2006 Norwegian National Championships - Retrospective: Elite Division - Set Work

16-Feb-2006

Klang(!) may have been the onomatopoeic title of the set work here, but it was also the sound of the some bands chances of winning going through the floor of the Grieg Hall in Bergen. We were there to sample the action on the Friday night.


The basis of Stavanger's victory at the Norwegian Championships in Bergen came on the Friday night with their performance of the set work, ‘Klang(!)' by Orjan Matre.

The onomatopoeic title may have suggested a contemporary work that may have been difficult to the ear of the average listener, but in reality it was an enjoyable piece, accessible and with a clear sense of purpose in its musical thought. It comprised a clever use of colour and texture, detailed ensemble and demanding but not over written solo lines, and also had two extended intervals of electronic feedback. These pre recorded episodes linked two separate sections of the work, allowing a change of mood and pace and enabling the music to return to its original opening percussion motif without ever sounding contrived.

There were elements of Wilby's ‘Lorwy Sketchbook'  in the opening section with the repeated crotchet pulse, hints of Messian, and the composer's friend, Torstein Aagaard Nilsen in the more lyrical moments. There was even a hint of the dramatic music from the Robert de Niro film Cape Fear when the bass section overlap with the ending of the last electronic interval. It is a piece that should be heard again, although we wonder if the British are ready to dip their toes into the water. It was interesting to note that the seven UK conductors here in the Elite Section certainly found it an enjoyable challenge. 

The man who would have enjoyed it the most was of course Russell Gray, who is currently mining a rich vein of form only Tiger Woods or Roger Federer at major championships can match. In the past twelve months or so his brand of broadly expansive readings has not only caught the imagination of the bands he has directed, but also of a wide and varied mix of experienced judges.

There is no real secret to his success - just a great deal of hard work, an engaging personality that connects with his players and the ability to allow the musical content of works to seep through. Put him in front of a very good band such as Stavanger, and he can make them sound exceptional.

Stavanger
Taking the lead: Stavanager's brilliant euphonium player leads the band in Klang(!)

In the event, Stavanger didn't for us, give an exceptional performance of ‘Klang(!)', merely (if that is the right word to describe a very high class account), a very exciting show; but it certainly appealed in the box to the three judges, James Gourlay, Per Kristen Svenson and Lars Erik ter Jung.

It started unconvincingly when one of the percussionists inadvertently struck the timpani instead of just the crotales in the very opening statement, but thereafter it built with detail and clarity of thought. A few nervous solo moments were overcome and the solo euphonium playing was immense, but we had it a couple of points behind Eikanger at the end of the day in second place.

Eikanger Bjorsvik may well wonder how on earth they gained a lowly 5th place on the set work, a full six points behind Stavanger. Unbeknown to them, and it must be said, the vast majority of people who heard their immensely satisfying account, they were dead in the water from the moment Nicholas Childs had brought their performance to its end, with his baton high in the air as the reprise of the opening percussion motif rang around a completely silent Grieg Hall.

Eikanger
Conducting silence: Nicholas Childs awaits the applause at the end of Klang(!)

The controversial nature of their half way result was perhaps brought into sharper focus as earlier in the day the band had exercised their right to request to play last as one of their percussionists had  exceptional work problems. In agreement with the organisers, and it must be said, with the other nine bands, they were given the chance to play either number 1 or number 10, and opted for the latter. Whatever advantage some more cynical people may have thought this would have given them, certainly didn't matter in the box, where the exceptional ensemble work, detail, colour and balance of their performance didn't appeal at all.

We found it hard to fault, given that they sounded such a compact ensemble and had outstanding soloists, whilst after listening to the previous nine contenders, theirs was the one account that was the most musically coherent. The judges felt differently though and James Gourlay was 100% certain that not only was their overall decision correct over the two days, but that in respect to this performance the three judges were as one with the belief that it was perhaps lacking musicality and was a little too prosaic. Fifth though, was a very harsh decision.

In the judges opinion it was Oslofjord directed by Michael Antrobus who came closest to matching Stavanger. As much as Eikanger's result was a surprise, so too was this.

Oslofjord
The eyes have it!: Oslofjord's trom section keep their eyes on the part

It was certainly a big and bold account – brave to the point of a touch reckless in places, and the overall impression it made was that it perhaps lacked subtlety. The MD set up the band with the cornets in an arc (the composer had given a blueprint of a proposed set up for the bands, but not all followed it), and this perhaps gave them a better balance. But even with the euphonium coming to the front of the band to play his main solo, it wasn't really needed. It was a performance that didn't immediately register for us, but it certainly did in the box and 96 points and second place was their reward.  Fortunate perhaps, but then again, the judges are the only people who really count, and that was all that mattered. 

