2008 West of England Regional Championship - Retrospective: Fourth Section

12-Mar-2008

A huge field for the judges to contemplate over, but when it came to it, the quality rose to the very top...


A sizeable field of 20 bands competed on Saturday for the West of England Fourth Section title in a contest that featured a very entertaining test piece as well as, it must be said, a rather wide gap in the standard of playing.

Playing Rodney Newton’s ‘Four Cities’ Symphony', the bands were tested with four contrasting movements depicting four very different European cities: London, Paris, Rome and Moscow. Although not the most technically demanding piece in the world, to achieve a successful performance many details had to be looked at, with style a main concern to be able to distinguish effectively between the four musical descriptions.

Bad tuning is a disease that seems to blight bands of all levels, and Saturday’s contest was no exception.

Nice playing

However, thankfully, it was confined mainly to two areas of the band – horns and euphoniums. The main casualty for the former was the middle D on the solo horn part at the end of movement three – most bands did not manage to get this in tune, often spoiling what had been some nice playing beforehand.

In addition the euphoniums’ high Fs and Gs were almost constantly being played horrendously sharp, but this is a very well known common problem, so why not try and do anything to fix it? This piece is in several keys where these two notes are used often, so it was particularly noticeable on the day.

Percussion

Finally, what was going on in the percussion department of most bands? In some performances, the main feature was the dropping of sticks onto the floor after every percussion entry, and this happened with almost every band!

Percussionists also fall foul of playing too loud when marked at quiet dynamics (side drum players were more often than not the criminals here), and of murdering the last, short note of the piece by diving in early. Only one band really got to grips with the last note, aided in no small part by their (thankfully excellent) percussion section.

This may seem to be turning into a rant, but it is only in order to get some of the aspects that should be worked on out of the way initially! 

So many positives

There were so many positives to come out of the day, and the field of 20 bands was very interesting and enjoyable to listen to. The number of young players (in many cases extremely young) was a delight to see, and every band had players of a very good standard sitting in the chairs. In fact, it was often the younger players that were the best on the day, with some cracking young cornetists, bass trombonists and percussionists particularly evident - and it seemed like everyone was having a good time.

After the 5 ½ hour session, adjudicators Rob Wiffin and Peter Roberts emerged from the box to tell the audience their thoughts on the day’s performances, and, maybe even more importantly, the results that some bands had been waiting all day for too!

Rob Wiffin elected to speak to the packed hall, informing the audience that the judges had been looking for a good overall style, saying that some bands had achieved this in some movements, but that few had managed it in all four.

Pleading

He also pleaded with percussion players to try and eliminate any of the extraneous noises that were encountered on the day (in the form of those dropped sticks) from the performances, as it was noticed inside the box. The main message being put across though was that if bands paid attention to phrasing and the details contained within the score, then they would ultimately do well.

Head and shoulders

Playing number 7, Brunel Brass turned out to be head and shoulders above the rest on Saturday, winning by a two point margin to take the Fourth Section title for 2008.

In many contests people have varying opinions on who the real winners deserved to be, but in this particular contest nobody could have really argued with the result – the band really did play very, very well.

The opening was a little reserved in the horn/flugel theme, but the class of players this band has in its ranks soon became evident in the lovely soprano/repiano figures, which although not technically difficult on paper were mastered by only a handful of bands in the whole contest. In fact, the band’s soprano player was possibly the best of the entire day.

All soloists played well (including a nice bit of cornet solo work from the band’s bumper-up), and a key feature in the performance was how well the sections played together, with great balance on show from all corners of the band.

Balance was an issue that was very troubling on the day, with too many wannabe heroes on show, eschewing playing together with their sections to create a balanced picture for marring the music with unnecessary overblowing and harshness. Brunel was one of the few bands who avoided this important pitfall from beginning to end – resulting in a performance that was so easy to listen to and, therefore, to enjoy.

Some excellent percussion work (with a great show on the tambourine by one of the section!) topped off what was the day’s most satisfying reading of Rodney Newton’s piece. The MD should be justly proud of his team, as on this form the band will go to Harrogate with pride, and should do far more than make up the numbers.

Steady pace

Wincanton Silver started off at a comparatively steady pace, which actually worked as a lot of detail that could potentially have been lost was allowed to come through. There was so much to admire about this band – great sounding soloists (especially the solo euphonium and bumper-up, who elected to play the cornet solo in the second movement), only the briefest of tuning moments, and an excellent bass trombone player who never once succumbed to the temptation of trying to strip the paint off the walls or kill someone sitting in front of him (there were several on the day that did).

The MD created some very fine moments, and showed his heroic qualities also when he rescued his solo euphonium’s music from the floor when it fell off his stand, all while still keeping the beat!

