2004 European Championships - Retrospective - Championship Contest

12-May-2004

4BR looks back at the Championship Contest, which saw victory go once more to the Yorkshire Building Society Band and Professor David King


Audio Ray Farr'r thought on St. Magnus [WAV 1.07Mb]
Audio Stuart Lingard's thoughts [WAV 683kb]
Audio Peter Roberts's thoughts [WAV 548kb]
Audio Kenneth Downie - St. Magnus [MP3 598kb]

David King being interviewed by Trevor Caffull of SP&SHow do you measure greatness? In a strictly statistical way there is no doubt – the Yorkshire Building Society Band and Professor David King are the contesting phenomenon of the modern brass band age. In Glasgow this year they confirmed what many had known for a long time – when they play to their optimum ability they are nigh on unbeatable.

When it comes to statistics the record books never lie. Six European wins on the bounce; eight wins in nine years. In the 11 years that Professor David King has been at the helm of the band, they have laid claim to being regarded as one of the best, if not, the very best brass band in the history of the movement.

On the other hand, forget the statistics, as they don't do the band and it conductor justice. What happened in the Royal Concert Hall on the weekend of the 1st and 2nd of May placed YBS at the very apex of contesting supremacy. If they do not win another brass band contest in their lives, their reputation has been sealed. The question is not how great a band they are, but will we ever see their like again?

Their eighth win was delivered with a self belief that only the very great of this world carry with them like invisible shield. Like Achilles riding around the walls of Troy, they are not totally invincible, but it takes one heck of a performance arrow, shot from the bow of competing bands to slay them. In Glasgow even their musical heels were protected, as try as they may, some fantastically talented bands from Europe couldn't deliver the mortal blow that would have ended their reign. It will surely come – even Achilles found that out – but when? Not in 2004 for sure.

When people look back at this contest they will see that YBS and Professor David King won by a huge six-point margin. Based on two winning performances in the Set Work and Own Choice sections, it provided them with statistically their most commanding win at the contest since Brussels in 2002. Statistics though are like bikinis – they are made to conceal as well as reveal, and even though the bare essentials on show revealed those figures to die for, they also hid the story of a contest that saw YBS come as close at as perhaps anytime of losing their crown. Forget the six point winning margin, this one went to the wire.

It all started on the Friday night with the Set Work – a fantastic new piece by Kenneth Downie entitled, St Magnus.

With a draw that was manna from heaven for those who wanted to compare the best bands in single sitting, the 27th European Championships started with a bit of a damp squib when the World Premiere of the work was given a difficult opening performance by the Irish band, First Old Boys (SeaCat) directed by Stephen Cairns. It is the nature of the contest that the standard of the weakest bands is some way behind those of the real contenders, but it does not detract from their right to perform at the contest against them.

The Irish gave of their best both on the Friday night and again on the Saturday with their Own Choice selection of Diversions on a Bass Theme, but they knew that their principle aim at the contest was show Europe that they were worthy competitors, and that they did in spades. It was also interesting to see Russell Gray take to the stage on the solo cornet bench. He had responded to a request from the band a couple of days before the contest and he certainly added steel to the cornet section, which was tested in this work to the full and beyond for all the bands. Perhaps at the end of the Friday night performance he should have been called Russell Going Gray.

St Magnus was a fine test indeed. A superbly constructed test piece – full of musicality with a technical edge that never swamped the beauty of the thematic material that formed the core of the work. There were some deftly engineered moments in each of the five variations – from a subtle reworking of Wilfred Heaton's Contest Music which ended the First Variation to echoes of Rachmaninov in the lyrical sections. Each variation was a classic piece of brass writing in miniature and the ending was a tour de force of epic proportions. It was immensely satisfying to listen to and must have been immensely difficult to perform and direct. There was a four bar moment ten bars before the end that on paper looked easy, but in practice was nigh on impossible. Only two bands managed it, and they were for us the eventual winners and the band who came sixth. More of that later. St Magnus was a triumph - and congratulations to the Scottish Brass Band Association who commissioned it and to SP&S who produced it in a fashion that made it a joy to follow on the study scores. Other music publishers take note – we couldn't find an error in it.

