2005 Regionals: Wales - Retrospective: Championship Section

15-Mar-2005

Some things in life are a bit more predictable than others, but even Buy As You View's win here had hints of something a bit different about it for sure.


Dr Robert Childs holds the trophyOn the face of it, some things never change. The Buy As You View Band won the Championship Section here for the 24th time, the fourth time in a row (to equal a record they themselves set between 1964 and 1967), and the fifth time in six years.

In addition, Dr. Robert Childs picked up his fifth Area title (his fourth Welsh victory) and became the inaugural winner of the Bob Morgan Memorial Trophy, given to the winning conductor. The band also claimed the prize as the Welsh representatives at the 2006 European Championships as well.

As predictability goes, this was right up there with the election of Enza Hodga in Albania, Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France, or the Welsh rugby team winning the Grand Slam. 

However; nothing stays the same, and even though the most famous band in the Principality once more showed themselves to be a class above the rest of their countrymen, 2005 also showed evidence that there has been a subtle change in the way this most impressive of bands goes about its winning ways.

All the traditional hallmarks that have made them such a fine contesting band are still their bedrock: A mammoth bass sound, sharp and tactile trombones, a cornet section that is technically facile, the almost forensic attention to detail in the score, the huge variances in dynamics and ability to perform at tempos others would blanch at. These facets have been their signatures ever since Robert Childs took over the helm in 2000, and it has served them very well indeed.

These immense strengths have in many ways also been their primary weakness, as at times their sheer technical brilliance has outweighed their less obvious abilities as a musical brass band. They have rightly been lauded in recent times for their breathtaking technique, but the MD has it seems been making subtle changes in the bands sound, timbre and balance, and as such they are now a much more sonorous, warm, and dare one say it, a much better, but possibly slightly more fragile band for it.

Dr Childs, didn't quite own up to 4BR that he had been tinkering with the basics when we spoke to him after the announcement of the results, but for the careful regular listener to them on the biggest contest stages in recent times, the subtle changes can clearly be heard.

The sound now has a more rounded even controlled feel, with the apex now very much topped by the soprano voice (this was certainly apparent on the weekend with a fine bit of sop work by Michelle Ibbotson, although the excellent Steve Barnsley has been doing it for the past few years or more). The trombones now add a less razor sharp edge and the middle of the band sound do have a clearer balance. More importantly, the sometime over bearing vibrato that has spoilt some of their playing in the past has been greatly reduced and has been replaced with a warmth and homogeneous balance, especially in the cornet and horn sections.

And that wasn't just for this performance of the lack lustre and colourless ‘Rienzi' either, as they have been winning new admirers over the past year, ever since their immense performances at the 2004 European went unrewarded.
 
It was however, most apparent here and the MD did state that he had tailored the winning performance to accommodate the acoustic of the Brangwyn Hall, which although classically constructed in the European style of early 20th century concert halls as a long, high roofed rectangle, it is still a ‘lively' place to play.

"I did ensure that we toned down a lot of the louder dynamics and percussion for the performance," Dr Childs told us. "I felt that the acoustic of the hall was such that playing at the top level of our dynamic range may not have been the best thing to do, and I wanted to show the classic and classy brass band sound that I know we can produce. I thought we performed very well here today – better in fact from last year where I felt we left the door open. I'm very pleased to win the title for the fourth consecutive year and equal a record a former great Cory Band set in the 1960s."

Buy As You View cornet section
Buy As You View: Cornet section

That was certainly correct, and BAYV produced a most controlled and detailed account of the test piece that also retained the sense of energy and exuberance that adjudicator William Relton was looking for, as well as the bands traditional strengths of detail and dynamic variance.

