2006 London and Southern Counties Regional Championships - First Section retrospective

24-Mar-2006

Sixteen bands took to the stage to give of their best on Voyage of Discovery, and it was the Haverhill Band that finally found their sea legs to come out on top.


Sixteen bands gathered in Stevenage to do battle for the First Section title.  No doubt they were glad to avoid the barn of a sports hall, which was particularly cold this year, and at least there were no undue delays whilst the platform was dismantled, as had been the case in 2004 to accommodate the percussion requirements of "Coventry Variations". 

The theatre is a pleasant enough venue, fortunately without heavy drapes that can so often restrict the sound of a band on stage, although the positioning of the adjudicator's box at one side of the hall seemed a little odd.  Indeed, at the draw for some of the sections, this point was referred to specifically, warning bands that the cornet section would be playing directly towards the box.  It also had the corresponding effect, in that the trombones were pointing away from the box.  We deliberately sat to that side of the hall, and the affect was quite striking, and also caused some problems for some bands whose percussion was sited behind the trombones.

Adjudicator David Horsfield, speaking before the announcement of the results, said it had been a pleasure to do the honours at the London & Southern Counties' Regionals for the first time.  He was full of praise for the test piece, Goff Richards' "Voyage of Discovery", feeling that it is his best competition piece so far, with much detail to be observed regarding dynamics, accents, staccatos.  He said there had been some marvellous solo playing, and offered words of encouragement to those whose efforts had not been so successful, exhorting them to keep practising, and not to get disheartened. 

Explaining that he felt that the principal cornets had got off fairly lightly in the writing, he had decided that the Derek Stillwell (Luton Band) Memorial Trophy for the outstanding cornet player should be awarded to a soprano player, the recipient being David Cooper who played so well for KM Medway band.  He spoke of the lyricism of the horn solo, expressing the need for, in his words and with his distinctive northern accent, "good old-fashioned rubato".  As an after-thought (prompted by one of the band representatives sitting on stage) he spoke of the bass quartet, which most bands had coped with quite well, the most successful, in his view, being those who had judged the balance and quickening tempo at that point correctly.

For him, there had been two or three bands that had stood out above the rest, two of whom would go forward to represent the hopes of the London & Southern Counties Region at the finals at Harrogate.  Taking the bands in order of play, this was our reaction:

First up were Regent Brass who, like many bands on the day, found the opening bars something of a struggle.  They soon settled into their stride, however, with tight rhythms, a bright sound and some tidy work from the bass section.  They showed good restraint in the quieter sections, and the unison lines were played accurately.  Soloists did encounter problems, however, despite a brave attempt by their soprano, and it was the start of what was to be overall a trying day for euphonium players.  The quieter dynamics were well observed, although the percussion seemed a little tentative.  We expected them to be placed higher than their eventual 10th place.       .

Chichester City took to the stage fielding only three basses and two percussion, and with the soprano joining the solo cornets on the front row.  They didn't get off to a particularly good start, and the bass trombone (in the unison phrase with the basses) had a little too much edge for our liking.  There was a good attempt at dynamic contrast, but there was uncertainty from both horn and soprano.  Also, at least from our position in the hall, the trombones were not very convincing.  The solo tuba produced a good sound in the quartet, with the euphonium filling in the missing inner part - in fact it was good throughout the day to see tuba players being allowed to have a go, even if there was a bit of judicious shadowing by euphoniums in some performances.   With a percussionist short, what should have been clashed cymbals became a suspended cymbal instead, but unfortunately it was rather lack-lustre, and the absence of the tam-tam was regrettable.  13th place was the outcome.

There was a brief delay before Stonesfield Silver played, as their percussion were moved forward to be closer to the rest of the band.  Their opening was undoubtedly the best so far, with tight playing and pointed accents, although once again the trombones seemed a little lost in the overall sound of the band.  The basses cut down to three for their unison figure and trill, whilst the soprano very nearly made it, and their horn solo was effective.  The tuba quartet worked well, and the band produced a warm, full sound, with some very tidy descending scales.  They also produced some good, quiet playing, even if a couple of the cornet notes seemed to get lost in the process, and were good value for their 4th place.

Horsham Borough's cornets also made a good attempt at the opening, and the ensemble soon tightened up.  The transfer between the euphoniums in their solo passage was achieved seamlessly, and there was some good work from the trombones.  Their reading was marked by some very delicate playing, including the basses, who observed the dynamics in the quartet effectively.  Overall they produced a good, confident reading, a little steady at times but very secure, for a comfortable 5th place.

Becontree took the stage looking to improve on last year's 10th place.  Having negotiated the opening bars things settled down nicely, with effective work from the trombone section.  Also cutting down to three basses for their unison phrase, euphoniums and baritones were nicely together, with some controlled, restrained playing.  The horn solo was a little tentative on the lower notes, but the ensuing horn trio typified the pleasant sound produced by the middle of the band.  The trombone trio worked well, with a proper trombone sound being maintained throughout.  Alan Duguid took command of the cornet solo in a way that seemed to elude many bands on the day, and the percussion section performed well, with an impressive bass drum stroke where many bands produced an indeterminate thud.  Despite the occasional slip we were expecting a comfortable mid-table placing, but it did not find favour with the man in the box, and the band were very disappointed with their placing of 14th. 

Wantage "A" followed Becontree after a brief pause while the timpani were tuned to the glockenspiel.  Their opening was split between the cornet players, who produced a sweet, clear tone.  During the quiet sections one was suddenly very aware in the hall of the noise produced by the theatre's air conditioning system, which continued throughout the day.  Their soprano player was the first on the day to hit the top "c" cleanly, and their other soloists also performed well, with the trombones playing with bells raised to help project the sound.  They produced some good playing at the lower dynamics, although the stroke on the tam-tam at the end of the crescendo seemed out of keeping with the score.  It clearly didn't bother the adjudicator, as he placed them 3rd, just missing out on a trip to Harrogate.

