian Rienzi a stand-out, Richard was ably assisted here by Brett Baker, who led the band through two movements of Malcolm Arnold’s Scottish Dances, and former Principal Cornet Eoin Tonner, who picked up the baton on Peter Graham favourite Shine As The Light.

For Eoin it was an honour to be back working with the band once more, commenting “It’s been slightly surreal being back on the other side of the fence. Caroline Farren was NYBBS Principal Cornet back when I first joined the band, followed by Iain Culross from whom I then took over. To now have the three of us all tutoring on the course at the same time has been amazing.”.

As tearful goodbyes were said, proud students and parents disappearing into the night, it was time for the staff to reflect on a job well done and to turn an eye to the future.

It was not just the 300-strong audience that was impressed by the performances, Richard Evans admitting the next day “I'm still buzzing with proud excitement thinking of the standard every young player achieved in their final concert performances. Our new director of the senior NYBBS, Ian Porthouse has certainly made his mark on the band. I have not heard them play to that standard for many years. The same is to be said about both our Reserve and Children’s bands; the future looks rosy”.

 “After hearing all three bands this week, I can undoubtedly say the future of NYBBS is in very safe hands with the current music staff.” agrees Ian Porthouse. “I can’t thank our brilliant team of tutors enough for their input, and Richard Evans was his usual inspirational self! The ongoing support from SBBA and the incredible House Staff led by the irrepressible Carrie Boax ensures that I can concentrate on purely musical matters. We have a very clear plan for the future, with several new commissions in place for next year which I am looking forward to hugely. Bravo all, music making and organisation of the highest standard!”.

It’s left to Richard, unsurprisingly, to have the last word. “I still think” he adds, "NYBBS is the best kept secret in Scotland". On the evidence of this week it would be hard to argue.

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