2008 Norwegian National Championships - Postcard from Bergen

13-Feb-2008

900 years of culture, commerce and high beer prices - Bergen and its brass bands have come a long way - honest.


Gala Concert
Raw Sex or Three Poofs and a Piano - Norwegian style. The unique Gala Concert also featured a horn player with three legs...

The city of Bergen was founded by King Olav Kyrre between 1066 and 1093 - roughly the same time as the English were suffering the after effects of a particularly damaging home defeat to William the Conqueror on the playing fields of Hastings. 

The city itself became the capital of Norway and over the next 600 years or so developed into a vital link of the Hanseatic League, which wasn’t a Nordic forerunner of the English football Premiership, but a trading agreement of sorts between various Baltic countries. Today it is a city of history, culture, commerce and high beer prices.

History

Its history also rather mirrors the development of its National Brass Band Championships.

From the first fledgling event in 1979 with just 10 bands participating (and trumpeter Rod Franks deciding to take a financial punt – or should that be Krone - on its success) it has now reached maturity and has become one of the leading brass band contests in the whole of Europe.  What would old King Olav Kyrre thought of that then?

This year there were 69 bands taking part – with 19 alone in the Fourth Division contest. For any brass band lover it is now a ‘must see’ event to go and enjoy. Now it has its own history, culture, commerce and high beer prices too.

The Norwegians are of course keen to ensure that the growth continues. The NMF organisation that oversees brass band development in the country is highly professional, well funded and slickly run (the timetable of bands runs with almost Swiss precision), but it is the sense that brass banding is seen here as a relevant and important cultural activity that so immediately impresses upon you. 

The story of the local Bergen based Fjell Band gaining community sponsorship to fast track into the Elite Division in the next few years is perhaps the most stunning example of just how relevant brass banding really is. 

Gala Concert

Also this year the local television channel broadcast performances from the main Grieghallen live for everyone to enjoy, whilst the Gala Concert prior to the announcement of the results continues to have a slightly bizarre, but ever so enjoyable feel to it.

One of the main acts to perform was called ‘Finn-Erix’ and was to the non-Norwegian trained eye a mix between Roland Revron’s old group ‘Raw Sex’ and ‘Three Poofs and a Piano’. To say they were odd was an understatement.  

Then there was Stavanger Band accompanying singer Erik Smith, who blasted out old Frank Sinatra hits with the aid of a double bass and a PA system that could have woken old King Kyrre from his grave. It was though, highly enjoyable stuff, with Stavanger and Allan Withington, complete with funky neck beads, clearly relaxed and playing with a true sense of Nelson Riddle swing.

The results ceremony features all the band reps up on stage, each presented with a red rose and all having to stand there as their fates are displayed on the huge projection screen behind them. Amid cheers (even the bands coming bottom of the prizes get an almost ironic vocal appreciation) it all comes down to the last three bands and the final dramatic announcement of who has won.

Again – different but very effective, and all rounded off by the now infamous Brass Night celebration, which the modern day Norwegians enjoy as much as their middle age counterparts did on a raiding trip to Hull.

Evidence

The contests themselves provided further evidence that the Norwegian set up has much to commend too. We already know about the open adjudication and the relaxation of rules to help bands in the lower divisions, but there is so much else too.

The Elite Division with just the 10 bands battling it out over the twin disciplines of the test piece and own choice works provides thrilling entertainment. The standard of performances this year was exceptionally high with Eikanger’s ‘Riffs and Interludes’ a quite stunning experience.

The other divisions also provided compelling evidence that the structure of competition is accurately defined. The First Division is just what a First Section in the UK should be like – full of bands with ambition, drive and determination, but also with a realistic appreciation of exactly where they stand in the greater scheme of things.

Relaxed

The more relaxed approach to the contesting environment encourages the bands  - especially in the lowest divisions of competition. The Fourth Division was a delight as always, but more importantly the steps up through the sections are not blurred by unrealistic presumptions from the bands themselves.

It was something that was not lost on Robert Morgan of the BFBB who was making a welcome trip to the Championships, although on this occasion he was wearing his European hat as there was an EBBA meeting here. He seemed genuinely impressed by what he heard in the First Division in particular. Hopefully the first seeds of change for UK banding may have been sown here.      

All in all then another weekend in Bergen to enjoy. The good burghers of the city have come a long way since King Kyrre started it all rolling over 900 years ago. And now the country’s brass bands are making sure the next 900 are just as good too.

Iwan Fox

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