2007 British Open Championships - Retrospective

20-Sep-2007

A masterstroke of brass band pyschology may have well won the day at the 2007 British Open. Bob Childs as the Duke of Wellington...


If it was once said by the Duke of Wellington that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the battle for the 155th British Open Brass Band Championship was surely won in the warm up room at the back of Symphony Hall stage in Birmingham. 

The decision of Dr Robert Childs to keep his band back in the confines of the sound proof room less than 20 yards from the stage was a masterstroke, especially given that their great rivals Black Dyke were at the time basking in the applause from a nearly full hall after producing a truly great performance in defence of their title and the pursuit of their own form of personal glory. 

Cory
Trooping the colours of victory: Cory enjoy their third Open victory of the Millennium

The result was that the players of Cory stepped out of the crepuscular back stage gloom and into the fierce spotlight of the Symphony Hall stage subconsciously knowing that they had to perform as well as they had ever done here to claim the title for a third time, but free from the overwhelming feeling of anxiety and strain that can be placed on any band when they have to follow a performance of such stature.

If anything the gleaming hall was even more full as the MD slowly directed his band into their places and then brought the baton clearly down in a parabolic arc for his cornet section to deliver a perfectly balanced and precisely placed opening motif of the Gerontius hymn tune which opens Kenneth Downie’s fine work. From then on they were heroic; almost perfect in execution, near faultless in balance, precise in dynamic control and supremely accurate with their tempo meter. 

What thoughts must have gone through the head of the MD as he asked for one last surge of brilliance in the very final bars of the piece? Even the final chord was wickedly snapped off with a precision that showed that the entire band was at one with their conductor’s intention to leave the audience almost breathless by the clinical brilliance of their execution. It was nigh on impossible to find fault with their performance.

That audience had waited almost six hours for the true climax to the contest and in the space of two performances, from perhaps the two best bands in the world, they were first given a seismic musical climax from the defending champion and then a monumental apogee from the eventual winners. 

There may have been a slight detection at the draw that the contest would possibly fall into two main moments of the highest drama. Of the fancies runners, Fodens and Grimethorpe had perhaps picked the short straws coming in at 3 and 4, whilst the defending champion and Cory were 15 and 16. In between some of the dark horses couldn’t have complained too much with Desford at 10, Brighouse at 11 and Hepworth at 13. Rothwell may have drawn the shortest of straws at number 1, but at least that meant that the hall was going to be pretty full for the premiere of ‘Visions of Gerontius’ and they had the chance to put down a strong marker for the rest of the field to be valued against.

In the end Rothwell Temperance did just that with a performance of solidity and merit that although a little hesitant to start grew in stature. If it lacked for anything then it was the real subtle dynamic variances that so stood out in the very best performances on the day, whilst the emotional core of the work at Rehearsal Mark GG just lacked that pleading sense of anguish that was required. 

It was a very good marker though – and a brave one at that given they had one eye looking over their shoulder in case they were to be drawn into a relegation fight with Aveley & Newham and Reg Vardy. In the end they had too much class about them (we had them in 8th place at the end to the judges 9th) to suffer the ignominy of a return to the fake tinsel town lights and chav glamour of Blackpool.

One band that will have to worry about that next year will be Kirkintilloch, although to be fair they will feel a sense of justified disappointment at eventually coming 18th (we had them in 11th).

Nigel Boddice chose a restrained, broadly lyrical approach to the music that although just lacking in pace at times had plenty of quality moments. As the day went on that perceived blandness (there was a need for more dynamic contrast) worked against them, but they could still count themselves unlucky to have ended up where they did. The number 2 draw really is the dead mans hand here.

So to the first real heavyweight battle of the day and Fodens Richardson at 3 and Grimethorpe at 4. Both may have been a little piqued at being handed such a draw, but it didn’t show.

There had been rumblings and rumours of discontent in the Fodens camp prior to the contest, but that was certainly not apparent on stage.  A fine start, followed by classy, facile ensemble work in the quicker variations and balanced ensemble sounds in the slower sections were of the highest quality. The bass end in particular gave everything a rock solid foundation to work off whilst the main solo lines were articulate and musically shaped.

