2004 Spring Festival - Retrospective - Grand Shield

16-May-2004

4BR looks back on a Grand Shield which saw Sellers, Rothwell and Desford make it out of the contesting scrum and to Birmingham and the British Open.


For a band as well known and respected as Sellers International it may seem odd to report that the 2004 Grand Shield win was in fact the bands first contesting success of real note since they were formed as Huddersfield Tecol back in 1986.

They have of course come close to making a mark at the major contests in the banding calendar before; 7 times in the top six at the All England Masters; 5 times in the top six of Brass in Concert; Twice runners up at the Yorkshire Regional Championships and a top six place at both the Open and Nationals. For a band that is only 19 years old, it is a pretty decent record, but until May 8th this year there was no real silverware to boast about. That has all changed now.

The Grand Shield is of course the hardest of the second tier of major brass band contests to win, and since Sellers were relegated back to the here in 2000 they have experienced a bit of an up and down record in trying to reclaim their place back at the Symphony Hall jamboree. Last year they were 10th - the third year in a row that their results had got progressively worse here, but since Philip McCann returned back to the fold of the band he created there has been a real sense that the good times were just around the contesting corner.

2003 was a pretty good year and 2004 started well when they just missed out on a trip to the Albert Hall in Bradford, so there must have been confidence running through the veins as they took to the stage at Blackpool as band number 19 on the weekend. That confidence was well placed as the MD and band came together to produce a very high class performance of the set work, Les Preludes that left no one in doubt that they would not be missing out again this year. This was a well-deserved victory.

Joining them in Birmingham will be Rothwell Temperance and Desford, both of whom played to the best of their form to secure the other priceless tickets to the Open. The sense of relief of qualifying was only marginally greater than the sense of real achievement for all three bands. Winning the Grand Shield is the bonus ball payment - it's the qualifying that is the winning lottery ticket.

In retrospect though the 2004 Grand Shield was a bit of a strange affair. 

First of all there was the test piece. When it was used as the set work for the 2001 British Open it was seen as something of a crowd pleaser, a return to the classic brass band arrangements of orchestral lollipops that have served the movement so well since time in memoriam.  It was well enough received, but even then it didn't quite capture the imagination of players, MD's or crucially the audience as a work of real "classic" substance. As arrangements go, Bram Gay has done a wonderful job in reconstituting the old war horse, but restoration jobs never ever return things to their former glory however well constructed they are. The "new" brass band "Les Preludes" is a piece of musical plastic surgery - all shiny, bright and glossy on the outside, same old knackered chassis underneath.  The problem was that on an extended second sitting it became more and more monochrome to the ear.  There was no colour, no shades of timbre. It seems like an arrangement based on pitch and pitch alone.

Bram Gay is a fine arranger, but it would have needed a genius to have made this piece come to life within the limitations imposed by a brass band. The arranger himself noted in the score that the soprano cornet would be severely taxed, but this was 98% super tax bracket stuff and it made little or no sense why. The exposed passages of the work in and around the Allegretto Pastorale for instance seemed faintly ridiculous. He noted that in the interest of embouchure preservation some passages may be omitted or could use the flugel as an option. It would have made possibly more sense if more of the work has been looked at again in alternatives such as this, as it became more and more a severe clinical test piece and less and less an enjoyable musical experience the more we heard it. Still, it certainly sorted out the men from the boys, and perhaps in that respect that was its greatest strength. Brass band contests are competitions to find the best first and foremost aren't they?

The other strange thing about the Grand Shield is that it is no defender of reputations and in an over large and unwieldy field of 22 bands the cruelty of the draw can destroy the chances of even the best bands on the day. The face of the Leyland representative at the draw when he picked out Kelly's Eye from the velvet bag told you everything you needed to know. Leyland were on paper the best band here, but even they must have known that the chances of them giving a performance that would win them the contest let alone qualify were not too great. There is always a real sense of schadenfreude in any draw when someone pulls out the dreaded number 1, and the 2004 Grand Shield draw was no different.     