There was some fragility there as well – some of the cornet work at times lacked precision and the tuning did vary in the tutti work, but it was classiness that was the hallmark here: nothing overdone, nothing overstated – just very classy playing, elegant, warm and full, less strident, more rounded and with a balanced structure. If this is the new BAYV, then it is a most welcome subtle change in emphasis, and will surely mean that they can provide a more flexible and subsequently stronger challenge for the major honours this year. There are not many better bands around that BAYV at the best of times, but it seems they are looking to improve even further. It could be a frightening thought for their rivals throughout Europe. 

The result was not in doubt, especially as William Relton spelt out to the audience the things that he was looking for, prior to a short concert given by the pupils of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

"The energy and exuberance of the bands and their performances here is quite remarkable," he said. "This piece has caused some controversy, but whatever the score says, there is no substitute for the musical spirit, which is alive and well here in Wales. In fact, you have it is spades."

William had certainly enjoyed himself here in Swansea at a hall which earlier in the day he had describes as "one of my favourite concert venues in the world" and he must have certainly enjoyed the period prior to the start of the contest when the announcer kept the hall up to date with the score from Murrayfield as the Welsh rugby team annihilated their Scottish counterparts. "The score is now 14 – nil," he said. Cue uproar. Two minutes later: "The score is now 21- nil." Cue, delirious cries of joy.

Thankfully for the Welsh Regional Committee the Grand Slam game will take place next week, as if it was being played during this weekend there wouldn't be anyone in the hall.

William also added that he felt the Welsh here were all musically educated and made the point that this was highlighted for him in the small but important melodic solo cornet line that featured that infamous "Wagner turn". "The tonality of the players was something that impressed me, especially in this little feature" he said. "Although not written, all the players ensured that even though the tonality of the music is in the key of C, the actual key is in F. However, all of the players performed the turn with the unwritten B natural instead of B flat, which you would expect. A small detail, but one that is so impressive, and which contributed to the number of glorious performances here today."

There were indeed a number of very fine performances here, although not perhaps with the exception of the winners, ones that would have made it into the top six in Yorkshire for example. There were too many unforced errors, and overblowing for that, but it was still a high quality affair.

We had a top six of BAYV, Tredegar, BTM, Cwmaman, Burry Port and Beaumaris, with the winners a clear three points ahead of our second placed bands, and with them a further two points ahead of the third placed band. Behind the top six we placed them in an order of Tongwynlais, Abergavenny, Treherbert and Mid Rhondda, so we weren't too far of what Mr Relton thought, although in a slightly different order.

BTM cornet section
BTM Band: cornet section

The BTM Band directed with calm assurance by Bryan Hurdley claimed the runners up spot and their first appearance at the National Finals since 1998 with perhaps the best performance they have given here at the contest since they last took the title itself back in 1993.

The MD directed without music and that confidence certainly spread through the band from the very first note played with precision and authority from the back of the stage by the band's Principal Cornet, Jeff Hutcherson. That gave them a real boost, and even though there was some little blips thereafter, it was a very fine performance that featured some excellent individual contributions from soprano, flugel and the horn section as well as a solid trombone trio.

There was little doubt in many people's minds that they would be there or thereabouts come results time, and second place it was, and their best placing here since that 1998 qualification. It was a qualification place that was richly deserved and confirmed that they are now approaching the type of form that used to make the band regular contenders at the major contests of the year in the UK.           
 
Much the same can also be said of the other band that will join both BAYV and BTM at the Finals in London, Cwmaman Institute conducted in his usual businesslike fashion by John Hudson.

Cwmaman Colliery cornet section
Cwmaman Colliery: cornet section

This was further confirmation that their recent run of excellent contest results has a sense of permanency about it, as it was full of confident playing from both individuals and the ensemble as a whole.  It was perhaps the most robust (and at times a little overblown) of the best shows here, but it also had so much verve and exuberance about it as well.  We had it down for 4th place, but on a day when they produced just what MR Relton was looking for, there were no real gasps of shock at their announcement. This is a good band in the making, and this further proved it.

