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Lower Section National Finals - Test Piece Reviews

We've had a quick look at the four set works for the Lower Section Finals. Lots to test the bands in all the pieces, with lenty of tunes and even the need to pack a few wine glasses (to play not for celebratory purposes). These are our thoughts on them all.....


Section One:

Leonardo
Dr Philip Wilby
Rosehill Music

First things first. This is not a test piece about a Brazilian footballer, or a small green Ninja turtle - it is a test piece about Leonardo da Vinci, who is perhaps the most celebrated artist, inventor and general man about town of the Renaissance period. He was born in 1452 and died in 1519 and left us with a wealth of priceless paintings, sculptures, drawings, notebooks and scientific findings that even today we find utterly fascinating.

He was the bloke who brought us the Mona Lisa (the woman with enigmatic smile - although did you know he painted her without any eyebrows?), the Last Supper in the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and the amazing anatomical drawings of man (which used to hang on every wall of a student flat from here to Timbuktu). He was the son of a Florentine lawyer and described himself as a painter, architect, philosopher, poet, composer, sculptor, athlete, mathematician, inventor and anatomist on his CV when he applied for a job as city planner to the Duke of Milan. (Not someone of a shy disposition then!) He also had the strange habit of using mirror writing in all his books etc and made the first blueprints of helicopters and wave machines as well as personally undertaking anatomical dissections. Some chap.

Secondly - Leonardo is a very difficult test piece for First Section bands. It is just over 10 minutes long, and was written for the Swiss Brass Band Association, the Netherlands Brass Band Championships and the Norwegian Band Federation and comprises of six sections which relate to a series of the great mans sketches found at the Queen's Library at Windsor Castle. They translate, as Philip Wilby himself states, " his visual studies into purely musical terms, and transform their images, turbulent or intimate, mechanistic or heraldic by turns, into a composition which draws it's energy from Leonardo's great example".

However - unlike Leonardo's great works, this test piece for us isn't one of Wilby's finest moments. It is hard, technical and even effective, but it relies too heavily on ideas, forms and themes that we have heard before in many of his other works. There are nods and winks, echoes and repeats from "Paganini Variations" to "New Jerusalem" from "Masquerade" and "Lowry Sketchbook". It adds up to a piece that is a mish mash of ideas that is never quite individual enough to stand on it's two feet - it needs the crutches of Wilby's other works to support itself.

After a short Prologue we move into a section entitled, "Study in Turbulence" and there is lots of it about for sure. However, it is very familiar turbulence and the effects (including the use of wine glasses) have all been heard before. It asks questions of bands, but somehow you know they already have a good idea what the answers may be. The euph makes it's obligatory Wilby entry and it ends with a bang. It's a bit paint by numbers Wilby music.

A neat fugue follows, led by the cornets (again it sounds as if it's been dusted down from another old work) and once more the technical questions are asked - difficult, yes, but not drastically unplayable. It is a section that somehow never quite develops as it should and finishes abruptly. A section entitled "Inventions" follows and this is the best of the writing of the piece - quiet and detailed with difficult work for the cornets and flugel. There is a lot to ask the bands about texture and colour here and should sort out the men from the boys. This leads into the fifth section - a fugue, which starts on the euph accompanied by the obligatory wine glasses and tom tom.

This goes along nicely until it harks back to other Wilby repertoire and becomes faintly boring - it is repetitive and although it makes for exciting listening, it certainly doesn't make for anything new to listen too. The technical demands are high, especially in the inner parts, but you are left with the feeling of "so what?".

The Finale starts in much the same vein that has gone before, with a rhythm straight out of a former piece. It ends in typical Wilby fff fashion.

This was a huge disappointment for us. Technically it will test the bands to the full - and beyond in many cases, but this pastiche music - a poor copy of some of his best moments from his better works. There has never been an artist quite like Leonardo da Vinci and in many ways there has never been a brass band composer like Philip Wilby. However, he doesn't do the great man any favours with this work - it is tired and somewhat bereft of ideas for us, and for such a great brass composer that is a great, great shame. It will test the bands for sure, but if the bands ever want to perform vintage Wilby, they should start looking at his earlier works to see a real master of his craft.