Fodens
Look - No hands! Glyn Williams and Billy Miller carry on as the Fodens MD takes a rest

There was little to find fault with in the MDs cultured reading of the score and by the time they rounded off with a superb finale they couldn’t have done anything more to put their name on the famous old trophy for a tenth time (we had them 4th). Eventually of course it was beaten by two titanic efforts later in the day, but this was Fodens at their very best and they will head for London as one of the favourites – if they can get a later draw of course.

Grimethorpe’s performance hung over the proceedings with an almost malevolent presence. This was one of the most powerful performances you are ever likely to hear at a major contest – both musically and technically. Some of the dynamics could have ripped your tongue from your throat and the brilliance of their technique in places sucked the superlatives out of the room.

Grimethorpe
Only when I laugh...Grimethorpe crack a smile before the results...

Allan Withington can’t get the alchemy quite right here though and once again his richly brewed mix just left a slight bitter taste in the box. Perhaps it was too powerful a mixture of dark sounds and amazing technique, or perhaps it was as Steven Mead said, in his written remarks ‘a most enjoyable performance – small but costly errors must impact on the final placing’ - one of which was the timpani by all account being almost ten bars out near the beginning. Whatever the case (we had them 3rd) they had to be content with fifth place. London beckons though.

With that many in the hall felt it time for a break (it was around 12.30pm and time for a cuppa for the occasional listener) so the likes of Scottish Co-op, Reg Vardy and even Brighouse & Rastrick were faced with a hall that emptied quicker than the savings counter at the Birmingham branch of the Northern Rock Building Society.

In the event they perhaps made the right choice, although to be fair, all three produced worthy performances of a test piece that was beginning to show its teeth.

The opening statement of ‘Visions of Gerontius’ was deceptively simple in construction but found many bands in a state of anxiety, whilst the quicker sections demanded attention to detail both in tempi and dynamic contrast. The Waltz section caught many out too, with some opting for a waltz speed that reminded you of two dancers on ice and others that sounded as if the man had one leg nailed to the floor and the other set off with a roller skate for a shoe. 

The emotional core at Rehearsal Mark GG demanded a sense of anguish that some found slightly beyond them – whilst the finale really showed the differences between those who could control the emotions and the adrenaline rush and those who couldn’t.  The final few bars were overplayed at times so that bass players were taking three, four or even five breaths to complete the final chord.

Scottish Co-op tried their best directed by the hard working Allan Ramsay, but their efforts were let down by a percussion section that seemed under prepared or lacking in concentration and too many unforced errors.

On their day Co-op are a classy band but here they seemed up against it from just about the word go and despite the occasional extended moment of quality it never captured the essence of the piece. It eventually came 14th (we had them 17th) so they will know they will have to up their game next year if they are to survive.

Reg Vardy must have known their time was just about up here, but they produced a performance under the circumstances that was a credit to their spirit and pride.

Ray Farr
Too Farr gone: It's back to Blackpool for a brave Reg Vardy and their MD 

For the most part it was solid and well prepared, but the errors were costly to their cause whilst the Waltz section in particular just lacked for that extra bit of darkness. Perhaps Ray Farr tried to play a little too safe, as there was possibly another 5% in the tank that could have drawn them closer to safety in the end. Still it was the best we have heard from them for a while and although it was not enough to save them from the rigours of Blackpool next May it will give them confidence ahead of the trip to the Royal Albert Hall. 13th was bang on the mark for their efforts, but it wasn’t just enough to save them from the drop.

Brighouse & Rastrick were big, bold, strong and purposeful and for the most part delivered an enjoyable account of the set work, that although a touch on the weighty side at times still had quality about its delivery.

There were moments when the piece found them out a little (the use of a muted soprano line was so clearly wrong) and it was the more refined playing that tends to be their current Achilles heel. However, a well managed reading from the MD and that ability to lift themselves out of trouble with shows of strength were enough to put them in the hunt for a top six place right to the end of the contest. We had them in 7th, the judges 11th, so they will perhaps know just what they need to do if they are to challenge for the top honours come London in a few weeks time.

PolySteel meanwhile learnt a harsh lesson in the realities of real top class contesting. Confidence is all well and good in the right place, but when it turns rapidly into hubris then you are in all sorts of trouble – and that is what happened here.

