2004 All England Masters Championship - Retrospective

4-Jun-2004

4BR looks back on a day when YBS sunk the opposition on Harrison's Dream


Audio files

Audio Dr.David King [YBS] - winning conductor [MP3 746kb]
Audio David Read - adjudicator [MP3 1.12Mb]
Audio Steven Miles [B&R] - 4BR Best Instrumentalist [MP3 481kb]
Audio Peter Graham - composer of Harrison's Dream [MP3 737kb]
Audio John Berrman - Dedicated Service Award winner  [MP3 698kb]


"And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee"
John Donne 1571 - 1631

A delighted David King with an equally delighted Allan RamseyAnd if old John Donne could have been at the 2004 All England Masters Championship he would have recognised that his poetic lines summed up pretty much the efforts of all 19 contenders at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. There may not have been too many memorable playing moments at this year's contest, but the bells of Peter Graham's Harrison's Dream certainly were one of them and for the Yorkshire Building Society Band, and their talismanic Musical Director, Professor David King they peeled out the news for everyone to heed -  in 2004, it's 3 down and 2 to go.

This third major victory of the year, and third win at the contest was perhaps though the one that was in most doubt right up to the time the fragrant presenter Joanne Pinnock announced that second place, 1500 and the BBC Shield would go to the band who played number 12 - Brighouse and Rastrick.  Until then it was fair to say, the vast majority of the audience were spilt in their opinion to who had taken the title - the vibrantly brilliant lads from West Ridding or the more controlled but slightly less exciting stars from Huddersfield. The 2004 Masters was a contest between these two and no others.

Such was the overwhelming feeling in the hall, that come the announcement of the winners, it was received with something approaching a reverential silence, an almost anti climax, climax (if you can ever get one of those things). People knew YBS were pre match favourites, and after they had performed off the number 16 draw, 50% or more of the hall had them post contest favourites as well.  Brighouse were the only band who came close, and very close they were too.

Delighted members of the YBS band
Delighted members of the YBS band

YBS have therefore overcome three difficult hurdles on their way to what could be the most historic 12 month contesting record in brass band history. The Yorkshire Regional title was won in breathtaking fashion in March, whilst the European crown was won in Glasgow after two performances that belonged to the highest tier of contest playing. This one wasn't in the same class as any of those three, but it was still mightily impressive and good enough to win by a short head from an inspired piece of playing from their rivals in the purple and gold.  Brighouse and Rastrick played 10% above anything they have done of late (including their own Bradford performance), whilst YBS played 10% below anything they have done of late. That was why it was such a close run thing. 
 
Receingi the cupsWith these three hurdles out of the way they are now left with the two enormous fences in the shape of the British Open and the National Finals to overcome if they are to make history. Even when they play to the peak of their powers they will have to still overcome both the weight of expectation that their run of success has created and the weight of recent history if they are to become contesting immortals. YBS have yet to retain their Open title in each of the previous three years they have come to Symphony Hall as reigning champions, whilst the Albert Hall is their musical equivalent of Beecher's Brook; even when they have overcome it they have been beaten on the run in to glory. No wonder Professor King told 4BR that he wasn't even thinking about any other forthcoming contests: He wanted to enjoy the moment of success in Cambridge (and he was in fine form when we spoke to him outside the hall) - Birmingham and London could wait for another day. 

The contest itself was slightly disappointing for us this year playing wise. The standard was perhaps the weakest it has been for some considerable time and although there were 19 bands nominally there to compete for the top prize, the organisers could have discarded four or five without diluting the strength of the field.  19 was too many, and even though Leyland didn't make it to the contest, as well as Dyke, Grimethorpe and Fairey's, there is now a need for the Masters to re-establish itself in the minds of bandsmen as a "Major" of note. Fairey FP (Music) should hopefully return, (unlike Dyke or Grimethorpe it would seem), but there is a need for Mr Biggs and Mr Franklin to cast aside the "political correctness" of ensuring geographical representation to mean "All England" and concentrate on "The Best English Bands" in "All England" as their starting point. There were some notable absentees on current form from this year's field.

