2007 North West Regional Championship - First Section retrospective

16-Mar-2007

Eric Ball's Wayfarer sorted out the wheat from the chaff here in Blackpool on the weekend, with Timperley topping the tree with a 100% whole wheat performance.


This years Championship Section Bands and conductors have undoubtedly been given a stern test this year with Robert Redhead's ‘Isaiah 40'. One of the most challenging aspects of this particular work seems to be getting all the detail over to the adjudicator (and audience) in the more quicksilver moments (the opening presto and closing accelerandi for example).

Timp
Timperley triumph: MD David Evans picks up the regional title
Picture: John Stirzaker


Given that this year's top section, like the First Section, was held in the now infamous acoustic of the Empress Ballroom and not the usual Opera House, it was probably assumed that the detail aspect would be a potential problem for the bands. It was therefore surprising that it was the bands in the First Section, who were set Eric Ball's less complex ‘Sinfonietta - The Wayfarer', and not the Championship Section who were to come a cropper.

Aurally, the Empress Ballroom is the equivalent of performing in an aircraft hanger. The resonance of the hall swallows up much of the detail in faster passages of music. Fact. In a way it would have been understandable (perhaps) if some of the bands in the top section had fallen foul of this acoustic enigma as they are accustomed to competing in a much drier setting each March. 

However, the bands of the First Section have been performing in the Ballroom for the last few years at least. Most, if not all, of the bands were fully aware of the surroundings where they were to present, what is most probably, their most significant performance of the year in. Surely, when preparing a performance of such magnitude, one of the most important considerations is that of the venue.

Of course, when we refer to bands making considerations, we mainly mean the conductor. The lack of proper consideration of the acoustic in some performances last Sunday was, at best worrying and at worst nothing short of musical suicide!

The acoustic of the hall had two main effects on the performances of the bands in the First Section of the North West Area Championships: 1. Lack of detail/clarity in the faster passages. 2. Loss of dynamic contrasts (particularly at the lower level). The latter was of particular concern to adjudicator Roy Roe. It is a generally widely held view that bands can no longer play quietly with the same control as they used to, say 30 or 40 years ago. But is it that they can't, or is it that conductors are not asking them to do so enough if at all?

In the classical music world it is a well-known and respected view that a work by Mozart shouldn't be approached like Mahler or a piece by Shostakovich like Schubert. In the same way in the brass band genre it has been often said that the music of Eric Ball should not be interpreted in the same way as one might tackle a work of one of our leading contemporary composers, say Phillip Wilby for example. A number of bands in Blackpool fell into this trap.

This year's First Section test, 'Sinfonietta-The Wayfarer', may only be 30 years old, but it is essentially, along with Ball's many other fine works, music of a much earlier era, inhabiting the sound world of the Romantic composers, especially Edward Elgar. The Wayfarer, may not be vintage Ball, but it still contains (or should, if presented in the correct manner) many beautifully nostalgic and serene moments. 

Technically it's the not the most demanding work to be used at this level over the last few years. That's not to say it's easy either, just ask soprano, solo cornet and trombone players (to name but a few) who've been working on the piece during the last month or so. However, it has become obvious that this year's First Section ‘Areas' would turn out to be a real conductor's contest and so it turned out in Blackpool last Sunday.

Put simply many performances suffered because they lacked consideration in either or both of two basic elements: control of tempi and dynamic contrast. Adjudicator, Roy Roe, alluded to this in his pre-results speech.  The beautifully simple opening of the work, just one example, was often far too loud. The hall didn't help, but couldn't be totally to blame. A bigger faux-pas was to come: the tempo chosen by a fair number of MDs for the first allegro of the opening movement, ‘Adventure' (marked crotchet=126) and for the 3rd and final movement, ‘Journey Home' was ambitious in normal circumstances, but in this acoustic just plain crazy!

The actual playing standard of most of the bands seemed to be (dare I say it?), at a higher level than that of the previous weekend in Bradford (although we could hear everything that was going on there!).  A lot of the good work was wasted, however, as so much of the detail was lost. It was obvious where the blame lay.