It was without a doubt a confident performance of merit, but merit alone at the British Open is never enough to really make the type of mark many of the PolySteel players felt they had immediately achieved after the last note rang out from the stage. The poor start and over camouflaged ensemble work in the quicker movements signalled that this was a performance that lacked for that all important sense of subtle dynamic control and musical finesse.

The more it went on the more clearly that approach focused the judges attention on the short comings rather than the occasions when there was real quality about the delivery – the timpanist in particular being the most obvious culprit of crass over enthusiasm. Some of the celebrating players may have thought differently at the end but in reality they had killed off their chances by trying too hard to impress. We had them 15th, the judges 17th – a harsh lesson indeed.

The half way point of the contest was reached by a fighting performance from Aveley & Newham, who like Reg Vardy must have known that the sands of time were running out here for them to be replaced by the possible timeless sands of the North Beach at Blackpool.

This though was a performance that revealed that after a difficult year the band are approaching the type of form that got them to Birmingham in the first place, with sterling efforts from the main solo lines and an unpretentious approach by MD Nigel Taken. Not quite good enough to come higher than it did in 15th (we had them 16th) but signs that things could be much better come London in a few weeks time. 

Now came something completely different.

Desford are currently producing the type of musical performances that are a joy to listen to – and under the direction of Frans Violet they did it again. This was perhaps the most musically satisfying reading of the score of the entire contest – and the playing wasn’t far behind either.

Desford
Kilroy was here - Desford's euphonium team led by Mike Kilroy head for 4th place

Broad and lyrical, with an almost forensic attention to the subtle dynamic markings it was a beacon of controlled, almost balletic composure. It did have its weaknesses – they did miss Martin Britt (on paternity leave) on soprano despite the fine effort his replacement, and a little more heartfelt anguish was needed towards the end, but it was a combined effort from MD and players alike that richly deserved its reward. 4th place from the judges 6th from us – Desford are a band that is close to adding something very big to their CV in the near future if they can continue to play like this.

Not a great day for Carlton Main Frickley and a performance that never felt at ease from the word go.

Russell Gray usually pulls out the musical stops from his band and on this occasion it did start so well. Thereafter though it fell away with far too many individual errors and ensemble scrappiness that finally undermined their chances. It did have promise, but from about halfway through it fell away into midfield mediocrity. We had them 14th, the judges 12th – no complaints we feel.   

Fairey meanwhile should be delighted with their return of 7th place (we had them 10th).

This was an uneven performance in execution, but the obvious encouragement given by the impressive Philip Chalk really rubbed off on his players. At times the old Fairey was back on show, despite having only three players on the top end, and those extended glimpses did have the stamp of real quality about them.

There were some inherent structural drawbacks (the muted sop being the most obvious) but as we said, the plus points outweighed the minus ones, by a distance. This looks like a team that could bring some of the glory back to Fairey, even if they are still very much a work in progress. 

Much is now expected of Hepworth (Cookson Homes) and it is a credit to them that they are now living up to those expectations in full – despite them being a bit unlucky to finally come home in 8th place (we had the 5th).

This was a splendid performance, full of carefully balanced dynamics and controlled tempi. The obvious work ethic that Mark Bentham instils in his players was also on show too, with a solidity to the ensemble and solo lines that was rarely bettered all day. It just got a little strained in the key moment at GG when the emotion was perhaps over played but that soon gave way to a admirably controlled finish.  Hepworth may have left Birmingham disappointed, but since the debacle of Cambridge the MD and players have responded in such a positive fashion that they will surely be a fancied runner for a top six place come London. This is a very fine band in the making on this type of form. 

Sellers International meanwhile will surely have left Birmingham knowing that they will have to up their game considerably this time next year if they are not to suffer a rapid second relegation back to the barren grounds of the Grand Shield.

This was a really disappointing performance – lacking in control and execution. Philip McCann is usually so meticulous in his approach to any test piece, but for some reason or another this one never found him at ease with his reading of the score. The players too were also all at sea in places and although they are undoubtedly a better band than this, they will have to produce a top class performance next year if they are to survive the real threat of relegation. This was a mediocre performance to say the least and 16th place (we had them 18th) was all that it deserved.

And so to the reigning champion Black Dyke. As we have said earlier this was a fantastic performance – full of quality and class. There were the odd moment or two when little blips and blobs threatened the musical picture but overall it was thrilling stuff – especially towards the end when the finale stood the hairs on the back of your neck on end.