Tredegar: Cornet section
Tredegar: Cornet section

Although it always comes as a shock to see a band such as Tredegar not qualify for the Finals given their excellent record here over the past decade, theirs was a performance that was either going to push the rest of the field (with the exception of the winners) behind them, or just fail to make it to a qualification place.

We liked the approach (lighter and much more detailed than others), but it also didn't have the robustness and vibrant energy of both BTM and Cwmaman in particular. We enjoyed the sense of control and fine euphonium playing in particular that was on display, whilst David Evans' reading (another scoreless MD) was broad and expansive in style.

Tredegar are in the rebuilding process at present, and although this will have hurt, it shouldn't prove to be terminal, as they will return. It came down to choice on the day – a choice of style and execution, and Mr Relton liked what he heard elsewhere. No complaints.

No complaints either from Beaumaris conducted by Morten E. Hansen, who like Tredegar opted for a much lighter and detailed approach to the score. Theirs though was a performance that was bedevilled by an ever mounting error count that surely robbed them of any chance to come higher up the prize list. The reading from Morten was very appealing indeed, but the annoying little clips and blips just took the gloss of it, and in the end they got what they deserved. Another day, and less mistakes and it could have been a real contender.

Burry Port under the astute direction of Michael Thorne should be delighted by their performance, which saw them come 7th (we had them down for 6th).  They are also a band that has been rebuilding of late, and they seem to be doing it with some very talented young players. One of these was the Principal Cornet player, David James, who is one of the most sought after young players in the Principality.

Here was a young man with a superb classic cornet sound, pure production, solid technique and appendages that would put a Grand National winner to shame. This was nerveless playing of a very high quality indeed and his lead certainly rubbed off on the rest of the band, which although they had a small and compact sound, was also balanced and warm of timbre.  Not quite up there with the other top bands here on this occasion, but a solid foundation has been put in pace for the future.

The one band that did disappoint on the day was Tongwynlais Temperance. They have been in fine form of late, but the enforced absence of their fine MD, Bryn James must certainly upset the mindset ahead of the contest here. That was perfectly understandable.

Gareth Pritchard manfully took over the baton, and as always with him, his conducting was the epitome of elegance and musicianship with a broad and well shaped reading that made the most of the limited material the score presented. The band though just didn't get started, and after a poor opening they couldn't make up lost ground in the heavy ensemble work that followed in which they produced a firm and heavy sound. Not the best we have heard them play – which was a pity because the reading was a real good one.

The final three bands had a bit of a mini contest amongst themselves, and found that the stamina sapping score gave them the most difficulties to overcome.

Treherbert started well under Graham Sheppard, with former Cory rep player, Howard Jones rolling back the years with some exemplary cornet work. However, as they only had three on the top end, the later sections became tired and strident and as the rest of the band just fell away as well, it ended a little disappointedly. 9th was about right.

Abergavenny were placed last by William Relton, but we had them down for 8th, as they were the one band from these three that did last the course right to the end. Alun Williams gave a sensible reading that allowed the band time and space to go about their business, but a very high error count and some nasty tuning robbed them of points. They are a decent band though and the experience here will surely benefit them greatly.

Finally, Mid Rhondda and Alan Gibbs, who had a day perhaps, they would want to forget. This is another band that has been rebuilding of late, and the raw material is certainly there in the form of some fine young talented players. It just didn't knit though on this occasion from the word go, and nervousness certainly played its part. By the time they did get into gear though it was too late and 9th place was about right.

The Championship Section once more provided evidence to suggest that Wales will provide strong opposition for the rest of the competitors around the UK come the Finals at London. BAYV in particular though, also provided evidence that they have responded to the changes in musical interpretation at the very highest level with subtlety and class, whilst both BTM and Cwmaman showed that a possible new breed of up and coming bands is now emerging from the valleys.

Come the Finals, it could well be that Wales, as William Relton stated, will once more show that brass banding is doing very well indeed."      

Iwan Fox

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