As a footnote to the absence of the reigning champions, it was interesting to see how many bands on the day did in fact have "borrowed" players in their ranks. There was representation from Leyland, Fairey's, Grimethorpe and Black Dyke to name but a few, and although we are assured they were all for genuine reasons of ill health, it did get you thinking in a more mischievous way. Are English bands all so prone to illness prior to contests?

Then of course there was the question of the bells. 4BR spoke to Peter Graham who was delighted that so many bands took it upon themselves to experiment with differing sounds from a whole cornucopia of bells, big, small, handled, tinkled, bashed and caressed.  Some of the MD's had obviously taken their campanology lessons seriously and those who did try for subtlety of sound rather than just for visual effect were in general rewarded by the adjudicators.  The composer stated that in the wind band version of the piece, ensembles had taken more liberties with the interpretation of the drowning souls that the bells signified and the effects of lowering tubular bells in water, using a water gong or different varieties of chimes was something he felt enhanced the music.  He was dead right, and the MD's who took the trouble to make it an integral part of the unfolding drama of the work enhanced their interpretations no end. Those who didn't (and there were a good few) found themselves sounding like a bad advert for the Avon Lady.

Interestingly though, when we spoke to adjudicator David Read he made the point that the judges thought that the playing of the bells was for pure effect only, and for them, held no greater meaning in this contest setting. On more than a couple of occasions there were a few raised eyebrows in the tent as some surreal sounds filtered through the mist he said, but bands were not penalised as such for their efforts in trying to interpretate the lost souls sinking to Davey Jones' Locker.  Also, both top two bands were also the only ones on the day that ended the work in a fashion that others seem to have missed;  both making a subtle feature of the oblique reference by the composer to Eric Ball's in the euphonium line at Rehearsal letter CC and with a overhanging tam tam at the end, that in the case of YBS rung on for a good minim beat. Nothing in the score to suggest it should, but both Jim Gouraly and David King did the same. Great minds eh?

The winners of course, exuded class as well as some neat bell ringing skills. Theirs was a performance built on an almost perfectly balanced band sound - a vast pyramid of sound come to that. The bass section here was quite something, but it was the cornets (especially the back row) that excelled for David King on this occasion. The rapid semi quavers were made to sound so facile whilst the tricky passage of work in the Ritmico section was overcome in a block of homogenous unity.  They did have their moments of unease though - the third man down played the slow Largo cornet solo with more than a hint of vibrato, whilst there were tuning problems in the Cantabile section. At times it just had that overall feeling of unease as the band tried to impose its will on the music, but just when you thought it may falter they stormed back with a glorious finish. In particular there was the bar at Rehearsal letter Y when the quaver chord just sounded as if someone had added the organ from the Royal Albert Hall into the YBS mix - it was awesome. 

At the end the MD was quite circumspect with his ovations from the band, as if he knew deep down that this was YBS at 90% rather than 100% of their true form. There was however a very genuine "thanks" to Bob Blackburn on solo baritone who had put behind him the horrifying accident to his son who had suffered serious burns following a fire accident to play. We understand the youngster is on the road to recovery, so that would have meant 1000 times more to his dad than just another title in the bag.  90% from YBS was still enough to win though, although there was a genuine sense of relief in the faces of the jubilant players when they took to the stage to receive the trophy and the plaudits at the contest end. Now come two even bigger tests. 

Brighouse and Rastrick under James Gourlay pushed YBS to the very end on this occasion, and 4BR thought they might have just piped their rivals to gain their fourth Masters crown. This was the Brighouse of old - pre the rather staid but controlled Ian McElligott tenure, and a blast from the red blooded, up and at 'em Brighouse of Allan Withington, and for those with even longer memories, Walter Hargreaves. 

This was glorious stuff. The MD may have hobbled onto the stage with a badly bruised foot and a couple of cracked ribs courtesy of a "in house" barbeque football match (not as bad as the two ASLEF railway union blokes, but it must have been a pretty serious game of footie nonetheless), but once they got going Brighouse were in full vibrant flow from the word go.