It was good to hear the adjudicator address the audience, as it was in the other sections. In addition to speaking about the difficulties that he perceived lay in the music, Roy Roe also stated that, whilst many bands failed to overcome these, there were three good performances. Well, we agreed with him that there were three superior (but not head and shoulders above the rest) performances, but our three bands were not the same as Mr Roe's!

However, as we all know, and as much as we don't always agree, the adjudicator's decision is the only one that counts. Contests wouldn't be contests without contentious decisions. What would we have to talk/write about if we didn't have them?!

Conductors who approached the Wayfarer and the Ballroom with common sense were generally rewarded, even if their players weren't always consistent in producing the goods. The reverse of this also occurred, where technically proficient bands were denied the result that their hard work deserved by the shortcomings of their conductor. As always there were one or two exceptions to this rule, but more of this later.

Winning MD, David Evans clearly had a fine band sat in front of him, but his thoughtful interpretation enabled Timperley to get the nod ahead of a number of very worthy readings. Here is a band that has been giving out signals of great things to come for a while now, but on Sunday everything finally came to fruition. Drawn seven, the band oozed confidence and the performance was enhanced by stylish soloists, none more so than Principal Cornet, Rachel Pavey, and a big sounding bass section. 

It wasn't faultless (the use of muted trombones in the testing unison at the beginning of the 3rd movement was noticeable and the percussion occasionally seemed to be in front of the band), but by the time they reached the closing chords it was obvious that this was going to be a performance that would be right up there come results time. We had them a very close third.

tarryDrawn last, the performance of Poulton- Le-Fylde, was not without its problems, but benefited from a sensible, no nonsense interpretation from conductor Steve Tarry and contained some of the best ensemble playing of the day, gaining them the runners-up spot and a trip to Harrogate.

We thought the slips in solo lines might be costly and had them sixth, but clearly this was not the case in the mind of Mr Roe.

We have to admit that we didn't think 3rd placed Mossley would figure. In fact, we had them as far down as 10th.  We had our reasons. When they were good they were very good, but they also had some quite poor moments. The 1st and 3rd movements suffered from occasional balance and intonation problems and the second movement ‘Exile' felt a little forced, losing the elegiac feel.  However, MD, ex-Grimethorpe and Brighouse cornetist, Duncan Byers, a relative newcomer to the baton, shaped much of the music well. We just thought the inconsistency would be costly.

Perhaps the ‘cleanest' performance of the contest, was given by the youthful Roberts Bakery, directed by the experienced Colin Cranson. Colin seemed to encourage his band, many of whom were in their 20s or below, to play at the very top of their game and enabled them to come away with a slightly unlucky 4th place (we had them 2nd). All of the soloists were spot on, especially Solo Baritone, Katy Smallwood, who gave, by far, the most convincing rendition of the deceptively challenging exposed passage for her instrument.

Perhaps the band didn't have one of the biggest sounds on show, and there were occasional intonation problems, but overall this was a fine display. If this group of talented young musicians stay together we will surely hear more of them.

Fifth placed United Co-Op Crewe (Jeff Sparkes) will almost certainly consider themselves unfortunate, as theirs was perhaps the most complete performance of ‘The Wayfarer'. The band clearly had quality from top to bottom (the trombones excelled in particular) and the sound they produced was worthy of the Championship Section.

There were slips from time to time, the anguished horn melody of the 2nd movement didn't get off to the best of starts and there were some moments of slightly poor intonation, but overall this was a very well directed showing from a fine band with secure soloists. We thought they might just shade it, but it wasn't to be their day.

Ashton-under-Lyne had earlier opened proceedings with a fine sounding performance that possibly suffered from the dreaded number one draw to finish in 6th position (we had them 5th). From the very first note the ensemble sound created was warm (horns were particularly impressive) and well balanced by conductor Philip Chalk. The soprano, solo cornet and horn solos of the 2nd movement followed suit, leading to some beautifully controlled sounds at the opening of the 3rd movement.

