2005 Regionals: Scotland - Retrospective: Championship Section

21-Mar-2005

A slightly delayed look at the Championship Section where Newtongrange under Allan Ramsey secured the top prize and an invitation to compete at the 2006 Europeans and of course in London in October.


The only surprise at this year's 100th Scottish Championships wasn't that Newtongrange ended up crowned as the winners, but that the other more fancied contenders here couldn't perform well enough on a test piece that was so well within their capabilities to put the contest beyond them, before the time they took to the stage as band number nine.

Not that it bothered the delighted Allan Ramsey, when he spoke to 4BR a day later: "This was a fantastic win for the band," he said. "We gave a tremendous performance that I felt was the best that the band has produced for me since taking over earlier in the year. I must thank them all for their efforts, and I feel they have responded in such a great way to the direction I wish them to take."

It was the bands first win at the Championships since 1991, and in addition to claiming the Scottish title, they also booked themselves as the Scottish representatives for the 2006 European Championships. That wasn't the end of it either, as they became only the second band in the Championships history to win the top section title the year following promotion from the immediate section below (the first time though since the First Section was created) and gave Allan Ramsey the honour of having his name engraved on the Walter Hargreaves Trophy which is awarded to the conductor of the winning band.

He is now in pretty select company as well, as since the award was inaugurated only the names of Frank Renton, Nicholas Childs, Howard Snell and Philip McCann has been placed on it. Now Allan Ramsey's name will be there for the history books to remember. It may have come as a bit of a surprise for Allan (it did come he said, a few years ahead of schedule in his long term plans for the band) and for many in the audience (most had the band in second or third place), but it was still an exceptional effort nonetheless, and propels Newtongrange to the top level of expectation ahead of the forthcoming Senior Cup in Blackpool, where they have to tackle Peter Graham's "Montage". 

With a group of very fine lead players though and a strong back up ensemble to back up the talented Allan Ramsey, 2005 could well turn into a year to remember for the band. It has certainly started in the right fashion. 

All 10 bands in the Championship Section put in performances of merit on ‘Rienzi', which once more showed itself to be a test piece that singularly lacked colour and nuance. Take out the opening section, and what follows is just a blow – and for many here that was the way in which they approached it.

Of all the performances though, Newtongrange's was the one that was perhaps the cleanest. They have been known as the biggest blowing band in Scotland over the years, and many may have thought that on a test piece such as this, that was going to be their approach once more. However, Allan Ramsey has gained for himself a well deserved reputation as a top line band trainer as well as MD, and he has certainly toned down some of the excesses that have blighted the band over the years.

Therefore, they produced a compact (even subdued) performance, which relied on balance more than sheer verve, and the cornet section in particular were never over strident or harsh sounding. It also benefited from some wonderful individual playing from the likes of the three Philip brothers on flugel, euphonium and trombone, as well as Angus Edmond on solo cornet, who could count himself a touch unfortunate that he didn't take the "Best Principal Cornet" award for his fine leadership.

It was a very un-Newtongrange performance in fact – and all the better for it as well, as they did sound a quality outfit here. A good clean start, in tune and with balance in the horn and flugel, it developed with a brisk but not over the top tempo which meant that a great deal of cornet detail wasn't lost. Come the end they had plenty left in the tank and still didn't sound harsh. It didn't have the raw excitement of some of the others, but it didn't have the nasty splits either. It made an impression for what it perhaps lacked rather than for what it contained, and on the day that became a prize winning virtue.

4BR had in fact had a top six of Whitburn, Scottish Co-op, Newtongrange, Kirkintilloch, Kingdom and Unison Kinneil. Not too different from the judges, David Read and Steve Pritchard-Jones, who informed 4BR that the possible deciding factor in Newtongrange's favour was that compactness and obvious lack of nasty points losing clips.

It was those clips that certainly cost Whitburn and Andrew Duncan victory here, as after a quite sublime opening section, they seemed to be on course to win with a quite memorable performance based on an ensemble sound that for us was perhaps as good as anything we have heard all around the country this year. Then the wheels came off.

