2006 European Brass Band Championships - European Composers Contest and Gala Concert

3-May-2006

The European Championships really got into the swing of things at the Gala Concert and Composer's Competition which was an enjoyable aperitif to what was to follow.


Even though the European Brass Band Festival, rather than European Brass Band Championships had been going on since the previous Saturday it was not until the following Thursday night and the Gala Concert and Composers Competition that the 2006 event really got into the full swing of things.

Kevin Houben
The title holder: Kevin Houben shows off his spoils

Held in the fine Victorian splendour of the Ulster Hall (which was once the home venue for the singer Ruby Murray) it proved to be an interesting and enjoyable aperitif to the events that follow.

Ostensibly the night was all about the three works that the young composers had brought to be judged upon by the adjudication panel of Torstein Aagaard Nilsen, Ian Wilson and Jan van der Roost, and rather more intriguingly by both the audience and the 1st Old Boys Band who were conducted by Frank Renton and who performed all three short concert pieces. 

Although the standard of performances from the two main bands (the first half was performed by 1st Old Boys and the second by Strabane Concert) was rather disappointing, it did not detract from the enjoyment and with Frank Renton mixing his usual brand of urbane but sharp humour with a conducting workout that brought more than a few beads of sweat to his brow, it made for a good night out.

It was also a good night out for the featured soloist Alan Morrison who was on excellent form with his four items even though his mind was perhaps 250 miles away at the Riverside Stadium as Middlesborough improbably overcame Steaua Bucherest to reach the UEFA Cup Final. By the time he ripped through his final item of ‘Satchmo' his team still needed two goals to go through with less than five minutes of the game left.  No wonder he left the stage promptly to find out the score instead of milking the well deserved applause for his excellent playing efforts.

The night started with the hall more than two thirds full (a fine achievement by the organisers for a fringe event) with the massed bands and the fantastic Grand Mullholland organ (named after a former ex mayor of the city and not the former editor of Brass Band World, although he rather mischievously tried to claim otherwise!) piping out Malcolm Arnold's ‘Fanfare for a Festival'. The revamped organ really was the star of the entire show in fact, pumping out bass notes that vibrated your spine. It is a magnificent beast; restored to its former beauty and with a depth of sound that threatened to take the roof off the hall. The only pity was that was not particularly well played.

organ
The great Mullholland organ

With the pipes cleaned so to speak it was straight into the competition. To stop any accusations of unfairness each of the pieces was given a code name; the first ‘Arcana', the second, ‘Coffee' and the third, ‘Annette'. Great idea except that ‘Arcana' turned out to be in fact the real name of the Kevin Houben's piece, whilst at the announcement of the results by Jappie Dijkstra, he forgot to inform the audience of the true names of any of the pieces, so no one actually knew the name of the winning piece! ‘Annette' was in fact ‘Sinfonietta' by the local composer Gareth Downey, whilst ‘Coffee' was Joel Engstrom's ‘Odyssey'.   

'Arcana' turned out to be the winner in the view of the three judges, although the audience and the band voted for Gareth Downey's work. Contests eh?

Finalists
Shining lights: The three composers face the bright lights of the press

The general standard of all three pieces (each around 7 minutes in duration) seemed to be OK, but none really shone as being a true ‘gem'. ‘Arcana' was perhaps the most technically complex with an almost Scottish feel to its slow opening statements and more upbeat end. The composer told 4BR that it was inspired by some untold secret within his own brass band, and although it was enjoyable enough it never quite captured the listeners imagination. For the judges though it was the winner, and Kevin Houben joyfully received the winners prize of 1500 Euro, Mozart bronze statue and presentation panel from Roger Handley to hang on his wall.

Joel Engstrom's ‘Odyssey' had a bit of a ‘Euro pop' feel to it in places, and although it became more lyrical it returned to its up beat feel to end. Meanwhile, Gareth Downey's ‘Sinfonietta' was the only work to be broken into three shorter movements and was perhaps the most easily recognisable brass band piece in terms of construction and feel. It had a neat sense of style in the two outer movements and a simply melody underpinning the second, but like the others it felt like a collection of ideas joined together to form a whole rather than a couple more substantial idioms more deeply explored. 

With time pressing, Frank Renton took the sensible step of dropping a couple of the items from the first half (sensible too, as the standard of playing was strained as the stamina of the band began to suffer) and the first half was rounded off with a massed bands bash of ‘Toccata in D Minor'. The huge organ provided the foundation, although it was cracked with some odd notes at the beginning before the bands joined in to whack out the up beat, up tempo stuff. Great in theory, but not great in execution – more Vincent Price as the Abominable Dr, Phibes than JS Bach meets brilliant brass bands. Old  Frank earned his fee alright conducting this one.

If the first half ended on a down note, the second started an octave below with an excruciating ‘Intrada – Ein Fest Berg' that very nearly stopped in places. With that out of the way, Alan Morrison brought a real sense of class with his two offerings of the ‘Harry James Trumpet Concerto' and   ‘Lazy River' by Hoagy Carmichael.

Strabane then delivered a trio of Shostakovich which included a well maintained ‘March' from his ‘Jazz Suite' and neat ‘Folk Festival' and a rather less inspired ‘Romance from the Gadfly' which at times sounded as if the fly in question had been squashed on the windscreen of the composer's car.   

Alan then returned, much to Frank's obvious relief one felt and produced two performances of ‘Over the Rainbow' and ‘Satchmo' that showed off his ease of style and class, but also the lack of it within the accompaniment.

All that was left was the big finale, and what better than Frank Renton's own epic arrangement of Saint Saen's ‘Organ Symphony'. The sense of anticipation though was brought abruptly down to earth when the two massed bands tried to tune up to the organ. It was cruel.

Still, Frank dragged everyone through with a display of accurate beating that would have made a Swiss watchmaker proud and gave his domed head a sheen of sweat that glistened in the lights of the hall. To say he looked relieved is an understatement.

The results were then announced in an awards ceremony that rather fell flat, what with the announcement of the audience and band opting for the Gareth Downey piece that eventually came third. Kevin Houben took the top honours and his first steps on what should be a career in music, whilst the audience left for home with the first indications of what might be in store for the rest of the weekend.    

It may have not been the most inspiring night of music making, but it certainly had it moments and was an enjoyable way to start off the 2006 European adventure.

Iwan Fox.  

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