Steven Miles - 4barsrest best instrumentalist 2004It may have just got a bit OTT in places, but by heck it set the pulse racing and James Gourlay produced a wonderfully linear account of the work - full of beautifully shaped lines in the slower movements. It ended as it had started with a stonker of a reprise and a climax at Rehearsal AA that not only nearly took the roof off, but set the hairs on the back of your neck on end. In addition they had some super individual players on the top of their form, with Alan Morrison leading the lines like a Rear Admiral on the Poop Deck and Alan Hobbins as safe as houses up in the crow's nest. They were however all topped by some quite superb euphonium work from the 4BR Best Instrumentalist on the day, Steven Miles, who further enhanced his already impressive reputation with a consummate display throughout. He took home with him two splendid trophies and 250 for his troubles and was a worthy winner indeed.

Brighouse could possibly count themselves a tad unlucky that even after such a performance they still couldn't win the Masters title, but they were up against a quite phenomenal band in YBS, even if they were not quite firing on all cylinders. However, if they continue to play like this, don't bet against them making an even more serious mark at the forthcoming Open and Nationals. This has the makings of a very special partnership.   

Third spot went to Reg Vardy Ever Ready, who surprised 4BR by coming third. It is fair to say though that the result didn't surprise the audience who found their bold and vibrant approach a real turn on. Their name was being mentioned in dispatches from the time they played off the number 10 draw, and although their MD later told 4BR that he felt the conditions in the hall made it one of the most physically uncomfortable performances he had ever conducted, he felt that even after a slightly messy opening they had grown into giving perhaps the best contest performance he has directed with the band.  Many others agreed and their highest ever placing at the contest was greeted with approval. We may not have had them in our top seven, but sometimes there is a performance at a contest that just doesn't take your fancy - it was a good job for Ever Ready it wasn't the three wise men in the box who thought like us. What do we know eh?

The remaining top six places were exceptionally well deserved.  SWT Woodfalls were placed fourth, Ransome fifth and Flowers sixth, and none were out of place.

Both SWT Woodfalls and Ransome benefited enormously from readings of real insight from their MD's. Both oozed musicality, and even though there were liberal amounts of slips, the shape of the musical picture was never distorted and both bands displayed admirable technique and a sense of style. Both MD's had of course done well on the piece when it was used at the 2000 National Finals - Russell Gray getting a second and Steve Bastable a fifth, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that they did so well here.
 
Nobody possibly fancied SWT Woodfalls before the contest and for those who decided to miss their performance (the hall did ebb and flow in numbers all day as the Red Cow pub did brisk business in the fine weather) missed an excellent show.  They had a cracking start, with a full section of cornets playing the low semi quaver runs, but instead of falling away as many would have expected from them on their past form the MD kept them under a tight rein and they responded in kind. It had errors and clips for certain, but it also had a real sense of purpose and their bravery in very nearly having a faultless middle section saw them gain valuable points. We tipped them to come seventh, but there were few if any grumbles around the hall when they were announced in fourth. They also had the bravest percussion player you could imagine - arm in a sling, leg in plaster it seemed and dragged onto the stage in a wheelchair no less. By all accounts he had come off second best in an accident with a car, so this would have eased his pain for sure. 

Ransome played early - off the number 3 draw, and immediately set a marker for the rest of the bands to beat. It wasn't until Ever Ready at 10 that someone did so, so it showed you the standard of what they put up for display. The MD made sure he gained every little ounce of extra help he could (the back row stood for the opening and reprise and the perc team excelled in the black arts of the submerged tubular bells) and he was rewarded by some fine ensemble and solo playing. Nick Walkley from Fairey FP (Music) headed the cornet section, whilst Michael Howley, ex now of YBS bumped up on the euph bench. Chris Jeans excelled in the trom department back at his old band and at the end of their classy effort you sensed that this was a band chock full of confidence and back to it's best. This is another combination that has something special about it and fifth place was well deserved with a special mention to the solo horn George Thackrey who was by far the best in his position all day and would have been a close contender for the Best Instrumentalist prize if we, and not the judges gave it out.     

The final place went to Flowers under Philip Harper, and how they must wish they could play at the Corn Exchange for every contest they enter. For the fourth consecutive year they produced a high class show that gained them a mention off the stage. Unlike the previous years when they had certainly come here knowing they could do well, 2004 has been a bit of a disaster so far, so to come and produce the goods as they did here was a superb achievement. This was a performance that had bite, vigour and purpose and also benefited from some extraordinary Eb tuba playing from Steve Sykes. Between Rehearsal letter C and D comes a tuba solo that just about every other player struggled with in some shape or form - not so this artiste. We are sure he circular breathed, but you couldn't tell - it just came out in one huge rounded awesome sound that was just something else.  It seemed to inspire his fellow players and with the MD directing things with a real sense of compactness (Philip Harper is so much a better conductor when he has a score in front of him) they put in a quality show. No Open or Nationals this year, but a renewed sense of confidence for sure.