Section Two:

Danceries
Kenneth Hesketh

This is a corker of a test piece for the bands in the Second Section to perform. Where as "Leonardo" for us was a pastiche of former ideas and themes from earlier better works, Kenneth Hesketh's "Danceries" is as fresh as a proverbial daisy.

It is a piece that is broken into 4 sections - called "Lull Me Beyond Thee", "Catching of Quails", "My Lady's Rest" and "Quodlings's Delight". Each is a little gem of an individual musical picture that takes its inspiration from the folk and popular tunes of the 17th Century.

The term "Danceries" can be found in a copy of Playford's "Dancing Master" and therefore gives you some idea of what the music that inspired the work were - a 17th century version of disco music. You may think it would be all hay diddy, diddy, codpieces and lots of "My Liege I besiege thee" stuff, but it isn't. The old ideas have been adapted and there is a very clever and pleasant use of new ideas, contemporary harmonies and rhythms that make the music sound up to date - not quite hip and trendy, but still in the right ball park.

The first movement - "Lull Me Beyond Thee" is gentle stuff and as the notes in the CD we had said, almost a barcarole, lilting, almost a reverie in character. The original tune had the name "Poor Robin's Maggot" - not a reflection of a measurement of the contents of a gentleman's codpiece, but of a "whim" or "fancy" - thank God for that!

"Catching of Quails" is a colourful, buoyant scherzo on an original melody too, but has been brought up to date with some neat and clever writing from the composer and there is a clever twist at the end as well.

"My Lady's Rest" - we are sure a few bored third cornet players would have changed the R to a V to pass the time! This is a tender pavane with Moorish leanings, so you get a touch of almost North Africa about it in a way. It is expressive and will possibly test the solo players to the full to get the right sense of style in the music. Lots of contrapuntal writing and warm tutti sections will also sort out the best from the rest. (or vest!)

The final section is a very clever combination of a seventeenth century melody called "Goddesses" with an original melody from the composer to create a rousing upbeat and exuberant finish to the work.

We think the bands would have enjoyed this work and there should be some fine performances - as long as the bands and especially the MDs get into the spirit of things with it. Why not have a look at the "Blackadder 2" series with Rik Myall as "Flasheart" and the Miranda Richardson as "Queeny" - then you know what we are on about!


Section Three:

Cherchebi
Goff Richards
Obrasso - Verlag AG


Cherchebi by Goff Richards takes its name from the Domesday Book's title for the area around Kirkby Lonsdale - the band of the same name that commissioned the piece. It's a four movement work from one of the most popular composers for brass - and especially in the lowers sections and will be a fair old test for the competitors. Goff Richards himself is in the box, so you can guarantee he knows what to look for!

The Domesday Book was the famous register of the lands ordered by William the Conqueror in order to determine the level of taxation he could place upon his new kingdom. It was started in 1085 and finished in 1086 and although it was extensive, it didn't cover areas of Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham and parts of Westmorland. It was written in two parts and now resides at the Public Record Office at Kew. Kirkby Lonsdale is a small town just up from Lancaster off the M6 off Morecambe Bay. Their band has been going for a number of years and the piece has been written with the band and the area very much in mind.

The first movement is inspired by one of the various stories of "Devil's Bridge". It seems a lady of ill repute who got he better of the Devil in something of a bet of a dog and a few cattle. (Women always get the better don't they!!")

The opening movement starts slowly, with the horns having continual groups of reiterated 6's. This is taken on by the euph before we move into a Maestoso section that is quite heavily scored and will need the detail to come through. As always with Goff Richards there is a very important percussion part throughout which will test many (three players are required). There is a long D.S as a repeat (the story involves the Devil asking the woman to undertake the bet twice) and the music ends strongly as the lady once more gets the upper hand.