The second movement took a few bars to properly settle, and the sound did become a touch strident in places, but there was so much life and space given to the music that the 2nd place the band finally achieved was just reward for their efforts, and the drive to the end was very enjoyable. Congratulations to the band for a fine result.

Final qualifier

Totnes took the final qualification spot by coming 3rd with a performance that started with a bottom C from a back row cornet coming in a fraction early, but quickly recovered to turn into a fine reading of the piece.

Everything flowed nicely from beginning to end, and it was the first reading of the day that showed the correct style in the muted ‘fanfare’ passages at letter Q. The middle of the band made a great sound, and the MD always kept things nicely under control by creating a nice musical picture without going over the top at any point.

The bass section made a huge sound, used to great effect on the start of the fourth movement, and the close of the piece really sounded top notch. Totnes are also lucky to have very accomplished euphonium, horn and baritone soloists in the ranks.

A few points could have been a touch more restrained at times, with the aforementioned bass section sometimes becoming a touch heavy and pedantic, despite the great sound they produced. On the whole though Totnes fully deserved their 3rd place, and will look forward to Harrogate later in the year.

Missed out

Bream Silver just missed out on a qualification spot by coming 4th with a cracking effort from the number 17 draw. Bream were distinguished from every other band on the day by being (unless 4BR is blind) the only band with a line-up with the ‘traditional’ number of players in every section.

Bream started in an up-tempo fashion, with all interweaving parts in the first movement being easily heard and an excellent fp to finish off the movement. The band’s performance featured some very nice solo playing (although some playing was slightly over the top), and the cornet section in particular played very crisply indeed.

There were a few accidents however in tuning and accuracy, and Bream will be disappointed to have come away with 4th place, one outside the qualification zone. This was a very good performance indeed though, and next year the band will come back with all guns blazing in order to get to Harrogate. Don’t bet against them doing just that.

Sea travel

Shanklin Town had not travelled over the sea from the Isle of Wight to give anything less than their all at Saturday’s contest, and they did just that. After waiting all day to play (having drawn 20, and last), Shanklin gave an extremely confident performance of the test piece. Some of the players seemed to be incredibly young, but when listening this was not at all evident, as the sound of the band was easily one of the most balanced of the whole day.

The MD created some very nice shapes with the music, the solo euphonium had a lovely sound and the young chap on bass trombone will be one to watch out for in the future without a shadow of a doubt. Credit must also be given to the band’s percussion section, who really drove everything along and created a real sense of excitement in many places, and ensured the band’s effort ended with a bang (and together as well – something hardly any others actually achieved!).

There were several moments of tuning that was not quite 100% accurate, especially as the piece moved towards its conclusion, and the timpani on which the concert G was being played was horribly flat in places. These did not do too much to detract however, and 5th place was a fine reward for this band made up of mainly extremely young, but all extremely talented players.

Solid

Weymouth Concert Brass
were easily one of the best bands competing, and this showed with a solid 6th place finish that could, on another occasion, have been a couple of places higher. Weymouth was aided by having possibly the best percussion section on the day. Rodney Newton’s background as a percussionist meant there was a lot for this section to do throughout the piece, and when a section like Weymouth’s pulled it off as they did it made a heck of a difference.

The band’s euphonium and flugel players were easily amongst the best of the whole competition, and the baritone soloist added a touch of class to the proceedings. Tempos were very well chosen by the MD, especially at the beginning of the fourth movement, which was very stately indeed and created just the right sombre mood before the movement shifts into fast, Cossack dancing mode.

One small request would have been for more use of dynamic effect, the band clearly had the players to easily do this, and it would have created even more effect to add to the band’s already accomplished playing. A solid result for a very solid band.

Good start

Chalford Academy Brass set the contest off to a very good start, with the band putting down a stamp of authority and class from the word go. A mostly very young band (with a few old hands thrown in!), Chalford had lots to admire. The band’s euphonium soloist played very nicely indeed, and with other fine contributions from the bass end and the principal horn, it was a very enjoyable performance. 

The percussion section performed with great aplomb, adding an extra layer to the piece which was missing in so many of the other bands’ readings on the day. In common with Brunel Brass, Chalford’s tambourine player was particularly fun to watch and listen to!

However, there were several moments of problem intonation, and certain lines, especially the semiquaver passages in horns, baritones and euphoniums starting from letter C in the first movement from C did not always manage to break through the overall texture. More could also have been made of the dynamic swells in the muted cornet/trombone figures in movement III.

Overall though this was a very nice reading of the piece, made all the better by seeing the enjoyment of the players and positive encouragement throughout the performance by the MD, Steve Tubb. 7th place off the number 1 draw is a good achievement in a field this large, and if this band stay together as they are and continue to mature, the future looks very bright indeed.

