Interview with Philip Harper
Award-winning conductor and composer Philip Harper has led the world’s No.1 brass band, The Cory Band, since 2012. He has won all the major trophies including the Grand Slam of all major titles in 2016 & 2019 – something now known as the ‘Harper Slam’. In more recent years, Philip has guest conducted other prestigious bands such as Manger Musikklag Band, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Symphonic Brass and the National Youth Brass Band of Wales.
Also a successful composer, many of Philip’s works for brass band have been chosen for contests, as well as concerts. His challenging, but engaging style keeps players and audiences hooked.
I was able to catch up with Philip recently about Cory, conducting, composing and more!
Let’s start with the ‘Big C’ in the room…Cory! You took up being their Musical Director in 2012 and have led them in success in the last 8 years. Have you got any contest highlights since conducting Cory?
So many highlights and winning my first big contests in 2013 (European and Nationals) felt like a very significant moment. In terms of best performances there are two: the Nationals winning performance of Spiriti in 2015 and the British Open performance of Fraternity in 2017 which came third. Summer 2015 was a big turning point for the band as we had successfully recruited in some key positions, most notably Helen and Glyn Williams, and the first rehearsal back after the break felt like there was a new, incredible energy and potential in the room. We couldn’t wait to get to the autumn contests but drew extremely early at the Open, played well and came 3rd. About a week before the October Nationals it felt to me that everything was coming together just perfectly, then we got a better draw and produced one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever been involved with. It was like I had electricity coming out of my hands!
With Fraternity we had already won the European on it the year before in 2016, and I was worried about inspiring the band again on the same piece so soon. But I needn’t have worried, the band was immense and I had tears rolling down my cheeks through the last few emotional pages. I’ve never seen a standing ovation at the Open before, but we got one this day. I was so ecstatic that after the last note I ran into the percussion section and high-fived one of the players. It was one of the biggest buzzes I’ve ever felt on stage with Cory.
What does it feel like to know that Cory are the Number 1 brass band in the world?
It makes me proud, but it also means that we feel under pressure all the time. I guess that’s one of the reasons we can keep the standards so high – there’s always a lot to lose! It will happen one day of course, but until then we all feel very protective of the ranking, and determined to make sure that our performances reflect it.
How do you go about programming a concert for Cory? What things do you consider in this process?
My main consideration is the audience, and the journey on which we will take them. I consider how I would like the audience to be feeling on every step, and enjoy discovering and creating new music which can elicit a wide range of emotions. Brass bands are well known for being loud ensembles, but I particularly make sure that we have quiet moments too and even pieces which are much more nuanced – a lot of people don’t expect to hear this from a brass band, so I also try and dispel the stereotype with our audiences.
Also a successful composer, a range of your works have been used as brass band test pieces over the years. What is it about these works that make them ideal choices for contests?
I don’t know, as I’m not the one choosing them! But I always try and compose something which will engage, interest and challenge the players. Having a story to the music is a good way of engaging players and listeners. I generally envisage an entire piece and emotional journey in my head before I sit at the piano and begin composing the actual notes.
What do you think the world of brass banding will be like in 20 years time?
I hope it will still still exist! There are so many examples of insularity and resistance to change that I worry for the future. We have to adapt to survive, and therefore we have to remain relevant to 21st Century audiences. But we also have to be a lot more inclusive for people to actively participate and I hope that the direction of travel continues along the trajectory of connecting well with our local communities, and encouraging banding as an exciting and rewarding hobby for young people. We also have to get a whole lot better at promoting ourselves – I don’t think even in 20 years we’ll be anywhere near being able to throw off the cloth-cap image that has been an incorrect stereotype for a long time already!
Getting young people involved in banding is always a hot topic. Do you have any thoughts on this and how we can make the banding movement more accessible to young people?
We need to make it dynamic, exciting, relevant and motivational. I always try to do this with my work with Cory – choosing the best music and presenting it in the best way. And we have to embrace online too – we are doing more and more short videos with Cory as statistics show that this is a very popular media to young people. Once we have their attention, we need to do all we can to ensure that there is a network of flourishing local bands out there, run well and led by inspiring conductors, so that young people can get involved and start reaping the benefits of banding – teamwork, friendship, achievement, dedication etc
What’s coming up for you in 2020?
In the next few months very little now, due to all the cancellations because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a real worry for any freelance musician and I hope I can get through it (sorry to sound morbid, but it’s not looking rosy). Further ahead than that, Cory is due to tour South Korea in August and then I will return to Hamamatsu in Japan. I also have a number of new compositions in the pipeline for bands in the UK and abroad.
©Alex Burns 2020