2006 London and Southern Counties Regional Championships - Championship retrospective

24-Mar-2006

Five years is a very long time in the banding world to wait for a Regional title, but it was all worth while for Aveley and Newham in the end at a slightly surprising Championship contest.


Five years is a long time in brass banding, but that is how long it is since any band other than Redbridge has lifted the London and Southern Counties Championship trophy in triumph.

Such consistency is a rare thing indeed and could, it must be said, breed a degree of complacency in all but the most level headed of bands. But the simple fact is that no band has an automatic passport to the Albert Hall and this year there was a feeling that several bands were out to ensure that they put their stamp on the contest and brought the Redbridge reign to an end.

‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth' is one of those pieces on which every band would have felt itself capable of making a mark, and so it was that all of the bands on the day brought something to the music in some shape or form. It was equally obvious however that the piece offered plenty of possibilities for things to go astray and not one of the competitors emerged from battle completely unscathed.

In many cases it could only be put down to the pressure of the occasion that when things did go wrong it was usually the basics that suffered. Ragged ensemble, untidy phrase endings and occasional intonation problems all reared their heads and it was largely ‘The Day of Rest' and ‘Lost in the Labyrinth' that defined the quality performances from the middle of the road.     

In the circumstances Colin Hardy's points seemed to have been issued with a fair degree of generosity and the 197, 196 and 195 awarded to the top three bands implied a degree of perfection that was not entirely justified. In his post contest summation the adjudicator commented that there were three bands that stood out, after which the standard fell away somewhat; not too far from the truth although for us there were ultimately four bands that were head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

A good middle order draw at number five gave Redbridge an excellent platform from which to defend their title, and there was an air of quiet confidence about the players as they took to the stage. Unfortunately a quality opening chord from the trombones was soon undone by a technical problem with the vibraphone. The startled face of the player and the anxious glance towards Melvin White said it all as it sounded as if he was playing on a pair of coca cola cans.

To the band's credit the atmosphere quickly settled again and the ‘Descent' generated good momentum with a big sound that never resorted to overblowing. The bass duet at the ‘Terrestrial Depths' did not come over as entirely comfortable but the subsequent vivace was well handled into ‘The Day of Rest'. With the exception of a minor clip in the trombone the soloists acquitted themselves well here and the atmosphere was sustained through ‘The Whispering Gallery' before a dynamic bass trombone took the music into the final stages and a ‘Battle of the Antediluvian Creatures' that had both bite and venom.

It was a performance that despite the odd slip was well worthy of the defending champions and for us remained at the top of the pile for the rest of the afternoon. The fourth place awarded proved to be the one serious misplacing in the top four and still remains a mystery to us in terms of its two points differential below the third placed band.

Having taken to the stage at number four this was the first Area outing for Staines Brass following their First Section victory in 2005. From the opening they gave a performance that had a real sense of purpose with strong direction from the centre by Ian McElligott. In terms of sound they may not have been a match for Redbridge and there were odd moments of untidiness in the ‘Descent' but the integrity of the playing was never in question. Possibly as a consequence of trying to push the dynamic down a little too far in ‘The Day of Rest', the chords under the soloists were not always entirely together although the soloists themselves did well even if the dynamics were a little heavy for the mf and f marked.

For us though the one serious misgiving about Staines was the taped whispering that gave ‘The Whispering Gallery' a distinctly unnatural feel. For many of the bands on the day this section came off pretty well and it was a shame that this was the one passage in Staines' performance that failed to generate any real atmosphere.

Judging by the cheering at the end the band had brought a coach full of groupies with them but it was a deserved response to a performance that punched way above its weight for a band that were competing at First Section level less than twelve months ago. The runners up position and the prospect of a trip to the Royal Albert Hall in October was a reward that must have been way beyond the band's expectations but the sheer delight of Ian McElligott at the close of the performance was one of the memorable moments of the day.

If Staines were an unexpected runner up the same could be said of Kidlington Concert Brass, their performance earning them a third place and the comment from Colin Hardy that of all the bands it was the third prize winners for whom he felt most sorry in their narrow miss of a spot at the Albert Hall.

