2005 Regionals: Scotland - Retrospective: Second Section

21-Mar-2005

A retrospective look at the Second Second where Granite City Brass under David James claimed a two point victory over Lochgelly.


‘Variations for Brass Band' has caused huge problems all through the Regional Championships this year. From Swansea to Stevenage, Burton on Trent to Bradford, it has proved to be a piece that was misplaced and mismatched to the quality of bands in the Second Section. Dundee was no different, and a great number of the performances here were not good. And that is being kind.

The bands themselves are not entirely to blame for this – that fits squarely on the shoulders of the Music Panel who chose it, but they (and their MDs in particular) must accept that trying to play this type of music in a manner that has nothing to link it with the intentions of the composer may account for why so many struggled.   

That said, the winners, Granite City Brass were perhaps the only band here on the day that both met the technical as well as musical challenges set by Vaughan Williams' score, and as a result they fully deserved to be making the long trip south to Harrogate as Scottish Champions.

That they did so has much to do with the approach and reading of the score from the MD, the great (and that really is a true description of the man) David James. The number of players who have benefited from his teaching over the years is legion, whilst the number of audiences who have enjoyed his approach to making brass band music is also countless. He is an old school brass band man, but that isn't a bad thing is it? For on this piece, that was an essential ingredient required for success.

It resulted in a clear two point winning margin for the band for a performance that had the right approach from the word go, and whilst it did contain more than a fair share of little errors, it didn't rob the flow or the sense of style that David James set out to achieve.  The opening had a pronounced feel to it (although they were one of a very few bands to play bar 6 correctly), but it was the quality of the ensemble sound that stood them out from their rivals.

Each of the following variations had the right style (including a real polonaise feel and a subtle lilt to the Arabesque), so those errors became secondary in nature. By the time a well balanced Fugue (taken at the right tempo to the start) and final Chorale came along, there was still plenty in the tank and the final section still had control and style. It was an excellently constructed performance, which brought the MD out of his seated position for the final few bars as well, as he sensed his charges had done him proud.

He wasn't wrong, and the adjudicators Ian Brownbill and Steve Bastable must have had the easiest job all weekend in picking them out as victors. It was so well deserved and they will head for Harrogate with a great deal of realistic confidence. 

Joining the there will be Lochgelly conducted by J. Chamberlain, who were the only other band to produce a rounded and well balanced ensemble sound allied to a good musical approach and understanding to the intentions of the score.

It certainly wasn't in the same class as the winners, but it did have its moments, and that sound which was a pleasure to listen to, as it was bass led and built with balance all the way to be topped off by a sweet sounding soprano.  There were errors and scrappiness throughout, but that ensemble sound was their saviour especially in the quieter sections where others almost dried up.   

The only other band for us to put in a performance that overcame the challenges set was that of City of Discovery conducted by Bruce Fraser. This again had a high error count, whilst the ensemble sound lacked the quality of the two qualifiers. However, it did have the right approach in stylistic terms from the MD, even though the execution was at times a little rough and ready.

That was it for us, and we think for the judges as well, and as both of them are two of the most musical conductors around, it must have puzzled them alarmingly (as well as annoyingly) that each of the other bands in the contest didn't give themselves a hope by approaching the work in such an aggressive manner.

The test piece owes much of its appeal in the way in which the composer writes almost deliberately to encourage bands to produce a warm, full and broad sound.   The harmonics are as juicy as a Sunday joint of meat, but so many of the MDs made them sound as appetising as a Sunday MacDonalds beefburger – thin, weedy and with all the goodness taken out of them.

The subtlety that is so required to make a marked difference between the variations was also absent in the remaining bands as well. The usual problems arose with monotonous regularity: failure to observe dynamics, lack of warmth in the tone, MDs ignoring tempo instructions and indications, the alla polacca played in the wrong style, the second Fugue played at the wrong speed, the wrong articulation, the wrong reading of rhythms (the two triplet quavers played as semi quavers at bar 6 and elsewhere). We could go on and one, but we would run out of space.

As we have said, the Music Panel should have known these problems would arise surely? However, as we have also said, the MDs should have done their homework a bit more instead of possibly listening to Black Dyke on the recent Regionals CD and on the old ‘James Cook' record.

Clydebank Burgh directed in energetic fashion by Alan Duguid (who had a pretty good, and busy weekend) set the tone off the number 1 slot with a performance that just about made it through from start to finish, whilst Croy and Chris Bradley also got from the top right hand side to the bottom left hand side in just about one piece. Good in parts, bad in parts, both were just about up to the task.

Not so the rest unfortunately, and at times it was all a bit calamitous. Jedforest, Annan, Tayport, St. Ronan's, Dalkeith, St. David's and Renfrew Burgh all found this a piece beyond their capabilities and although they all had moments when things came together, all of them had far too many moments when things didn't.

The Arabesque variation once again proved to be an Achilles heel as the simple melody and the flowing runs were a times so far out of synch that it was if there were two separate bands playing under to separate conductors. Meanwhile the second Fugue was invariably taken at a much faster speed than the opening, and the final Chorale started too loudly to be able to build organically to a true conclusion. Oh, and why did so many of the MDs decide that there was a huge rall in the final few bars where none was marked or intended? It was disappointing, and each of the bands were guilty in part or in whole of these problems.

It made therefore for a contest that only had two performances of note – the winners by some margin and the runners up. Behind them came two performances that just about met the challenges, followed by the rest who quite simply were not up to the mark.

That may sound unfair, but we are afraid, just like around the rest of the country that was true. These bands here were therefore not alone, and it has been sad to report that so many bands and MDs couldn't meet the musical or technical challenges of this fine work. The Music Panel should hold their heads in shame.

Information supplied by David Crookston

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