Solid outfit

Tewkesbury Town
is a solid outfit with some very capable players, but on this occasion unfortunately experienced too many problems with tuning and overblowing to come any higher than the 8th that was finally awarded to the band. The opening was very well controlled, with some lovely sounds from the soprano, and many dynamic features were nicely handled. The final romp home was also managed well, with lots of purposeful drive given to the music.

However, as above, there were many tuning problems evident throughout the reading (it was a shame that the baritone Eb was so flat on the final chord of the third movement, as a great baritone sound was being created), and the trombone section did tend to overblow and peck at notes in several areas. This was not necessary, as they sounded like very capable players indeed.

Without these flaws in some of the basics of playing Tewkesbury could have finished higher in the standings, as the MD obviously had a good understanding of the composer’s intentions at every point of the piece. 8th place last year and 8th place this year, but Tewkesbury will come back in 2009 determined to improve upon this and once again move up the sections.

Good band

A good band sound was displayed by New Forest Brass from the start of their performance. The dynamics displayed were on the whole very well handled, and the band’s solo euphonium had a wonderful, rich sound. The middle of the band also gave a great link between the top and lower ends of the ensemble, and the short Eb bass solo in the third movement was beautifully played.

There were some rough edges however, and that is why the band possibly did not finish any higher than 9th. Some corners of the piece were spoilt by some harshness in the sound, and the side drum did tend to not be as subtle as it possibly could in many areas, especially when the dynamic was clearly marked piano.

A bit of a disappointment perhaps for New Forest, but in reality the band could have played better to ensure they finished in a stronger position. Credit to the MD though – many nice ideas were evident on the day.

Mid way

Swindon Brass were drawn around the mid-way point (12th) and finished around the same place in 10th. The band’s performance was one of equal measures of good and the not so good, which undoubtedly contributed to the eventual position gained.

There were some very nice dynamic contrasts, and the quiet playing in parts was extremely well controlled, but many insecurities in tuning in several sections of the band did detract quite significantly from the overall effect. There was much to commend here, and the music flowed very nicely, but bad tuning and some scratching around in the accompaniment unfortunately marred this somewhat.

In common with many bands, the last movement showed the band off to its full potential, and Swindon will hopefully have a good idea of what they need to tweak to ensure a higher placing next year.

Correct

Downton
was the only other band of the day to have the ‘correct’ complement of brass players competing (although there were only two percussionists). In common with New Forest, the side drum did tend to obscure some of the brass playing in many places, and some far too strident playing spoilt many moments that could have otherwise been far nicer.

It was not all bad however, as the band did manage to make some very effective musical pictures in places, and, in common with many bands, had a euphonium soloist to be proud of. It was just a shame that the lack of judgment by some players regarding their style of playing did detract greatly, resulting in 11th place.

Debut

This year’s contest saw Spinnaker Brass’ making its debut in Torquay, and for a band competing in the Area for the first time they acquitted themselves extremely well.

The first movement had lots to admire, and the second and third movements saw some great sounds being created from euphoniums and baritones, augmented by some classy touches from the flugel player. The bass section could have been stronger to open the final movement, but again the middle of the band played extremely well, adding so much to the band’s sound.

Again, there were numerous tuning issues and a few balance problems that accumulated as the reading progressed. 12th place was possibly a touch harsh, but considering this was the first regional outing for the band next year can only promise better things.

Second gear

Torrington Silver
gave a performance that never really got out of second gear. This was despite a fine trio of solos to end the third movement, and a generally good band sound with good balance between the sections. One lower cornet player did stick out a mile though, which should have been toned down in the rehearsal room – it was noticeable throughout the entire performance. There was also a blatant wrong note from the flugel player (C natural instead of a marked C flat) which should have been picked up on before the day, unfortunate as the flugel player had a great sound and sense of style.

The final Allegro con fuoco moved along very nicely and the Marziale in movement 3 was effective. In comparison with some of the other performances on the day though, Torrington had to be content with 13th spot come results time.

Competent

Bideford Town
were drawn second, and although they did not display as much overall class as the band drawn number one, they still gave a competent reading of the piece. However, there were numerous moments in which attention to detail seemed to have been thrown out of the window, with some wrong notes going in and inconsistencies in tuning that did go a long way towards taking the gloss off the performance.

The horn section sounded very good, and did their part in raising the standard of playing, but it was just a shame the inconsistencies crept in from the word go. The dynamic hairpins at the beginning of the third movement were some of the best played on the day, and the flugel horn made nice contributions throughout. One person’s efforts are never enough though, and Bideford had to settle for 14th on this particular occasion.

Relaxed

Cheltenham Silver
finished in 15th place, which must have been rather disappointing as despite having numerous youngsters in the band there were moments of strain that could easily have been avoided. A quick starting movement led to a very relaxed waltz, just spoilt slightly by some strained sounds coming through the texture.