It obviously did not help that our ears were not adjusted to the acoustic, but the tempos adopted for some of the faster music, particularly the opening allegro did leave some reservations, as did the use of slide vibrato in the brief, but expressive trombone trio.

Seventh place was awarded to a fairly solid show from Longridge, directed by Peter Lockett.  At times it was big and bold, which, when called for, was fine, but equally, on occasion, we did crave a little more of the lower dynamic levels. Soloists played well, but the faster music did seem to rush and led to the inevitable lack of clarity, whilst the closing moments seemed to tail off slightly. We had them 8th.

Diggle, conducted by Les Beevers, followed Ashton on stage, and whilst giving a good account of themselves, couldn't quite match the tonal quality of the previous performance or the clarity and dynamic contrast of a number of the bands that were to follow them. There wasn't that much wrong with it, but it just needed a touch more class to figure in the final reckoning, especially given the early draw. 8th seemed a fair placing (we had them 9th).

The Maxilead Metals Tyldesley Band is an ensemble full of young (looking at least!) people and perhaps the inexperienced showed in a nervy performance, directed by Robert Taylor.

This was a performance that did suffer from a lack of clarity (but more through a lack of technical conviction rather than overcooked tempi) and dynamic contrast, but, significantly Roy Roe clearly rated it higher than us (we had it in 13th) and 9th position will hopefully encourage the band to push on for this is undoubtedly a band of great potential.

The performance of Haslingden & Helmshore, under the baton of David Holland, lacked the wider dynamic range, clarity and big sound of some of their rivals. There was some good playing from around the stand, but it just lacked a little warmth and intonation problems surfaced, particularly in the exposed opening octaves of the 2nd Movement. 10th position was just about right (we had them 11th).

Silk Brass Astra Zeneca were making their debut in the first section and they certainly sounded a band full of confidence. They were ably led by Jim Cant, a man who certainly knows all about succeeding in lower section contests-he took Glossop through the sections all the way to the highest level. Unfortunately their interpretation may well have fallen foul of over exuberant dynamics and knife edged tempos (even though the band generally seemed to be able cope with them).

Amidst all this however, we lost the serene and nostalgic character so important to much of this music and even though the dynamics of the closing section were kept well under control the damage was perhaps already done. 11th position was a little unlucky (we had them somewhat higher in 7th), but understandable given what Mr Roe was seemingly looking for.

One of banding's most famous names, Besses o' th' Barn, are in the early stages of a re-building process lead by the experienced John Hinckley. These are early days for what is almost entirely a new line up of players, but they clearly crave a swift return to the Championship Section and seemed to have given themselves a fighting chance, following a well shaped and interesting reading, if not error free, reading.

It has to be said that John Hinckley did take risks with his tempos in the faster sections and the opening was not at the required quiet dynamic. Both of these may well have been costly. However the soprano and cornet soloists were excellent and they sounded a very good band in the making.  12th place was harsh and will certainly have come as a shock to them. We had the performance some way behind the leaders, but in 4th nonetheless.

Finally, in 13th position came Hoover Bolton, clearly and sensibly directed by former Fairey horn player, Robbie Cargill. Hoover is a predominantly very young band and was making its debut in this section, following a number of recent promotions. There is clearly a lot of talent in this group (they make a fine, rounded sound), but here it just didn't happen for them as nerves took hold.

They will certainly be disappointed with last place (we had them 12th), but when the dust settles, they will surely learn from this experience and come back all the stronger for it. The ability is certainly there.

All in all, an enthralling contest of well matched bands. There will inevitably be quibbles from some corners about certain aspects of the result (what's new there then?), but the region will send two strong contenders to Harrogate in September. The First Section at Blackpool does indeed have strength in depth and this was evident for all to hear last Sunday. A little more thought on the part of the conductors and the standard could really be something.

Mark Bousie

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