That early brilliance perhaps relaxed their collective minds, as with the hardest part of the piece overcome with such quality, it seemed all that they had to do was get to the end of the piece and the title was theirs. Unfortunately, come the first extended cornet solo it all went a bit pear shaped as some nasty clips led to an extended period of collective uncertainty where all the previous assurance was lost.

It returned soon after, but it was a noticeable temporary loss of focus and cost them dearly. We still had them as winners (the opening decided that for us), but you certainly couldn't forget those slips and in the end, neither could the two men in the box. Another trip to London though, and clear signs that Whitburn could be strong contenders at the majors this year – as long as they can keep their concentration levels up throughout the entirety of a piece.

It was a slightly different case for Scottish Co-op and Dr. Nicholas Childs, as they produced an account of the set work that perhaps was too safety first orientated to set the pulses racing.

There was a huge amount of detail and clarity in nearly all that they brought from the limited score, but it just needed an adrenalin injection in places. The opening was secure as was what followed, whilst some of the individual playing was of a very high class (resulting in the prizes given to Brian Hayes and the excellent Paul Kiernan) but the emphasis on control just robbed them of the ability to really stamp their class on the piece. A later draw may have helped, but on this occasion it was a performance that just needed a bit more of an edge to it.      

Kirkintilloch meanwhile continue to be a most confusing band to listen to. MD Steve Bastable is a real talent, but on this occasion he perhaps tried too hard to draw music out from the score, when there was no real need.

Some of the shapes he created were beautifully done, but sometimes less is more, and after a while it became a bit over indulgent and the flow of the music stalled. Steve Stuart on soprano was quite outstanding (although he could have been unleashed sooner to give the overall ensemble sound a real cutting edge), whilst the horn section was the best of the day. Martin Ramsey (the son of the winning MD) also had a good day by picking up the best horn award, but these were the only real glimpses of real class on a day in which Kirky tried too hard to impress musically when all they really had to do was to meet all the technical obstacles placed in front of them.

These four performances were a good length ahead of the rest on the day, but a mention should be made of the effort from Kingdom Brass under Ray Farr (the only band to play the turns the conventional way – as per Reg Vardy). It was a robust show that had a few rough edges, but it certainly stirred the blood and fifth place was bang on the money for us.

The same can also be said of the final band to make it to the top six, Unison Kinneil, who benefited from a well developed reading from Raymond Tenant. The playing didn't quite match the intention from the MD, but it did have much to commend and there were signs here of a good band in the making, as the sound was broad and deep and the individual playing had touches of classiness.

The bottom four bands had a bit of a mini contest between themselves, with Bon Accord coming out on top, ahead of Bo'ness and Carriden, Newmilns and Galston and Bathgate.

Each had their moments, but it was a combination of too many unforced errors, individual insecurities and a roughness to the ensemble sound that cost each of the too many points.

Duncan Beckley brought a well shaped reading to Bon Accord, whilst John Hinckley also gave Bo'ness a well measured template to work from. Both though were let down somewhat by the execution from their players with too many basic flaws robbing points.

Meanwhile Craig Anderson did well to keep things on track with Newmilns, who sounded as if they had worked their socks off to get this performance onto the stage. It just lacked for quality, but there were signs of encouragement for the future. Finally, Bathgate under Tony Swainson didn't quite meet the challenges laid out in front of them and paid the price accordingly.

It rounded off a contest that was memorable for the way in which the opportunity of winning was there for each of the competitors, but when the favourites to win all lost their grip of the trophy when each had one hand grasping the cup. Whitburn possibly should have won, but lost it by losing concentration, whilst Scottish Co-op could have won, but just needed to have put their necks on the line instead of shying away. Kirky played with their hearts and not their heads, whilst Newtongrange just played the piece in a sensible no nonsense sort of way and ended up winning.

Sometimes that is all you need to do at a brass band contest, and that is what Allan Ramsey set out to do here. He wasn't wrong was he?

Information provided by David Crookston.

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