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Retrospective - The Besson Scottish Solo & Ensemble Championships 2004

Howden Park Centre - Livingston
7th & 8th February 2004


The Besson Scottish Solo and Ensemble Championships, now in their second year, were held over a full weekend in the Mews Theatre at Howden Park Centre in Livingston. Hosted by the Scottish Brass Band Association and with support from West Lothian Council, they attracted a wide range of talent from throughout Scotland to this intimate setting, which makes a perfect venue for this size of event with all necessary facilities available and fine acoustics.

The Junior (under 12) event kicked off the proceedings and the fine young quartet from St. Ninian's Primary in Livingston were clear winners under their conductor Mary Downs. The category was to prove particularly successful for Mrs. Downs as her talented cornetist daughter Susannah, representing St. John the Baptist Primary School in Fauldhouse, emerged as the winner in the Junior Solo section with an accomplished performance of Weiderker (The Return). Last year's winner Ross Knight, a tubist with a terrific sound for his age, of Carlogie Primary was placed second. Iain Tonner of Monifieth took 3rd prize and 4th place went to Hayley Edmond of Livingston.

The much travelled Campbeltown Brass dominated the Intermediate (12-15) quartets with 1st and 2nd prizes, and the progressive Jedforest Instrumental Band from the Borders took 3rd prize. There was further success for the Borders in the solo category with Ross Brotherstone of St. Ronan's taking the top prize with a stylish, if only slightly flawed, performance of Zelda by Percy Code. Leah Murdoch of Dalmellington and last year's winner Ashlynn Crozier of Old Machar Academy took 2nd and 3rd prizes.

Adjudicator Chris Wormald, who was seated in the audience, was delighted with the overall standard in the contest so far, but was slightly disappointed that many of the young players may have slightly overstretched themselves in terms of their choice of music, with very few pulling off flawless performances. His fears were allayed when the Youth (16-21) category began with the young quartet from Whitburn Band immediately earning 98 points from the number one draw position. The experience in this group (all 4 played in the band's recent prize-winning performance at the British Open) belies their young age, but was a taste of things to come for the rest of the weekend. Campbeltown Brass rounded off a good day when they took 2nd prize with 93 points.

BBC Radio 2 Young Brass Musician Finalist Richard Kidd kicked off the Youth Solos with an almost unbeatable performance of Arban's Carnival of Venice on Euphonium, which was notable not only for its smooth sound and brilliant technique, but also for the spadefulls of showmanship displayed. Unfortunately for Richard, Katrina Marzella of Whitburn, also a BBC finalist, was on top form and gave the most wonderful performance of Philip Sparke's Pantomime which unseated him from the winner's enclosure. Throughout the long and lyrical opening, Katrina demonstrated absolute security of technique and a beautiful full sound over the range of the instrument. More importantly, Chris Wormald identified the character and musicianship she brought to the performance and once she had negotiated the technical section, with a final flourish to a top F (the one above top C), the door was well and truly locked behind her. Graham Fraser of Whitburn, on tuba, took a thoroughly deserved 3rd place with Weber's Last Waltz.

So to the evening concert, and West Lothian Schools under Nigel Boddice showed us all why they Have been one of the leading youth bands in the country for the last few generations. In conversation with Nigel beforehand, he suggested that although the band has had many fine players in the past, he couldn't remember having so many good ones at the same time. His judgement in this matter appears to be on solid ground, as there really isn't a weak section in the band and in Caroline Munro on cornet and Katrina Marzella they have two young players of absolutely the highest standard. If there was a slight weakness in their performance, it was shown whilst they were accompanying Steve Sykes and their own two soloists and just making them work a bit harder to be heard than necessary. Nevertheless, when Steve was around it was all very enjoyable stuff and the great man (in more ways than one!) was also at the top of his game.