Manger Musikklag under the direction of Robert Childs were awarded 3rd place, and unlike some of the other results on the night, this one was thoroughly well deserved.

Manger
Manger Musikklag's cornet section await their turn to impress the judges

The MD brought his usual mix of immense detail, effects and clarity to a performance that was much more like Eikanger's than Stavanger's in approach, and all off the number 1 draw. It certainly stuck in the mind, especially the excellent soloists and the depth of the immense bass end, whilst the third section in particular had such a sense of purpose. We had them down for third place, a point behind Stavanger, so it was a little surprising that they ended up as much as four points behind.

The three main bands of Eikanger, Stavanger and Manger were for us a class apart from the rest of the field, not only on the Friday, but also on the Saturday, and although there were some interesting performances from the other contenders on the set work, the standard did fall away somewhat behind these.

The judges were really impressed by Tertnes under the direction of Bjorn Briestein, a very young band who were full of enthusiasm and spirit. That mixture has much to commend, but theirs was a performance that for us lacked clarity and precision and was harsh at times in the ensemble sound.

Tertnes
A display of youthful talent: Tertnes do their bit to gain fourth place

The young solo cornet player and euph did shine in the middle section, but it was a performance that did leave you wondering how on earth it was a point better than Eikanger and only point behind Manger, as despite the efforts of the players, it never quite sounded in complete control and there was a lack of texture, balance and depth to the music.

The one performance that did capture the imagination came from Sandefjord Brass Symposium under the direction of Ray Farr.

We use the term imagination guardedly as well, as halfway through their performance the solo baritone (who had just completed his demanding solo contribution) swapped instruments with the solo euphonium (who happened to be the excellent Margi Antrobus) to play the extended euphonium solo, only to swap immediately back thereafter. To be fair, there is nothing in the rules here to stop this happening, and although in years past soprano players have been able to use Eb trumpets, and cornet players have been able to swap mid stream to play a flugel, all of those we asked said they hadn't seen it happen in the Elite Section for over a decade or more.

Whatever the reason Ray Farr chose to do it, he was perfectly within his rights to do so (unlike here in the UK, where the practice has been outlawed since the days of that old rogue Phineas Bowers, star euph player with of Black Dyke, who took up valved trombone playing at the Open and walked off with both the solo prizes for both instruments) and it didn't raise much of an eyebrow here with the locals.

For many UK observers though (4BR included) it took the shine off what had been a well constructed account that had a real thrilling end and did benefit from an elegant reading of the score from the MD.  We had them 5th, but the judges had them 7th.

Molde directed with real authority by Gary Cutt eventually came in 6th place with a typically well thought out performance from the Fodens man. Nothing spectacular, but everything in its right place, and although the tuning at times grated it was a well shaped and crafted account which made the most of the resources the conductor had under his command.

Krohnengen can count themselves more than a little unlucky to end up in last place at the end of the first day after Allan Withington produced a compact performance, that although lacking a little in detail and finesse developed as it went along and should have come higher than it did. Perhaps it suffered in comparison with the very good account from Manger that preceeded it off the number 2 slot, but after six bands had played we still had them 2nd. Come the totting up at the end they were 13 points behind Stavanger – a harsh return for sure as we had them in 6th.

That just left Ila and Jaren Hormusikkforening, and it was the latter who impressed us the most after giving a fluid and very musical interpretation under the direction of Helge Haukas.

The MD can be a bit of a show pony at times (his direction of Eric Ball's Journey into Freedom in another section was something to behold), but even though he was dressed in black t shirt inside a flowing open black shirt, all the flamboyance belonged to the music, and even though the technical side of the performance was not be any means 100%, musically it was one of the best of the day for us.

That may not come as a complete surprise given that he conducted the first performance of the work with this band in 2002, but it was still an impressive reading.   We had them 5th, the judges though had them down in 9th.

Ila Brass Band never quite got to grips with the work from the word go and in the end, their fractured and somewhat dislocated performance which lacked balance and texture became over cooked as they strove to impress with volume rather than the required sound. They were awarded 8th from the judges and we had them 9th, but it wasn't a performance that deserved more.

Klang (!) may be an onomatopoeic musical title, but in many ways it was also an accurate reflection of the sound of the chances of some of the bands dropping through the floor here on the Friday night. Stavanger were very good indeed and so too were Manger, but Eikanger were a good head and shoulders above them both and it was a bit of a mystery why their undoubted, and rather obvious qualities in terms of sound, balance, ensemble detail and solo lines was so overlooked by the judges.  

We had them first, and there wouldn't have been too much of a grumble if they had come anywhere in the top three, but fifth was a decision that left you scratching your head. Still, the judges knew what they were looking for, even if they did so in a slightly myopic fashion on this occasion. 

Iwan Fox

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