2005 British Open Championships - Introduction and Predictions

12-Sep-2005

It is the greatest brass band contest in the world; full of passion, talent, brilliant performers and performances and with more than a sprinkling of controversy. Welcome to the 153rd British Open Brass Band Championships.


153rd British Open Brass Band Championship
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday September 17 2005
Test piece: A Night to Sing, Bramwell Tovey

You have got to hand it to the British Open. In all its 153 years, since it first gave the best bands in the world (or the British Empire, as it was in old Queen Victoria's day) the chance to come together in healthy (and sometimes unhealthy) competition, it has always somehow managed to make itself into an event that has attached a little bit of controversy to its coat tails. 

Apart from the one time when there weren't enough bands for it to take place, the old girl has survived disqualifications, rampant cheating (allegedly of course), two World Wars, foot and mouth and even the death of a Princess to keep going strong into the 21st Century.  Never has a possible year gone by when the Open didn't suffer from some form of squabble, dispute or heated discussion about the test piece, the adjudicators, the composer, the bands, the winners, the losers or even the hall in which it has taken place. It is what makes the event the greatest brass band contest in the world.

Although it would be a little unfair even on Adolf Hitler, the Kaiser, dodgy farming techniques and a conspiracy theory to kill Princess Di, to suggest that they had any real influence over the outcomes of the contests in the years they took place, you can guarantee that there are bandsmen and women up and down the length and breadth of the country who will point out implausible explanations to why their band didn't win the Open, or were relegated, or found themselves out of the prizes in no small part to extraneous dodgy goings on.

This may be loony tune territory for the sensible and sane amongst us, but you got to admit, the British Open can attract the conspiracy theorists just as quickly as Mohamed Al Fayed.   

Just look at last year – from the test pieces to the results and much more besides. And this year too has been no exception.

This time around it has centered on the decision of the organisers to allow the Yorkshire Imperial Urquhart Travel Band a bye. That is now water under the bridge, and we are not going to go over old ground here for the sake of stirring things up again. No - the contest can do that by itself.  Come Saturday night, one band will be out on its ear from the contest, and will surely put part of that blame on the decision not to drop the Yorkshire band from the contest.

It leaves us then with a mouth watering and intriguing background situation to a contest that should prove once more to be an absolute cracker. Forget the cricket – if you want real excitement, great players, world class performances, and even the possibility of an Australian coming out as the winner, then head for Symphony Hall this weekend. You will not be disappointed. There is so much to win at the Open, and even more to lose.

All the ingredients are in place; there are a whole host of top class bands with realistic chances of engraving their names on the famous Golden Shield; a plethora of talented conductors (many with egos to match) who have the skills to mould a winning performance from their charges, and the added excitement (and tension) that more than a few bands who have done very well here in the immediate past could find themselves facing the trap door of relegation.

All that and we have the Americans with us once again (but still no Europeans), so the Daily Mail brigade will be happy, whilst the Euro loving liberals will still have to wait a while yet before the oldest and most British of brass band institutions embraces our European neighbours. That is a controversy for another day.

So what about this year's contest then?

The organizers have made their decision over the relegation issue (just the one band to go down this year), and even though on paper it may seem to be a fairly clear cut battle between a couple of bands to face the drop, an early draw, a poorish show or indifferent interpretation, and even the likes some top notch bands could face sweaty palms. It is unlikely perhaps, but the likes of bands with excellent records here of late such as YBS, Whitburn, Fairey FP Music and Brighouse could well be drawn into the dog fight that looks likely to be fought over by Tredegar and Rothwell Temperance. There is so much riding on this one, isn't there now?