As we said, the Friday night developed in a fascinating manner - and we are not just talking about the playing either.

There was little doubt in many peoples minds that the two performances that set the whole auditorium alight came from YBS drawn number 8 and BAYV Cory drawn number 11. There were others that were nearly out of the top drawer – notably Willebroek, Fairey and Scottish Co-op, but even though there was much to admire in all of these three, they never quite gripped in the same way as the performances that drew inspiration from the Australian Professor and the Welsh Doctor.

Peter Roberts embraces a wary looking David KingYBS were thrilling – bang on the metronome marks for sure, but played with such verve and vibrancy that everything they did came off with a sheen that lit up the hall like the floodlights at Ibrox Park. Stuart Lingard in particular played like a man possessed – he is now a compete Principal Cornet, whilst the contributions from the rest of the ensemble, especially the percussion team were as good as anything we have heard. It would take a special performance to beat them we thought – and come BAYV Cory, we thought we had heard it.

This for us was a magnificent performance, definitive almost. Why the three judges of Tom Brevik, Nigel Boddice and Johan de Meij thought it worthy of 6th place was a bleeding mystery to us, and we think the whole of the audience.

It had the style, the control, the sound (the band deliberately played within their dynamic capabilities nearly to the very end) and they coped with the technical challenges with a facility that bordered on the awesome. The four bar trap before the end was played in a manner that took the breath away. What killed them off then? Perhaps it was the speed of the last movement which although played with a clarity and detail no one else managed, was a more than a couple of notches up from the stated 152 beats. We couldn't find a single fault elsewhere.

BAYV Cory's performance wrapped up the Friday night and set the large audience (a welcome triumph for the hard working organisers) walking into the Glasgow night with much to debate. YBS or BAYV Cory? What happened to Stavanger? Were Fairey really a band on the brink of implosion? Could Willebroek win it? Were Scottish Co-op in with a shout? Where was the nearest bar?

For the record then, we had a top six of BAYV Cory, YBS, Willebroek, Fairey FP (Music), Scottish Co-op and De Waldsang. The adjudicators did not.

Elsewhere, Stavanger had a poor day and somehow felt uneasy with the music, whilst Fairey seemed in pretty good playing health despite the rumours. Willebroek were as clinically clean and efficient as an Inspector Magritte novel, whilst the likes of Gothenburg displayed a quite startling improvement from a twelve-month ago. What would Saturday bring then.

Saturday once more the draw gave the audience everything they could have hoped for with Fairey at 6, YBS at 7, BAYV Cory at 8, Scottish Co-op at 9 and Willebroek at 11.

Before these played, Stavanger opened the afternoon with a disappointing …Dove Descending that started so well but fell away after a nervous couple of middle sections and Gothenburg who put in a brave and committed effort on Montage that deserved the fifth place they were awarded by the three judges, Frode Amundsen, Armin Bachmann and James Gourlay.

De Waldsang never quite captured the sense of doom that is so essential to make Harrison's Dream to come off successfully whilst Lyngby Taarbaek really put their heart and soul into …Dove Descending that once more was a curates egg for us – although again, a very good one in places. First Old Boys also gave their all on Diversions on a Bass Theme, but these performances were the starters for the main course to follow.

Fairey FP (Music) played out of their skin. It was certainly not faultless and it was at times edge of your pants stuff, but Allan Withington dragged every last ounce of inspiration and perspiration from his charges and was rewarded with perhaps their best contest performance since their 2001 Nationals win on Masquerade. If this was the last hurrah of the double winners, then they went out in some considerable style. The judges certainly thought so and gave them 2nd place – we had them 3rd – but what a way to go out. The future at present for Fairey FP (Music) may seem a bit troubled and in a state of flux, but there is still enough class in those who remain in the famous light blue uniforms to see them overcome any problems ahead.