Leyland themselves had a bit of a rush to get on stage, but when they did they produced a lovely understated rendition of "The Queen" (and no, she wasn't there) and a perfect opening two bars. The problems arose in the next 32. For some reason the band sounded very unsettled by the acoustic - strange, as they had commanded it near perfectly in winning the North West Regional title less than two months before, and they never quite recovered the equilibrium that was so evident in that mini opening statement. By the time they had finished the look on the players faces as they left the stage told you all you needed to know - it was the Winter Gardens again in May 2005.

The first band to impress both the audience and the two experienced judges in the box, Messers Scott and Newsome were Travelsphere Holidays who drew number 5. Before then were a couple of curates eggs of performances from Beaumaris and Flowers that never quite captured the imagination and were too full of slips and irritating little errors. Flowers minus Julia Telling on flugel sounded a band short of confidence in their own abilities whilst Beaumaris started well but tired (as did many) towards the end of a spirited effort under the Norwegian Morten E Hansen.

United Co-operatives Yorkshire Band drawn 2 (a request to be drawn in the first three bands was accepted by the organisers and fellow competitors) can be excused any criticism and should be applauded for even making to the stage for the contest. The death of their young and talented euphonium player Jo Almack cast a long shadow over the proceedings and immediately following their performance the band headed to the funeral. Contesting for once was of no importance.

Travelsphere under David Stowell gave the first indication of a marker for others to beat with a classy show that featured some fine soprano playing and Matt Baker on solo cornet who once more reminded the audience of what a top class talent he is.  Just a terrible first note and an excitable ending may have just cost them as they strove manfully to make it back to Birmingham. 5th place was on the day just about right though. No Open this year, but listen out for them at the Masters and London on this form.   

After that came a real impasse of mediocrity with Redbridge, EYMS, Newstead, Glossop Old and Jaguar all failing to really overcome the technical challenges laid down in the score and overblowing which became hard in tone as tiredness and stamina failed towards the end of a long work.

Glossop Old were perhaps a touch unlucky as we felt they had a fine reading from Jim Cant to play with, but they had a huge error count, whilst the other three just didn't do the business on the day. That left Fishburn at number 10 who were directed by Ian McElligott. This was a very individual account of Les Preludes, but one we liked. Not everyone else did mind you, and after the well publicised remarks made by the MD out in Australia about tempos it was interesting note that many of his in this performance were more than a little approximate, should we say, to the score. 10th though wasn't a bad return.    

Rothwell made their mark right from the word go. 4BR has foolishly underestimated this band for far too long it seems. Perhaps it is the quiet and efficient way in which they go about their business, but once more they came and delivered the goods against a high class field without ever really making a song and dance about things. This was a classy show with swagger, pomp and bravura in equal measures when needed and some super solo work (especially the sop) in the quieter areas.  We felt it was perhaps lacking a bit of warmth in places, but perhaps we misread the obvious control instilled from the middle and we thought it a bit cerebral when more heart and soul was required. We had them 4th  in our shake up at the end, the judges had them 2nd. A well deserved trip to Symphony Hall though was the result - we won't be underestimating them again for sure.

Kibworth followed on straight after and under John Berryman they produced a little gem of a show. It was lightweight in volume and depth, but the MD maintained real balance and style throughout and even though it tired a touch towards the end, the approach was first rate and 4th place was their reward. John Berryman will be receiving the All England Masters Dedicated Service Award later this month. He is a man though who has music flowing through his veins, and once more he showed everyone that that dedication has been to producing quality musical performances. This was yet another one.

By the way - did you know that John Berryman (same name different chap) was the bloke at the bedside of the poet Dylan Thomas when he died?  These things come to us at 4BR and halfway through Kibworth's performance it came to us. Strange. 

After that came Hepworth's fine effort which was perhaps undermined by an overly strong front row cornet sound in the arpeggios and a little hardness in the tone as they strove to produce a huge sound. There is a very good band in the making here though as long as they use their heads and not their hearts more often the future is bright indeed. For a band sponsored by a home builder you were reminded of the Mark Twain saying that the best investment to make is always in land, as they are not making any more of it in the future. Hepworth have a very bright future ahead if they heed that advice in a musical sense. 6th was bang on for us.

