Introducing... The Shepherd Building Group Brass Band, building a new future for an old York favourite.

The Shepherd Building Group Brass Band launches its new name, new sponsorship and new players at tomorrow's inaugural concert at York Theatre Royal. New musical director Chris Hirst, right, former principal trombonist with the Grimethorpe and Brighouse & Rastrick bands, tells Charles Hutchinson why it is goodbye Nestl Rowntree, hello Shepherd...

How did the name change come about, Chris?

"Last year the Nestl Rowntree Brass Band celebrated its centenary, but it was also the year when Nestl sold off the building where the band rehearsed. The factory didn't cut the band off, they just moved them out of the old building and gave them rehearsal premises at Joseph Rowntree School, where they were using a mobile classroom.

"That relationship would have been on-going, but then this sponsorship deal with Shepherd came about. It's a wonderful deal, in which they're giving us a significant increase on what Nestl Rowntree gave us."

Was the band's break with Nestl Rowntree amicable?

"Rowntree have been very good to the band; they let them keep everything, the instruments and library of music, whereas other bands elsewhere have had everything taken off them. The Rowntree library is 100 years old, with pieces of music that you can't get hold of anymore, so it's invaluable."

Was there any threat to the band's future?

"More famous bands than Rowntree have closed down, such as the Sunlife Stanshaw Band in Bristol and all those colliery bands in this region. Finding sponsorship is incredibly difficult, and the guys who have secured the deal, including trombone player David Gregg and band chairman Gordon Hills, deserve a real pat on the back. It really is an amazing thing they they've pulled off, because this band could very easily have gone down the pan."

What facilities are Shepherd Building Group providing for the band?

"We're now rehearsing at Portakabin in Huntington, where Shepherd has given us this incredible facility, the Hi-Bay theatre, which is like a mini concert hall. I'm sure we could do a concert in there! I've been in bands where they don't even have loos, so this is quite a contrast. The rehearsal space is as good as any I've ever been in."

What attracted you to taking on the post of musical director?

"I was with the band in the same capacity from 1997 to 2000, and it was the right thing to leave when I did. I went on to be the conductor for the British Steel Teesside Band and East Yorkshire Motor Services Band, and for the past couple of years I've been with the Barnsley Building Society Band. Then towards the end of last year the York band asked me if I would be interested in taking them to the area championship competition, and although they didn't qualify for the finals, they played incredibly well.

"So I agreed to stay on, and it's a good time to be involved. I've brought in some new players and I'd say the band is the best it has ever been in its 100-year history."

How do you make that judgement?

"This band has always been a lower section band, but now we've got into the national championship section, competing against the likes of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

"The new sponsorship has been a massive boost to the band too. It has been a breath of fresh air, especially with the superb facilities, and Shepherd has agreed to sponsor us for three years, with a 12-month notice period so that we will not be dropped in it if they don't renew it."

Who are the new players to spot in tomorrow's concert?

"Some of them are local to York, but we've got in one player, David Farmer, who I first had under my wing in York at All Saints and went on to study at Cheethams in Manchester and at the Royal Academy. He's a real superstar player, and because he lives in Cambridge now, he obviously can't do every rehearsal but we can put up with that because he's so good.

"The percussionist, Tim Power, has relinquished his position with the Brighouse & Rastrick to play with us, and again he's not local. He's from Manchester.

"We have players from Selby, and a husband and wife who come over from Marsden, Shaun and Anne Jackson; Anne will be playing a horn solo this weekend."

How has the composition of brass bands changed over the years?

"Gone are the days when everyone in a band was local to that community because there were restrictions on being able to travel. The majority of this band is still made up of York people but there are musicians making long journeys to play for us."

How many musicians will be playing tomorrow, and what will be the programme highlights?

"All 70 players in the training, concert and senior bands, from beginners to semi-professionals to soloists, will be taking part. There'll be quite a bit of Salvationist music, such as Peter Graham's Shine As The Light, and we'll be doing Prokofiev's Troika from Lieutenant Kije; Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memory, with a soprano cornet solo by Mark Durham; a Jerry Herman piece; Mack & Mabel; Irving Berlin's Let's Face The Music And Dance; and all the bands will do a joint item, an arrangement from the Gladiator soundtrack."

Can you confirm the band will return to the Theatre Royal in the autumn season for a repertory production?

"Yes, the band will be playing in Damian Cruden's production of Brassed Off, so that will be a heavy-duty commitment. I don't know if they realise what they've let themselves in for."

Shepherd Building Group Brass Band, York Theatre Royal, April 24, 7.30pm. Tickets: £8 on 01904 623568.

Updated: 16:20 Thursday, April 22, 2004