Gavin Higgins grew up in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, an old mining region where the tradition of brass bands lives on. He began his musical training playing the tenor horn in one of these bands, and these bands have remained an important part of his musical makeup as a composer. He has written extensively for wind and brass ensembles, but his Proms commission, a 40-minute Concerto Grosso for brass band and orchestra, introduced by the Tredegar Band and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Ryan Bancroft (a former trumpeter himself), is by far the most ambitious of these pieces to date.
Higgins describes the work as a “love letter” to the music he has known since childhood, drawing inspiration from his cultural heritage and musical style. The five movements of his concerto are divided into two continuous musical parts; the first sequence, he says, delves into “the geographical, industrial and socio-economic roots of the medium,” while the second celebrates “the high lyricism and dazzling virtuosity” of the music.
It’s superbly crafted, not only showcasing the brilliance of Tredegar’s players, but also working satisfyingly through the large-scale scheme with vivid musical ideas. The orchestra generally has a subsidiary role, rarely taking center stage after the first few moments, even if the “concerto grosso” is perhaps a little inappropriate, as there is no back and forth between the group and the orchestra associated with the baroque form. The fourth movement is its expressive heart, with long melodic lines and dense chorales that eventually evaporate into a series of booming cadences, before the brief toccata-like finale. Higgins also provided the group’s encore – a gently sentimental arrangement of Welsh folksong Ar Lan y Môr, conducted by its musical director Ian Porthouse.
Bancroft followed the premiere with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, in a remarkably well-supported performance delivered with tremendous panache by BBCNOW. It only faltered in the most unlikely places, the walk to the scaffold, taken just a tad too fast to extract its full grand-horn effect, but the final witches’ Sabbath certainly reached a suitably hysterical climax.