Dyke
I like that: Dr Nicholas Childs enjoys himself

The MD walked onto the stage immaculately dressed and coiffured and in return his band gave him an almost immaculately delivered performance.  There were no real weaknesses other than those smallest of little blips and the response from the hall signalled their approval at what they had just heard. It was an immense effort from the MD and his players to grab an historic hat-trick of titles and they must surely have thought that they had two hands firmly clasped on the Golden Shield.

It was not to be and even though Richard Marshall and Peter Roberts took individual honours they would surely have given them up in return for being a member of a historic hat-trick winning band with an immortal place in the history books. After the result was announced the MD came to the stage to offer his congratulations to his brother and the Cory Band knowing that only a performance of the rarest brilliance had beaten him – a reversal if you like of last year on ‘Vienna Nights’

Cory of course knew nothing of what had just happened moments before they took to the stage, but as soon as the baton came down from their MD they produced a stunning account of the test piece that left the audience dazed.

Cory
The final chord: Dr Robert Childs asks for a last bit of brilliance from his band

The ability to differentiate between low level dynamics, the surge of energy that burst through towards the end and the controlled excellence of the soloists and ensemble were of the very highest class, and there were many who felt that this was an Open winning performance rarely bettered by any band in recent years.  The playing of Michelle Ibbotson on soprano was perhaps the highlight of the performance, but the likes Ian Williams on solo cornet, Chris Thomas on trombone and Steve Sykes on tuba were not far behind. It was of course a team effort, but a team led so admirably by fine section leaders.

The Waltz was darkly playful, the emotional anguish of GG palpable in its intensity – the MD sucked every last drop of adrenaline filled emotion from his players and it was just enough to take the title after three years of near misses. The victory was fully deserved.

That just left two performances to go, and even though the hall emptied a fair bit after Cory left the stage there were still plenty of people in the hall to enjoy Whitburn and YBS.

Whitburn perhaps rode their luck somewhat in coming home in 6th place (we had them 12th), but despite the annoying number of unforced errors that led many to believe it to be fatally flawed to come in the top 10, let alone the top 6 (4BR Editor included) they were wrong, and the broad and enjoyable musical picture created by Andy Duncan found a great deal of favour in the box.

Whitburn
Study in concentration: Whitburn edge their way into the prizes

An opening blob didn’t perhaps herald the success to come, but despite that scrappy execution underneath it all was a fine performance in the ears of the judges. 4BR felt it may have struggled to come any higher than the midfield placings but the warmth of the ensemble sound and the sense of subtle stylistic changes between the variations created by the MD impressed others we spoke to.

They were right and we were wrong, although deep down even the players may think they had just been given a dose of long overdue luck.

Finally YBS under an uncharacteristically unflamboyant baton of Richard Evans.This was a performance that fully deserved its reward of 10th place (we had them 9th). After all the emotion the band had gone through in recent day with the death of their former player and friend Stuart Pullin this was an achievement based on real emotional character (some of the players were in tears at the end). 

Richard Evans knew that he had a vastly inexperienced band under his command (at least 7 of the players were making their British Open debut) and so he opted for traditional values and solidity of purpose. What he sacrificed may have been a touch of flamboyance but what he got in return kept its shape and musical purpose just about right to the end.

Childs
Iles Medal: Dr Nicholas Childs receives his Iles Medal
Picture: John Stirzaker


The soloists performed admirably and the ensemble, if a little strained in places never gave way to overblowing. Just a hint of tiredness robbed them of perhaps an outside chance of a top six place, but given what the band has been through of late, they should be proud as punch of what they achieved here. YBS are back on the right road once again.

And that was that – a few speeches, the awards of the Iles Medal to the Child’s brothers and the Mortimer Medal to a richly deserving Gary Walzack and then came the announcement of the results.

Whitbun’s sixth place drew a sharp intake of breath, but the audience accepted the rest right up to third place as a job well done by the judges.  Dyke in second drew the usual murmurs but the announcement that Cory had won drew rich and sustained applause. No hat-trick for Black Dyke but a third victory of the Millennium for the band from South Wales.

It really was a victory to remember – and one that was clearly won both in the warm up room and on the stage of Symphony Hall. 


Iwan Fox

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