Kidlington's was one of the best captured openings of the day with finely balanced trombones and a good sense of overall atmosphere. The ‘Descent' may have just tended to the harsh in the cornets but there was drive in plenty whilst the basses did well in the ‘Terrestrial Depths'. Allowing for a couple of minor clips the ‘Day of Rest' soloists were amongst the most consistent of the day with the soprano player being one of a small group of players that managed to keep the dynamic at exactly the right level.

‘Lost in the Labyrinth' was more tentative and for a few moments it seemed as if the performance may lose its way before things recovered through the ‘Rescue' to a confident ‘Homecoming'. Kidlington's was an intelligently directed and thoughtfully prepared reading that although not error free was commendable in its musicality. It may not have been worthy of a place in the Final but it was certainly worthy of a top four placing on the day and will no doubt give the band a healthy boost of confidence.

As the penultimate band on stage Aveley and Newham knew exactly what they had to do to snatch victory. A good number of the Newham players were in the hall to hear Redbridge's strong but not entirely watertight performance and no doubt fancied their chances of squeezing past the favourites. Certainly Nigel Taken had a demeanour of meaning business and the opening set an immediate atmosphere if being a little on the safe side in terms of dynamics. There was plenty of detail as well as momentum on display in the ‘Descent' and once again things settled down to an atmospheric ‘Terrestrial Depths'.

It was in ‘The Day of Rest' that the first real chinks in the armour started to show. Although the notes were there the trombone solo had an oddly broken up feel about it whilst the soprano was hurried, the overall feel of the soloist's contributions being slightly nervy and uneven. ‘Lost in the Labyrinth' settled well however and the flugel and solo euphonium both made worthy contributions. A confident bass trombone introduction to the ‘Rescue' led into some highly exciting playing although Nigel Taken tried to dig deep to pull a real feroce from the middle of the band without complete success. It was a convincing conclusion though and for our money it was a close run thing between Aveley and Newham and Redbridge for the coveted first prize.

Ultimately we plumped for Redbridge on the grounds of a more consistent ‘Day of Rest', closely followed by Newham with Staines and Kidlington following on. For Redbridge however it was not to be and they would have no doubt left Stevenage mystified as to their placing at the wrong end of the top four.

Of the bands following on from the top four it was Zone One that created the greatest interest. A dreadlocked Simon Dobson got the band off to a cracking start and throughout ‘Snaefells' and the ‘Descent' the performance showed impressive excitement and a real sense of direction. It proved to be ‘The Day of Rest' and ‘Lost in the Labyrinth' that were the band's undoing however, the chords in ‘The Day of Rest' being separated in a way that disturbed the atmosphere and flow of the music, the soloists not entirely comfortable and the horn chords giving way very noticeably under the cornet solo. Although things recovered later on the damage was already done and fifth place was about right for an effort that showed real initial promise whilst ultimately failing to stay the entire course.

Alliance Brass and John Clark would have been very disappointed with their ninth place after a convincing third spot on ‘Rienzi' last year. An early number two draw possibly didn't help them but the performance seemed to expend all of its energy in the first half with nowhere left to go at the conclusion.

Friary Guildford, Northfleet, Soham Comrades, Welwyn Garden City, Clacton and Ipswich and Norwich Co-op (complete with Andy Duncan on bass!) all showed moments of quality but were unable to sustain the thrust of their performances and it was Ipswich and Norwich and Northfleet that propped up the bottom of the results table.

In the case of the top four bands then and to paraphrase the great Eric Morecambe it was a case of the right bands but not necessarily in the right order. Aveley and Newham have rightly got their place in the Final and hold the Area title for the first time since 2001. Redbridge will be as sick as the proverbial Norwegian Blue Parrott whilst Kidlington should be rightfully proud of their performance and placing.

For sheer achievement though it must be Staines that steals the crown. We may not have quite had them in the Albert Hall but with First Section banding firmly behind them they are about to embark on an adventure that Jules Verne himself would have surely relished.

Christopher Thomas  

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