After the top six, the standard became a bit variable for us. Aveley and Newham won't mind though as they came seventh off the dreaded number one draw with a performance that they certainly thought went very well if their reaction after the last note was anything to go by, but which for us seemed scrappy and lacking finesse. They have been through the mill of late, so they can certainly ignore our thoughts and celebrate the fact that this was their best ever placing at the contest. With no Open or National to look forward to this will have been a timely boost to confidence that had taken a bit of a battering of late. There is a fine band lurking here, it just needs to show it more often.

Behind them came Fodens Richardson, and after all the travails of the past week (yes, we were right about the conductor) they can count themselves more than a little unfortunate to not have come in the prizes. We had them third in fact after a stonking opening to their performance that really caught you by the scruff of the neck. It was well worth waiting for too, as perhaps the band was having a little sly knock at its critics (yes, 4BR included we know) when they took to the stage only for the MD, Simon Stonehouse only to appear a full two minutes later. Whatever the reason it certainly upped the tension in the hall, but after that corker of an opening they continued to play to the top of their form, ably directed by the MD who gave the soloists time to shine and kept the ensemble tight and compact. 

Mark Wilkinson was the pick of the Principal Cornets on the day with a superbly restrained Largo solo at the correct piano dynamic which led to some of the quietest playing of the day (most cornet players opted for a safety first dynamic which resulted in the ensemble of sop and rep drowning the solo line as they too played louder than required). There were though some uncomfortable moments in other solo lines which may have cost points, but still, eighth for us was five places too low. It may have been a performance that just faded away in the middle sections but the class of Fodens was still there to be heard. Let us only hope they can now sort out who is best suited to them to bring that quality out in time for the Open in September.

The final top ten places went to Redbridge under Melvin White who completed a good day for London with a performance that had the unenviable task of following on the eventual winners and was clean and effective from the word go and had a super bit of tuba playing throughout to boot. They didn't though have the depth of sound and at times the pace of the music fell away, but just like their rivals at Aveley there is a good band lurking here, if only they could just push themselves more often against higher class fields.

Finally, Travelsphere Holidays who's representative at the draw give a huge sigh of relief when she didn't pick out the obligatory number 1 - the schadenfraude moment was reserved for Aveley. Perhaps it was the later number 4 draw then, but somehow Travelsphere never quite made the most of the music - it was all a little too safe and too bland and they certainly missed Matt Baker on Principal Cornet. David Stowell though is laying solid foundations here, so look out come London.

After that it all fell away a bit from the decent and unlucky to the poor and infuriatingly inconsistent.

Sellers International sounded a tired band - the early draw did them no favours for sure, but it sounded like one contest too many in a short space of time for the band and MD, and they couldn't raise their overall game to make a real mark (as they did at the Grand Shield and Bradford) once more. It had its moments (and we thought it may be good enough to make it to the top six) and it was one of the cleanest performances of the day, but it was tired sounding nonetheless. A couple of months break though and a renewed and revived Sellers will be a band to look out for at the Open.

East Yorkshire Motor Services under Gareth Pritchard will also be revived by this result, especially after their poor showing at the Grand Shield. Playing last band on isn't always a great a draw as it may seem, but on this occasion the long wait seemed to focus the band's mind. This was a fine effort, well directed and featuring plenty of good individual playing from a young team of solo players. This was the bands best ever result here and it was well deserved for sure. Carlton Main Frickley Colliery have also been beset with problems of late, but Brian Grant did an admirable job in securing the band 13th spot, which was achieved in no small part by some quite outstanding solo cornet playing from Kirsty Abbotts. After the recent upheavals this may be the boost they need to make a mark come the British Open.