A third movement which was certainly not error-free led to a confident final movement, which, despite the ending been spoiled by early entries on percussion that were not together at all, did give the piece an ending showing more promise than had necessarily been displayed in the earlier movements.

The band’s bass trombonist has a bright future, playing very confidently and with a massive sound, and an improvement on 15th place should be on the cards when the 2009 competition comes around.

Youngsters

Porthleven Town
was another outfit with several extremely young players on the stage, and even though the band only finished in 16th place, it was truly a joy to watch and listen to the band perform. A lot of raw talent was on display, and with a few more years of nurturing and refinement many of these players will develop into excellent musicians.

Euphonium, soprano, horn and cornet all played very well, with the chord of the end of the third movement being far more in tune than other bands on the day had managed (the problem note usually being the horn’s D) – so bravo solo horn. The second waltz movement was also taken at a quicker tempo than most, which worked rather well in the end, although possibly creating a brisker-paced walk along the River Seine than the composer envisaged!

The rudeness of a mother in the audience allowing her child to shake a rattle at some points during the band’s performance is something that was not ideal, as bands of all levels in all sections deserve exactly the same respect when performing. Thankfully this is not a regular occurrence at contests.

There is no need to go into the obvious, yes, some of the playing was a touch immature, but given the young ages of many of the players this is not a concern. Rather, with bands such as this operating, the future of the movement in this area seems secure. Next year can only bring a higher placing for Porthleven.

Good mix

Hatherleigh Silver
had a good mix of the young and not so young on Saturday! The band’s cornet and soprano players played very well indeed, and the final movement was helped along from the outset with great quaver accompaniment from the baritones which had a wonderful sense of pulse. Even parts like this, lasting a mere four bars, can add so much to the initial impression of a section in a piece.

There were though the usual tuning problems that were encountered throughout the day, and some rhythmic passages could have been so much tighter. As before, the cornet and soprano players in particular were very good, but more would have had to be done by both players and MD to ensure a better result than the 17th the band was ultimately rewarded with.

Red theme

Red seems to be the theme of Marshfield at the present time, with red jackets, red hair dye and even a red cornet on display! The 18th place the band received was a fair result, as nothing really went disastrously wrong but nothing really sparkled either.

The waltz had a nice feel to it and there were some solid solo contributions, but some band members did tend to play on the harsh side on more than one occasion. This was unfortunate, as if the sound had been toned down slightly it would have created a much better overall effect.

Perhaps the cleaning staff at the centre had not been told what kind of event was running on the day, but one certainly hadn’t, standing on the balcony sorting out his cleaning trolley during a quiet part in the piece then loudly exiting through the doorway. Hopefully this didn’t affect the band’s performance.

Marshfield will not be too downhearted hopefully with this result, and will know what to work on for next time around.

Reduced numbers

Okehampton Excelsior Silver
performed with slightly reduced numbers, but were lucky to have one of the most controlled bass players on the day, even if he was the only player in the band’s bass section.

There were some excellent moments which, taken away from the band’s 18th place, would have held their own against the best on the day. Horns and baritones did a great job in the third movement, and the band’s front row was very secure in many places. The last note of the piece, spoilt on so many occasions by wayward entries on both brass and percussion, was possibly the tightest of the day also!

Despite these positives, thought, there were too many errors in both notes and ensemble playing to allow the band to finish higher, with several wrong entries and a bit too much scrappiness on many occasions. Overblowing did occur rather frequently as well, but if Okehampton can work on these things they certainly have the players to perform to a standard more deserving of a higher placing in the overall table.

Hard going

Gosport Silver
unfortunately found everything a bit hard going on this occasion, and on the day couldn’t manage to come any higher than 20th in the standings come results time. Playing 19th, the band’s bass end did provide a very nicely sounding foundation to the sound, but there were far too many instances of bad tuning and untidiness to warrant Gosport gaining a higher place in the table.

The final movement was easily the band’s finest playing, but the end seemed to almost fall apart, which was a real shame as things had picked up quite significantly in this section of the piece. Someone had to come 20th, and although is was Gosport’s turn on Saturday the band should go away from the contest knowing that there is a solid foundation there to which a touch more class in playing in preparation would make all the difference.

The Fourth Section in the West of England always features a huge line-up of bands, but is consistently a joy to watch, and has to be one of the strongest Fourth Sections in the country, giving the bands extra incentive to work as hard as they possibly can to achieve qualification to the Nationals and possible promotion to the third section.

There was a great atmosphere throughout the day, with a good sized audience for each of the twenty bands competing, and coupled with two fine adjudicators, fantastic backroom support from the organisers, a good test piece and a real sense of enjoyment from each ensemble that performed (coupled with that essential and much appreciated comfort break!) turned a potential marathon into a wonderful day’s banding.

Rob Richardson

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Conductor, Arranger, Teacher, Adjudicator, Band Trainer