YBS followed on, and what happened next will remain fixed in the memory banks for a very long time to come. David King has the knack of staying one step ahead of his rivals at this contest, and once more he produced something that took the breath away. Music of the Spheres was specially commissioned by him for his band – and for this contest. Musically it was tailor made by Philip Sparke to showcase the stars and planets of the firmament, but also to showcase the stars of the YBS band. This thing is not new – Revelation was written for the Black Dyke Band of James Watson and the talents of his then team of world class players, but this has taken the art form to a new level.

It was an amazing mix of the brilliant, the bold, and the faintly bonkers. Some of the writing (we managed to get our hands on a score the week before the contest) was stupefying in it's technicality whilst the musical lines were painted with the most expert of musical brushes. The colours and timbres, the use of mutes, and especially percussion effects made this a piece that has pushed the boundaries of what a brass band can perform further than we thought possible. It must however be noted that we are talking about what a brass band like YBS can perform though, as it is a safe bet to say that there are only a handful (and we really mean a small handful at that) of bands who could do this piece justice.

Stuart Lingard and Sheona WhiteSheona White started things off with complete command and then followed a series of musical tableaux that were simply breathtaking. The inspiration may have come from the planets but the playing was out of this world. Peter Roberts, Stuart Lingard, Bob Blackburn et all – this was playing that left the audience stunned by its brilliance.

It would take one heck of a performance to beat this, but none came.

BAYV Cory were next up and even their amazing constitution must have been shaken as they started Revelation in a nervous manner. It soon returned to their normal level of brilliance, but there were moments of unease in a few lines that robbed them of precious points. The euphonium duet was the highlight – simply beautiful in it's delivery from David Childs and Nigel John, but just when you thought they had done enough to put themselves within touching distance of YBS they played with their hearts and not their heads for the first time all weekend, and the final apocalyptic chaos was just too OTT. The euphonium glissandi was out of character even at this volume and it took the sheen off what was still a performance of immense stature.

That left Scottish Co-op under Dr Nicholas Childs as the last of the trio of UK bands to try and find favour with the judging panel and once more they showed that they are a band back to their best – this was very fine playing again on …Dove Descending, and even if at present they do not have the quality of tone at the extremes of the dynamic range that YBS and BAYV Cory have, they are getting there for certain. We had a quibble about the need for Alex Kerwin to stand for her solo and face out to the audience – it made for the sublime Nativity section to lose it's musical focus, but it was the second time on the weekend that they showed they are now within a few lengths of the very best in Europe.

They were followed onto the Royal Concert Hall stage by Brass Band Lucerne who provided perhaps the best Revelation of the contest – precise and clear in both thought and execution. They produced a fine symphonic sound as well – not quite British in mode and perhaps in need of warmth in places, but this was a class act and we had them in 5th place – the judges though had them a lowly 9th.

That left Willebroek and the Belgians once more showed that they are a band that can just about match the very best bands in the UK in terms of musicality and technique. Their Montage was a stunner, but in relation to the superlative efforts of YBS and BAYV Cory and the thrill factor of Fairey FP (Music) it just needed something that this more cerebral piece could offer. 4th place for us though, 3rd from the judges. Willebroek are a band that deserve to be heard more often, and we think it could well be time for them to get an invite to the Open – they would be serious contenders, we can assure you.

So that was that then and with everyone from 4BR to the man who did the sound checks at the back of the stage all having an opinion on who won, we knew it was going to be an epically close run thing. How wrong we were eh? Come results time it all unravelled in rather unsatisfactory fashion.

For the record we had a top six of BAYV Cory, YBS, Willebroek, Fairey, Scottish Co-op and De Waldsang. We thought BAYV Cory would win by virtue that they scored more points on the set work than YBS, whilst we thought the rest fell into a fairly clear order. We were way out.

