2006 West of England Regional Championships - Second Section retrospective

23-Mar-2006

There has been a great deal of debate over the test piece for the Second Section, but there was little debate about the quality of the winners here on the weekend. St. Dennis continue on their rise to the top.


Much debate has taken place over the last few years concerning the state of brass banding in the UK. Falling concert and contest audiences, the lack of players and the withdrawal of many bands' sponsorships have led to many people's belief that the movement is in a slow state of decline.

St Dennis
Another trophy for the cabinet: Someone well have to clean yet another first prize for St. Dennis!

The Second Section contest at the West of England Championships was an event that definitely nullified many of these concerns, with the standard of playing on show being in most cases a delight to listen to, and, more importantly for the future of banding in the region, the somewhat inverse trend of many of the younger players exceeding their adult counterparts in terms of playing ability.

Howard Snell's ‘Images of the Millennium' was composed in 2000 for the (then) JJB Sports Leyland Bands – originally for double band and narration, but here played in a single-band version.

The first movement, Crystal Palace, depicts the hustle and bustle of contest day at the now non-existent venue. Moving into Nocturne, difficult solo and ensemble passages test the band's soloists, a homage to players ‘who possessed, and still posses, the sound and phrasing to enthrall the listener'.  The last movement of the piece, Odyssey, looks to the future, and if Saturday's events were anything to go by, the future is very bright indeed.

But one issue which should certainly be addressed is the selection of appropriate pieces for the Regional Championships, and brass band contests in general. For a piece which only a few years ago was written for one of the country's top band to have been chosen for a Second Section event has certainly raised more than a few eyebrows over the course of the last few weekends.

Alan Morrison, speaking on behalf of himself and his fellow adjudicator Steve Pritchard-Jones, reiterated the point which had been made since the regional test pieces were selected – that the piece is simply too hard for second section bands.

Alan said that the main problem was that bands try so hard to master the technicalities of the piece that the basics of playing, control, tuning and balance, are left by the wayside. However, he did praise the top three bands, saying that they had ‘had a good stab at the piece' and also complimented soprano cornet players for tackling the immensely difficult soprano part. Speaking to 4BR after the contest's conclusion Alan once again commented that the piece was too hard for the section, but praised the winners for making the most sense out of the piece, and for making sure a cohesive musical line ran through their performance.

First prize went to a delighted St. Dennis, conducted by Brian Minear.

The majority of St. Dennis' players have not passed their teenage years, but the standard of playing they produced off the Number 9 draw was more than enough to clinch the top prize and the honour of representing the West of England at the National Championships in Harrogate. The cornet section was the most convincing of the day, especially in the opening to the 3rd movement, and all of the band's soloists performing with maturity and confidence. Their soprano player Andrew Julian was, along with the sop from Ocean Brass, head and shoulders above the rest, a highlight being his beautiful duet with Principal Cornet Kayleigh Rowe in the 2nd movement, one which most bands failed to come anywhere near.

When the results were announced St. Dennis' members were clearly delighted, and when speaking with 4BR afterwards MD Brian Minear paid tribute to his hard-working players. On the day they were nigh on untouchable, and it remains to be seen how far this talented young outfit will go.

Lympstone South West Telecoms delivered an exciting and confident reading of the piece to come in second, earning the other qualification spot. In some sections of the piece conductor Charles Fleming took liberties regarding the tempos, but when it clicked the fast tempos really captured the spirit of the music.

Even playing off an early draw did not stop Soundhouse Brass and Denzil Stephens from claiming third place, with an understated, controlled performance. All of the band's soloists played superbly, and even though the performance was not the most exciting one of the day there were some very special moments indeed, most notably in the middle movement where the horns and baritones added warmth and depth to the ensemble.

Just outside the top three came Portishead Town, who also played with security and control, but with maybe a few too many insecurities to secure a higher placing. A notable highlight was the great euphonium work throughout the piece, with the clearest triplet work heard all day and a marvellous sound displayed in the big tune towards the end of the last movement.

Ocean Brass' fifth place came, to be honest, to this reviewer as a disappointing surprise. Razor sharp trombones, classy cornets and one of the two best soprano players on the day all contributed to a performance which almost had enough class to take the title itself. Possibly a few splits as the end of the piece was approaching robbed them of a shot at first prize, but they were desperately unlucky not to secure a qualification spot and promotion to the First Section, from which they were relegated last year. They will be back next year even better prepared to rise into the 1st section once again.

Melvin White created some nice moments with Michelmarsh Silver which impressed greatly, but the piece's technicalities were at most points too much for the band to overcome successfully and by the end being given 6th from the judges was all they could hope for. The band did create a nice, balanced sound when they were comfortable with the music, and perhaps a more suitable piece could have brought them a greater reward.

Shrewton Silver did not let being drawn first dampen their spirits, and gave a nicely interpreted reading of the work, which was again hampered by the difficulty of the parts. They should not be too downhearted at being given 7th as they set a very good benchmark for the day for other bands to follow.

Filton Concert Brass, Bath Spa and St Stythians, placed 8th, 9th and 10th respectively, all gave performances which had their moments, but were never going to secure enough to challenge for a qualification spot. Each tried hard to cope with the technical aspects of the work, but each had too many inconsistencies to have brought them any higher reward. In all, each of the performances were very much of a muchness and could have come in any particular order.

Weston-Super-Mare Brass are lucky to have fine cornet, soprano, euphonium and Eb bass soloists but even their sterling efforts were not enough to enable the band to take a higher placing in a reading which did end well but was hampered by an unconvincing start and tiredness towards to conclusion. 11th place was a fair reward.

In a performance spoilt by extreme overblowing from the front row cornets, Bristol East took 12th place. This performance had the potential to be several places higher in the frame, but every nice moment was spoiled by several over-enthusiastic cornet players, in whose line of fire this reviewer was unlucky enough to be sitting. It was a pity.

Both Phoenix Brass (Crewkerne) and local boys Torbay Brass simply found the piece too much to handle, and although neither band disgraced themselves their respective placings of 13th and 14th were a fair indication of their efforts.

Bendix Kingswood took the stage with a total of 17 players, including only two cornets on the front row. How they got through the piece was a miracle, but they did, and praise must be heaped upon them for doing so. What their 15th place did not indicate however was the fact that their performance featured some of the finest flugel playing to be heard all day.

Whether or not the choice of a more suitable piece would have yielded different results, the day undoubtedly belonged to St. Dennis and Brian Minear. Bands who were unable to come higher up in the prizes this year should not have too much cause for concern, as the standard of playing displayed even when tackling this immensely challenging work was a joy to behold and evidence that banding in the region will be secure for a long time to come.

Rob Richardson

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