Scottish Co-op under Raymond Tennant did the 2nd half of the programme, which included Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers, a terrific vehicle for British Champion Alex Kerwin to show her versatility. Other programme highlights included Darrol Barry's Impromptu for Tuba, which allowed Steve Sykes to demonstrate his terrific control, and they finished with the Triumphant Entry of Spartacus by Khachaturian.

So to Sunday and an early start for the qualifying round in the Open Solo section. Steve Sykes' choice of the top 6 would proceed to the final later in the day and he was to have his work cut out keeping it only to six. In the event Whitburn were to take four of the places with Jim Chamberlain (Flugel), Katrina Marzella (Baritone), Charles Cullen (Cornet) and Mark Boyd (Trombone) all progressing. Last year's winner Gregor Stewart (Trombone) of Bo'ness & Carriden and Iain Maxwell of Carnoustie were to be the other two finalsts.

Before the final though we were to treated to a real Clash of the Titans in the ensemble contest. The 10 piece from Whitburn were first to make their mark with Mike Marzella at the helm. Their programme of Anything You Can Do, Exhibition Can Can and Bridal Song, all arranged by Howard Snell was completed with a quite stunning piece of ensemble playing in Radio City from A Londoner in New York. Scottish Co-op's opener of Birdland showed that they were unconcerned by Anything Whitburn Could Do and featured a wonderful trumpet section switched onto overdrive. Unfortunately, the contrasting style of Mozart's Ave Verum didn't appear to suit them too much and a number of intonation problems and a few split notes were to prove costly. American Salute, arranged by conductor Simon Kerwin was their finisher but it was probably too little too late after the difficulties encountered in the middle piece.

On to the solo final and defending champion Gregor Stewart (who was later to discover that he had in fact won the morning round) got them off to a great start with Concertino by Lars Erik Larssen. Possibly not quite as perfect as his morning performance had been but still one that was notable for it's quality of sound and production in the slow movement and which would still undoubtedly be a contender. Next up, Jim Chamberlain playing Legende by Enesco, which was a slightly different style from the usual fare on these occasions, but was the perfect platform for this most stylish of flugel players to display his terrific technique, range and control. Whitburn veteran Charles Cullen followed Jim and gave a typically laid back but accomplished performance of Facilita by John Hartmann. A couple of splits were enough to probably rule him out of contention but he certainly captured the audience's imagination.

Mark Boyd also gave us the Larssen Concertino, but in a slightly shortened version. If anything distinguished this performance from the previous one it was possibly the character that his more lyrical sound brought to the music. He also had the technique to match and the majority of the audience had Mark in the lead at this stage. Katrina Marzella had encountered a couple of difficulties with the accompanist in her morning performance of Pantomime, so she made the wise decision to change to the slightly more straightforward but just as difficult Weber's Last Waltz for the final. This was to prove a masterstroke as she went on to produce possibly the finest performance anyone who was there can remember in this type of contest. Taking for granted all the basics like sound, production and intonation, this was beautifully lyrical as well as technically perfect and it finished with her trademark ending of a double octave run to a top F that brought the house down. Iain Maxwell gave us another shortened Larssen to finish on trombone, which on most other days would have been a real contender for the top prize. He is a young man of great promise though and he will have his day soon enough.

Short speeches from Steve Sykes and Chris Wormald followed and then the results. Whitburn retained the Ensemble Championships with Co-op 2nd and the Whitburn Quintet 3rd. No surprises in the solos either. Katrina's perfect weekend was complete. Played 4 - won 4 and the first player in almost 30 years to do the double of Youth and Open Solo Champion. Mark Boyd took 2nd place and the trombone prize, Gregor Stewart 3rd and Iain Maxwell 4th. Jim Chamberlain took the best horn or flugel prize, Jonathon Gawn (Scottish Co-op) the best Tuba and Charles Cullen both the best cornet and soloist over-40. Kenny Carlyle of Whitburn was awarded the prize for the best percussionist in the ensemble contest.

A terrific weekend for SBBA, West Lothian Council and Besson, which will be remembered for many years for the standard of playing over the whole weekend.

J. Casey
Copyright 4BR

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