First of all there was the question of the Gala Concert, which for the most part was excellent entertainment, but which became self indulgent and plain boring as the hands on the watches of the audience in the full hall moved towards 10.30pm. Having a celebration is one thing – but this went on far too long. YBS were on top form (the organisers certainly get their monies worth out of them don't they?) with Peter Roberts bringing the house down, whilst Frank Renton went about his compere duties like a salamander in a lounge suit.

Still, it was the results everyone was waiting for, but when they came, they came like a bolt from the blue. David Childs was first announced as the Best Instrumentalist for his superlative efforts in both the set work and the own choice selection of BAYV Cory, and this raised the expectation level to suggest that they were either going to be winners or runners up at least. Moments later the BAYV Cory world imploded. Sixth place – unbelievable. The were a few boos and a sense that things were going to get a bit heated, but happily things calmed down with a sense of stunned disbelief. When a bad result comes along it really does knock the stuffing out of even neutral observers.

Equally the reaction to Lyngby Taarbaek was one of surprise – although it is nice to report their obvious elation was reciprocated by the audience, whilst the fourth place of Fairey FP (Music) was greeted with equanimity. This wasn't classic Fairey's – more workmanlike 'backs to the wall' Fairey's, but given what they were obviously going through it was a good as a result that they could have hoped for.

That left the top three – and the announcement of Scottish Co-op as third was one that found favour with just about everyone – even those Scots in the audience who were observed by 4BR walking out when the band played both in the set work and own choice sections of the contest. Parochialism is alive and well it seems in Scotland, but Scottish Co-op deserved a mention, so we can only hope that these diehards will make the effort next time to support their representatives with a bit more gusto.

The game was up by now and the audience knew that it was YBS that had won. The necessary ceremonies were undertaken to award Willebroek the second prize and continue their amazing recent run of form at the contest, before Jappie Dijkstra declared with a six point winning margin and 195 points and winners of both sections of the 27th European Championships, that Yorkshire Building Society were the winners - again. Just about everyone in the hall was happy – for about five minutes.

First came the grumbles about the playing of the English National Anthem which to be polite about it was bloody awful (and this writer is a committed Republican!). There was a feature on Radio 5 the other day, which suggested that the saddest music in the world was in fact the Japanese National Anthem – not on this evidence it isn't. This made Leonard Cohen sound cheerful.

The second grumble started a little while later when it was remarked on why on earth the opportunity wasn't taken by the organisers to allow at least one representative from each of the panel of adjudicators to address the audience before the announcement of the results. 4BR is very supportive of the way in which the European Championships are run, but when the judges do not write adjudication notes for the bands and their MDs to find out where their performances faltered or excelled, it would seem appropriate that they should at least explain themselves orally.

The British Open and National Championships now do this, and it is well received by the knowledgeable audiences that fill the halls (and who have invariably listened to the contest), so why the Europeans cannot do it is a mystery. Just a few words would have sufficed and would have possibly given some idea into the thinking behind a decision that although seen by the vast majority to be correct in deciding the winners, was certainly not so when deciding the lesser placings. It left a slightly sour taste in the mouths of many as they left the halls to go back to their hotels around 11.00pm.

This was perhaps the only gripe we had all weekend – that and the awful Chinese meal we had on the Friday night - but unlike the our meal, the method of judging cannot be left for another year, reheated and served up again for the players, MDs and audiences in Groningen in 2005 to try and digest. The current format needs to be thrown into the bin ASAP – for this one is not working, is not fair and is not filling the players, conductors and audiences with confidence.

Still, well done to Scotland and Glasgow. This was a very well organised European Championships – Peter Fraser in particular deserved all the plaudits (and something a bit better than a stand banner) for all his wonderful efforts, whilst the good brass band lovers of Scotland showed up in numbers to support not only the main contest, but also the supporting events.

Yorkshire Building Society and Professor David King continue to rule over Europe though – and is there anyone out there who can beat them at this type of two-legged contest? The band have just released a triple CD entitled Kings of Europe – two days after it was released it is now out of date. The phenomenon shows no sign of abating – the records show no sign of stopping being rewritten. Greatness it seems is not enough just yet.

Iwan Fox

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