The second movement is entitled, "St. Mary's Church" and the building dates back to around 1130. It is a movement that Richards testes the players skills at performing with tone and balance and with a sense of serenity to the full. The rolling 6's appear again to start on the horns and much of the simple themes are kept below forte at most. Again it is thickly scored in places yet the detail is all important. It ends with a bit of a bum clenching last pause - pp after a small break. Some players will be sweating.

The Third movement is entitled "Ruskin's View" -after the famous art critic and writer John Ruskin who was a close friend of the painter Turner. He was born in 1819 and died in 1900 and the famous college in Oxford is named after him. Once more the 6's appear at the start - although this time on the solo cornet. The basses have a bit of dainty work to consider, which will take some playing to come over clearly and cleanly and the main theme is fairly well spread out amongst the other instruments.

There is a huge climax of fortissimo that dies away in just five bars to piano that centres the movement before it runs away with a leggiero side drum rhythm that underscores a main legato theme. It ends quietly with the advent of a wind chime.

The final movement is a homage to the Kirkby Lonsdale band themselves and once more the 6's appear to start things off. This is a march in structure - although not many start with a glock and is straight forward in construction. It's the clever use of detailed motifs that mark the section out though with little snippets here and there that will have to be brought through to make it sound effective. It is the usual Goff Richards up beat stuff - great fun. A 6/8 section will test the bands capabilities to play in a slightly different style as well - a bit like moving from "Ravenswood" to "Punchinello" before a nice big round end. The last couple of bars see the percussion feature as a solo in the last bar before a huge final chord ends things with a bang.

Great test for the band this - plenty of things to test the nerves, character and musicianship and plenty of neat tunes. Should make for a good contest.


Section Four:

A Cambrian Suite
Michael Ball
Studio Music

Michael Ball has written brass band music for performance at the very highest levels - two British Open test pieces and a European for starters and he brings the same amount of class and musical thought to his "Cambrian Suite".

This was commissioned jointly by the Black Dyke Band and the Brass Band Heritage Trust and is intended to be played without a break, but divides into three main sections. Each section is based upon some of the best loved and most popular Welsh folk and traditional melodies, which are easily recognisable although each has undergone some radical variation. The themes are as follows - "Gwyr Harlech" - "Men of Harlech" for the non Welsh speakers out there, Suo - Gan ("Cradle Song") and Codiad Yr Hedydd ("The Rising of the Lark"). There is also a pasing momentary reference is the beautiful "Y Deryn Pur" ("The White Bird or Gentle Dove"). It is not the longest test piece in the world either - just over 9 minutes long.

As expected the opening is a decisive march which will need control and balance to come off, and a keen ear to ensure that the detail of the snippets of the famous tune come through in the right places. Something is asked of just about all the bad in the opening so any weaknesses will be exposed and any overblowing could result in a multitude of splits! The best bands will take heart from the Welsh at Rourkes Drift - "Zulus - fousands of 'em!"

Suo Gan is a much more gentle piece of writing - a lullaby that is exquisitely written by the composer. Again it is a question getting the fragments right to build the musical jigsaw. The euph and flugel have the tune to start before things build - yet never enough to wake the baby! The best bands will really take the risks and try and play quietly, although beware of tuning problems and nerves playing tricks with the air supply. The Gentle Dove makes a brief appearance from above (its on the sop line) before another squeeze your cheeks together ending.

The final movement starts with a nod back to the opening with a snippet of Men of Harlech before a joyous romp through to the end with some highly articulate playing required from al sections of the band. The technical demands are never too great, but will need plenty of care and attention and the composer has ensure that bands just don't blow for the sake of it with lots of detailed dynamic markings to test and test again. However, the final test will possibly scupper a few bands efforts - 10 bars from the end there is a build up of parts layered on top of each other with bell entries to a final fff end. Some will be out of breath and some will be out of tune by now! Only the best bands with a little in reserve for the very last couple of bars will make the final impression to impress the judges.

A great choice this - plenty of great tunes (the Welsh always have the best ones) and enough technical demands to keep bands and MD's on their toes throughout. The best band will deserve the title.


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