2007 European Brass Band Championships - Postcard from Birmingham

13-May-2007

With such great moments throughout the week, why did the 2007 European leave us feeling just a tad disappointed?


In retrospect there was so much to enjoy at the 30th European Brass Band Championships in Birmingham that it may appear slightly churlish to suggest that overall they were mildly disappointing.

However, given that the organisers, the BFBB, did have the opportunity to really cement England's place as the hub of European banding, the fact that we left feeling that it was a matter of ‘what might have been' rather sums up that this really was a missed opportunity to take the Europeans into a new era on the back of a reminder of what made the contest such an exciting event in the first place.  It just needed a bit more bravery and a sense of ambition.

EBBA
End of an era: EBBA says goodbye to its stalwarts

The main driving forces behind EBBA also had the opportunity to end an era on an upbeat note too. The likes of Markus Bach, Tom Brevik, Robert Schotte, Fritz Brand and Nelly Unternaehrer have been stalwarts of the contest's development and we have much to thank them for. Not everything they have proposed and achieved has been successful of course, but in general they have been a force for good for the movement both in Europe and in the UK. They have opened our eyes, especially in terms of organisational expertise, musical and geographical boundaries to what the movement can achieve given strong and purposeful leadership. 

Bach
Leaving present: 4BR presents Markus Bach with his Special Award

They will of course be missed, but the time was right for them to move on. Birmingham had a sense that their involvement had come full circle – a decade in which they had pushed the European further than many still feel comfortable with, although many more should be grateful for.

Members of the BFBB certainly worked their socks off. Much of the work was behind the scenes so to speak, but it was done with enthusiasm and resolve and everyone did their bit, from driving mini buses to selling programmes. The relationship between them and EBBA was it appeared, at times strained.

There seemed to be a fundamental sense of scepticism between the parties that neither could quite overcome, be it with the rather confused results ceremonies (EBBA's responsibility by all accounts) to the unclear sense of responsibility over the tiny issues such as hospitality to participants (one of the bands was not represented at the results for instance). EBBA brings a great deal of organisational structure to the Europeans, which can seem like it is imposed on the host country, but without it you do wonder if the BFBB had the resources on hand to do it themselves.

As we have said the highlights were real sparklers. The European Youth Brass Band has grown from being a novelty to an integral part of the week long festival (initiated it must be said by the Brits in 2000). Ian Porthouse engineered a fine atmosphere in which the young players certainly flourished and enjoyed themselves with performances of real merit at the opening ceremony, the Gala Concert and Farewell Concert too. Expertly marshalled by the BFBB they were a credit to themselves and their countries.


Euro highlight: The European Youth Band entertain the dignitaries in Birmingham

So too the 4th European Solo Competition, that reached its climax on the Thursday night at the Sir Adrian Boult Hall.  Of all the so called ‘fringe' events which encompass the conductors and composer's competitions this is the one that really does have a sense of relevance about it.  Once more the BFBB marshalled the whole week of preliminary rounds excellently, but come the final that sense of sceptical distrust surfaced at the end of the awards ceremony that was rather pompously hijacked by EBBA.

The standard of playing all week had been very high indeed, whilst the accompaniment at the final by the Staffordshire Band was a credit to both themselves and their MD, Michael Fowles. The three finalists were very good too, although the repertoire that was available to the euphonium and trombone seemed slightly restrictive. The winner was deserving of his prize and we think we will be hearing more of Lin Chin –Cheng in the future.  It was a fine start to the week with an encouraging audience.

There was a touch of the surreal at the opening ceremony at Birmingham's Civic Chambers on the Friday when we all had to wait around for the Deputy Mayor to make it on time (perhaps he was just relieved he had held onto his seat after the local elections the night before). The look of astonishment on the faces of many of the European representatives when the ludicrous Captain Pugwash town cryer spouted his banalities at the top of his voice (and all rather muddled too) was also something to behold as well. Each host country has its foibles and eccentricities, and Birmingham was no exception.


Aye Aye Captain! The Birmingham Town Cryer enjoys his moment in the spotlight...

The music performed by the competing bands was excellent. Two fine test pieces (again well done BFBB) by two excellent composers (who gave very interesting talks prior to the contest, despite being asked to do so in a totally inappropriate venue in the foyer of Symphony Hall) set the tone of what was to come. The playing on the Saturday in particular was perhaps of the highest standard ever at the contest.

The B Section was a weak aperitif to the main course, but that was somewhat expected, but when the selections of splendid main courses did come, they left everyone totally satisfied. 

The desert however was a real let down. The Gala Concert was a major disappointment and an opportunity missed by the BFBB. Whatever the reasons, the choices of Brass Band Willebroek (a fantastic contesting band, but a pretty average concert outfit), the lack of a real recognizable solo performer of international standing (David Morris, a former World Champion Whistler, was never going to fill a hall half this size) and the aforementioned confusing awards ceremony left a feeling of anti climax to the weekend. What should have been a real high turned out to be something of a real low.

There was however a fantastic pick me up on the Sunday morning at the Farewell Concert given by the European Youth Band and Brass Band Oberosterreich (undoubted musical stars of the weekend), but that left you wondering why on earth that couldn't have been transferred to the night before.

Overall the BFBB never quite had the vision to make more of a fantastic opportunity here in Birmingham. They certainly worked hard and the contribution of many of their stalwart members should be applauded. However, at a strategic level, the organisation failed to make the most of what was given to them by securing the championships in the first place. The lack of promotion of the event both locally and nationally was a major drawback – there was not one cameraman or local reporter at any of the events we went to, whilst the signage outside the hall (so well done in Belfast) told passers by that this was a dental conference and not the most important brass band event in the calendar.

It showed perhaps that the BFBB are a fine organisation when they can concentrate on what they do best – helping to represent bands in the UK. They shouldn't really be in the contest promotion game (especially given that the Europeans will make a hefty loss and the BFBB only has around £30K in reserves and a declining membership, many of whom are unwilling to pay the annual £100 membership fee). The next time the Europeans come here then perhaps the time has come for a private promoter to take the risks – and any profit.

Mead
Now what can I put in this? Steven Mead accepts his 4BR Solo CD Award

The traders reported that business had been brisk and well worth it, so whether or not they made a profit on the weekend we don't know, but they seemed happy enough even if a few of the regulars were missing. Not so Steven Mead and Besson who put in a high profile appearance and Steven accepted his 4BR Award for his Solo CD of the Year with his usual good grace.

That sense of lack of ambition was clearly emphasised at the EBBA General Meeting on the Sunday morning where Robert Morgan rather wore a face of relief that the whole event was over and that a catastrophe had been averted. It was as if he wanted to say ‘don't worry lads, it could have been worse'.

Indeed it could have, but it also could have been a great deal better too.

Iwan Fox

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