Besses, Stocksbridge, Lindley and Skelmanthorpe were on next and although each of them certainly had their moments of classy playing, the error counts in all were high. Besses benefited from a fine reading by MD Steve Sykes and could count themselves a touch unfortunate to come 14th, whilst Stocksbridge took an age to get going, and when they did it was too late. Lindley never overcame either the technical or musical challenges for us and the judges whilst Innovate Skelmanthorpe had one of those performances that annoyingly was very nearly a cracker, but for some reason never quite made it. There was so much potential there, but it just never quite hit the mark on the day.   

That left a final run in of Sellers, Desford, JAG Mount Charles and Aveley and Newham and the contest at this stage was very much still to be won. Travelsphere were still the band ahead for many in the hall with Rothwell a close second whilst after that it still up for grabs. Sellers International soon put a stop to the doubters.

This was a very fine performance indeed and one that after the final note you just knew was going to be there or thereabouts come results time. We even said that the Open beckoned, so it must have been fantastic! This was a performance built on self-belief and clarity of purpose that was of a very high class. Sellers sounded like a British Open band and with some super individual paying form Kay MacKenzie on soprano, Mark Bousie on euphonium and Leah Williams on horn most of those exposed technical passages were overcome in style. The opening may have been a touch pedantic for us, but from there on it was a cracker with a real sense of style and bravura and a lovely delicate approach to the Pastorale sections that were not possibly bettered on the day. Newsome and Scott had them as winners, we had them second. Sellers though deserved this win because they played like a band who knew they were more than good enough to win, and they played like it from the word go. Come the Open and especially the Masters in a few weeks they will be a band to look out for on this form.

Three left and three real contenders on paper at least.

Desford rolled back the clock and for us they gave perhaps the most complete performance of the contest - full of excellent balanced ensemble, fine solo lines (the excellent soprano cornet player, Martin Britt took the Best Instrumentalist prize) and a real sense of style from the man in the middle Peter Parkes. His was a reading that had nuance and deftness and the players responded in kind. We had them as winners and we thought it was a corker, but perhaps the finale cost them the title as it was upbeat to say the least. Still, Desford are back at the Open and for a band that can play like this it was the least they deserved. 

The other prospective qualifiers were JAG Mount Charles who came to the contest fresh from their first ever Regional West of England Championship title, and they seemed to be heading for a first appearance at the Open as well before the little gremlins started knocking off valuable points. It was however an over frenetic finale that probably cost them the trip though as the excellent control that they showed up to that point was replaced by an over determined effort to create excitement. It was the difference between playing in Birmingham in September and Blackpool next May, and Blackpool won out.

Aveley and Newham were last on and perhaps wished they could have given it another go as things never rose above the mediocre and they fell away to 15th place overall. They sounded like a band who have possibly seen their best chance of making it to the Open come and go a couple of years ago when they were 4th and 5th. Where others have got better, the Londoners have treaded water and 15th was a fair result. They will have to improve markedly if they are to feature at Cambridge. 

That was it then for another year and whilst there was a bit of a delay before the announcement of the results due to the need to try and get the other sections finished, the large and receptive audience made up their top six places and tried to second guess the judges.

It must be said, Mr Newsome and Scott showed tremendous stamina in listening (and discussing rather loudly in places in the tent) 22 performances and it was a pleasure to hear Roy Newsome give a very precise and detailed account of what they were looking for in deciding the winners. There was also a lovely little caustic point made about projectile playing that struck a chord with the listeners who on occasion had to endure some pretty awful up and at 'em stuff from some bands and their MD's.

Still, most had a top six that contained Desford, Sellers, Travelsphere Holidays, Rothwell, Hepworth and Kibworth - although not all in the same order as 4BR so when it came to the announcement of the results there were no real surprises.   The solo award was picked up by the lad from Desford for a fine bit of playing (the standard of sop playing all day was pretty high, with some even succeeding in whacking out the top Eb a la Peter Roberts just before the end) and the final all important top three places brought a general consensus of agreement.

Well done then to Sellers, Rothwell and Desford. The surroundings of the Winter Gardens may have seen better days, but these three bands won't care. On Saturday night the faded splendour of the Opera House - all chintz, peeling paintwork, dust and damp would have felt like the best place in the world. And who can blame them? They had just won a ticket to the biggest and best brass band contest in the land, and nothing or nobody could take that away from them.  For the rest, a return trip in twelve months awaits them. You can understand why so many bands just pray they get a qualification place from the Grand Shield.

Iwan Fox. 

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