KM Medway fielded five basses and only three solo cornets, but nevertheless their performance was notable particularly for their pleasant overall sound.  The soprano, who as has been said was awarded the soloist's prize, had a particularly sweet tone, and was never masked by the solo cornets.  The five basses blended well together, with an even trill and a good quartet, whilst the trombones played confidently, maintaining the momentum well.  The cornet solo was also played with conviction, although the cornet sound at the tuttis was on the brink of sounding a little brash, possibly over-compensating for their missing comrade.  Their fine euphonium player was prominent when appropriate, but was nicely integrated into the sound of the band in the final tutti.  Their 2nd place was well deserved.

Crystal Palace did not start particularly well, with the horns seeming to snatch at their notes, and cornets under strain in the upper register.  At higher dynamics the sound was distorted and there were intonation issues in the middle of the band.  The absence of a third percussionist was noticeable, with the glockenspiel a little unclear and no tam-tam at the end.  The close of the performance brought out the best of their playing, but they seemed to be trying a little too hard, and 15th place was not unexpected.

Following a short comfort break it was the turn of Sandhurst Silver who produced a full, balanced sound.  There was some uncertainty at the start of the unison passage in the basses, and this was also reflected in the balance in the quartet, where the top part was slightly over-powered.  It was another well-controlled reading, not without its blips, including some untidiness between the two glockenspiels, but with some neat euphonium playing, for which they were awarded 7th place.  Our only other comment would be a suggestion that their conductor tries to find a pair of shoes that don't squeak so much in time for their next outing: it was very distracting, and became more so as the performance went on.

There was an unfortunate delay of a couple of minutes before Broseley Brass MK commenced their performance, to allow three instrument cases to be moved which had thoughtlessly been left obstructing the gangway.  It didn't seem to unsettle the players too much, however, as they produced one of the clearest openings of the day, with their cornet section gelling well together.  There were a couple of slips from the soloists, but the soprano hit the top note cleanly, even if it was a little rushed.   There were some good forte-pianos played, but the intonation tended to suffer in the loud sections, and the flugel player seemed to be facing backwards into the band rather than playing towards the audience.  With only two percussionists in their line-up, it fell to their second baritone player to play the tam-tam, which he did quite successfully.  8th place was the verdict.

St Albans City also chose to seat the soprano on the front row, with the flugel on the end of the back row, thus separated from the horns.  Their ensemble was tight, if a little on the bright side, and the horns produced a good sound.  The overall sound of band was full and round, although the attack was a little percussive at times.  Soprano recovered well after a slight mishap, but there was a very prominent intake of breath in the middle of the euphonium cadenza which spoilt the flow.  There was some untidy playing running into the bass quartet and, although dynamics were on the whole well-observed, 7th place seemed rather generous.

Alder Valley, having drawn 12th, were also placed 12th by David Horsfield.  After a reasonable opening, there were a few balance problems, with the basses in particular not being together.  There were certainly some good points in their playing, with a light touch in the quieter passages, and the young soprano player seemed utterly dejected at just missing the top note.  Towards the end, tiredness seemed to take its toll, with a touch of brashness creeping in, and the result was about right.

Right from the first bars played by Haverhill Silver it was clear that here was a performance of high merit.  Their full sound, tight rhythms and pure-toned euphonium made an immediate impression on those in the hall.   The quiet playing of the band was exemplary, and although some may have felt they were a little loud in the tuttis it detracted little from the overall impression.  Soloists did well, with a clean soprano and almost accident-free horn, whilst the glockenspiel decoration was most effective.  There were few present who were in disagreement when they were pronounced worthy winners of the section.

Colchester played with only two percussion, three solo cornets and one baritone, and found it heavy going from the start.  The glockenspiel was very tentative, and the playing across the band was inaccurate and un-tuneful at times.  There were some nice touches, particularly the delicate and sensitive playing that preceded the euphonium cadenza, but last place came as no surprise.  Once again, the tam-tam's absence was very obvious.

Bedford Town were another band which coped well with the opening, and their soprano and cornet section as a whole produced some playing of some delicacy.  The horn section played well together, although the bass trombone seemed to be too prominent when with the basses.  An unfortunate dropped mute proved somewhat distracting, and although the trombone trio started well, it became a little untidy.  For us, the tuba on the top part of their quartet was the best of the day, and the balance was first class.  All in all it was a well-drilled performance, with a good sound across the dynamics, which well merited its 6th place.  

Last to play were City of Cambridge, who also demonstrated some tidy cornet playing, with the percussion also performing well.  On the whole their soloists performed well, with an especially robust start from their horn player, although the trombones were not perfect, and the bass quartet seemed a little half-hearted.  They were another band sounding at their best in the quieter passages, with a tendency towards brashness when the music got louder, and we had them amongst a middle group of bands that were rather difficult to separate, David Horsfield placing them 9th.

All in all, it was a good day, with some fine music-making, and bands playing to reasonable audiences throughout the day.  It was not a great day for euphonium players, with many experiencing difficulties with the cadenza, especially that handover from one player to the other in the upper register, whilst the 16 sopranos will be glad their ordeal is over at least until next time.  Two worthy qualifiers for Harrogate, several other very good renditions of a work that seemed popular with both players and listeners, and only a couple of contentious results to keep the bars and the internet sites buzzing.

Peter Bale

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