Thoresby Colliery will be another band well pleased with their efforts, although 14th place on paper may seem a poor result. Andrew Duncan had pulled the band up by its bootlaces for this one and although there were too many errors to make a higher mark up the prize list, it was a performance that had merit and a well structured reading from the MD. A down side could have only been narrowly avoided as the pretty young percussion player nearly lost her life after a runaway tam tam nearly squashed her at the end of the performance. Lucky girl!

That left a bottom five of Rothwell Temperance, Camborne, Yorkshire Imperial Urquhart Travel, JAG Mount Charles and Besses O' Th Barn, and it is safe to say we have heard better from all five. These are good bands who never got to grips with the technical or musical challenges set for them in this work and combined with all of them having the kind of day at the contesting office that they would rather forget, they couldn't have too many causes for complaint to find out where they eventually came.

Rothwell in particular never quite got into their stride from the word go and by the time they started to put some quality playing together it was too late. An unfortunate wayward bass line at the end put the top hat on it for them and after producing some superb playing of late at Bradford and the Grand Shield they perhaps suffered a bit like Sellers with mental as well as physical fatigue. They will be a sterner prospect come the Open.  Meanwhile Camborne seemed to have been a band that had either drunk too many cans of Red Bull, or who were trying to produce the shortest recorded performance of the test piece in history. It was frantic and frenetic in turns and even the addition of a very strange percussion effect of a violin bow in the bell section couldn't save them from drowning without much trace. They are a much better band than they showed here, so London can't come soon enough.

David Evans meanwhile led Yorkshire Imperial Urquhart Travel for the last time in his three year tenure with the band, and unfortunately for him it ended in disappointment as the band played as if devoid of confidence (they have been relegated to the First Section pending an appeal we understand). The talented MD has done sterling work with Imps in the past few years and even though he leaves them on a bit of a downer he can be proud of his overall record. They will be back and so will he.  Much the same could be said of JAG Mount Charles (they will be back for London for sure) but if they play like this then woe betide them.

After the obvious high of that qualification in Torquay, the gloss has come off the bands contest performances somewhat and this one was a dull matt finish for sure. Changing MD's so often may not help, but this was one they would want to forget and move on from quickly. They sounded nowhere near the band that was so thrilling just a few months ago.

Finally, Besses struggled through from start to finish, which was a pity as they had a talented MD in front of them who tried manfully to draw music from the score. They were bedevilled with costly errors though and could have no cause for complaint for their final placing. They have certainly played better here, and will do again in the future we are sure.

That was that then and just the small matter of an hour long concert from Brighhouse and Rastrick to keep the punters happy before the announcement of the result. Why the need for a short concert we don't know as most of the audience was by this time desperate for some sort of medicinal liquid refreshment. The Cambridge Corn Exchange isn't the greatest brass band concert venue in the world (but neither is the Royal Albert Hall for that matter), but unlike the grand old lady in Kensington which can be as breezy as my granny's underwear, it is a hall that doesn't have a natural flow of air going through it - and as my Gran used to say, a good flow of air keeps you happy and contented on a hot day for sure. In fact, it was stiflingly hot at times and more players and MDs than Ray Farr had cause for complaint about the conditions - how the three judges (all seventy plus it must be said - but as fit as butcher's dogs) managed, we shall never know.

John BerrymanThere was a much more memorable event though with the presentation to John Berryman of the All England Masters Dedicated Service Award which was made with a lovely speech by Elgar Howarth no less who outlined the fine achievements of a very fine man indeed. John's own acceptance speech mirrored his own persona; modest and unassuming with thanks to just about everyone else bar himself. A more deserving recipient we couldn't have thought of. 

Still, Brighouse certainly enjoyed themselves (especially the soloists, Alan Morrison and Steven Miles who were quite superb) and it allowed the audience time to compile their own top six. We went for Brighouse, YBS, Fodens, Flowers, Ransome, Sellers and SWT Woodfalls, and in the end we were not too far out from Messers Newsome, Scott and Read.

No real cause for complaint from anyone really then. YBS showed once more that they are the band to beat; Brighouse showed that on their day they are just about a match for anyone; Harrison's Dream is a superb test piece, whilst the contest showed that give a decent band a good MD then forget form, musical quality will shine through. The 2004 All England Masters may not have been a vintage year compared to others of recent memory, but it was still a good day out. Great weather, a well run contest and the bells of YBS ringing out in triumph once more. 

Iwan Fox.

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