One of the other reasons why this year's contest should be one to savour is the choice of set work – Bramwell Tovey's ‘The Night to Sing', which has found favour with players and conductors alike and should prove to be a fine test for the audience as well. It is a piece that has real resonance, especially in the way it has been written to capture the emotions of the time, and it will be interesting to see how the bands cope with its intelligent (and intellectual) use of dynamics, tempi and shape. This is a multi faceted work with real tensions and dichotomies and the worthy winners this year should be the band that captures those elements to the full rather than just the bravura and excitement that can sometimes be used by bands to bludgeon their way to victory. 

After a couple of years in which the test pieces here have not found favour with either players or audiences, this one could well get things back on track.

So which of the 18 bands can do that then 4BR?

To be honest, at this level you would expect all of the competitors to be able to do it, but some have the personnel and the MDs who can provide that little bit extra than just playing the notes well.

The usual suspects therefore come to the fore. It is ten years now since Marple caused the last great upset at the contest, and you only have to look at the results since then to see that the Open has since become a contest between the heavyweights contenders with the occasional cruiserweight punching above their station to gain some fine result here and there. 2005 should be no exception if the top bands play to form, but there are one or two very neat and nimble outsiders who could well spring a well-deserved surprise.

Black Dyke are on fire at the moment at contests, and having won the European, they will be keen to add the Open to their 150th anniversary collection for the first time in a decade, whilst YBS will surely be buoyed by the triumphs of their recent Australian tour and the fact that the contest tends to favour them in the odd years of late.

BAYV are in many people's eyes overdue a big contest win, once more having had a feed of close runners up places in recent times, and the reigning champions, Fodens Richardson will surely be determined to hold onto a title that took them 40 years to recapture.

The perennial peoples favourites Grimethorpe Colliery are on red hot form of late as well, and are the contest is overdue one of the special Grimey performances, that come about every ten years or so and blow everyone else out of the water. They last won here in 1991.

Brighouse have waited even longer (1978 was the last time they won), and the rumours suggest that their partnership with James Gourlay is really coming together well, whilst the 1998 winners, Fairey's have also been making real progress of late.

With the exception of Marple, Sun Life, Kennedys Swinton (both of whom do not now exist) and Rigid Containers (who do, but under a new name it is hoped), these bands are the only ones to get their names on the trophy since 1983. It would take some performance therefore by any of the rest to stop any one of them again heading home once more as champions if the record books are anything to go by.

There are plenty though who more than fancy their chances, with the most obvious on recent form being the Grand Shield Champions, Hepworth (Persimmon Homes) who could be a real dark horse to do well, Sellers International, Scottish Co-op, Whitburn and Reg Vardy. All have real talent and good form of late, and each one of them will fancy their chances of a top six place at least if they play to the top of their game.

Behind them there are a whole group of bands that can more than make their mark, and can more than make it into the top echelons of the prize list, with Kirkintilloch (4th last year), Desford (7th), Rothwell, Tredegar and Ashton  under Lyne all capable of pulling something out of the hat and getting a mention off the stage. 

That just leaves our friends from across the pond and the wonderful Brass Band of Central Florida who we heard in such impressive form at the US Open last year. There is no doubt that this is a very good brass band – full of talented (and we do mean talented) players, led by one of the most charismatic (and also very talented) MDs you are likely to see. Where they will come? Anyone's guess really, but don't be surprised if they make a real mark.

4BR Prediction:

Given how we have skirted around the houses as usual, time to out our heads on the block, and we think it could well be the year for Black Dyke to finally regain the Open title. There is something about them at the moment, and given a good draw (and a bit of luck after last year) they should win it for us.

YBS, BAYV and Fodens we think will be very close on their heels, and any one of these three should more than capable of winning, whilst we think Grimethorpe could be a name of lots of peoples lips come results time. The final top six place could go to Brighouse if they hold form, with Hepworth our real dark horse to do well on their debut.

What do we know though?

1. Black Dyke
2. YBS
3. BAYV
4. Fodens Richardson
5. Grimethorpe Colliery (UK Coal)
6. Brighouse and Rastrick

Dark Horse: Hepworth (Persimmon Homes)

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