2008 Midlands Regional Championship - Retrospective: Championship Section

13-Mar-2008

After the problems of Burton, Bedworth was a new era in the Midlands, with a old winner nonetheless.


Desford celebrate
Desford celebrate

In recent years the Midland Championship Section contest has provided us with one of the most intriguing and open contests of any of the Regional competitions; and it doesn’t take too much research to discover why. In the last five years there have been no less than five different winners. 

In point of fact Desford were the last band to retain the Midland title back in 2003. Since then and despite going into the contest as favourites each and every year, the title has proved strangely elusive for the Coalville outfit who despite a couple of close finishes have watched Travelsphere, Sovereign, Newstead and Staffordshire respectively, walk off with the blue winners banner.

Intrigue

The pre-contest intrigue was there in truck loads once again this year as the contest entered a new era in the surrounds of Bedworth Civic Hall, a venue that is eminently more suitable for quality banding than the acoustic black hole that was Burton Town Hall; the latter won’t be missed.

It was also new era time for several of the fancied bands. Desford were reunited with Nigel Seaman after his nasty brush with a motorist year, Virtuosi GUS were reunited with a man that has been an integral part of the band’s previous history in the shape of John Berryman (he took Kibworth in last year’s contest) and Staffordshire were united for the first time on the contest stage with Simon Kerwin, the band’s fourth conductor in as many years at the contest.

Meanwhile, Sovereign was steered by David Maplestone who had guided Staffordshire to victory in impressive fashion last year. Got that? Good! It took us a while we can tell you….

Predictability

As it turned out, 2008 was to be the year that the contest made a return to some kind of predictability, with our pre-contest trio of  Desford, Virtuosi GUS and Sovereign taking the top three places (some seriously lucky guess work there eh?) the former two bands safely booking their passage to the Royal Albert Hall come October.

Adjudicators Jim Davies and Steve Pritchard-Jones offered a few sobering thoughts to the healthy number of people in the hall prior to the results when they commented on the generally disappointing standard of play that for them was marred by a lack of attention to the basics; “We don’t expect to have to mark bands down on tuning at this level” was Steve Pritchard-Jones’ opening observation. 

He went on to bemoan the number of bands that were heavy handed in approach and simply failed to capture the Mozartian spirit of the music. On this point it was certainly true that there were those bands for which Mozart (or Eric Ball if you prefer) had clearly taken a serious dose of acid beforehand.

But then, that is exactly what most of us expected 'Festival Music' to do; Wilby or Sparke it most certainly ain’t.

Made in heaven

For Desford it was potentially a draw made in heaven as they took to stage as the last of the twelve bands. In reality though the band very nearly blew it in the opening Overture. The error count was surprisingly high as it took time for the players to settle and whilst there were no catastrophes, there were certainly a good number of clips and blemishes from several departments.

The style though was sound and although Nigel Seaman’s tempo was fractionally quicker than many, it was clear that band and conductor were in tune with the spirit of Mozart.

By the mid point of the Romance the band had really found its feet and the musicality and dynamic control of the playing from there on in was quite exceptional. With old Desfordian Ken Ferguson back in the bass fold there were silky sounds from the bottom end whilst Robin Taylor was the outstanding soloist of the day on euphonium, securely soaring into his upper register with magisterial ease. If there had been a solo prize on offer he would have been our bet to take it. 

The Impromptu was very much the apotheosis and here it all came together in some style. Nigel Seaman injected a sense of drama into the opening passages that no other band quite achieved on the day whilst individual contributions, notably from the band’s soprano player, were fine indeed.

There will have been those in the audience who wavered between Desford and GUS as their first choice but we heard few complain about the final outcome.

Melodic nature

Given the melodic nature of Eric Ball’s music, John Berryman is a conductor that we reckon should be high on the list of any band looking for someone who is totally at home with a piece such as Festival Music; and so proved to be the case with Virtuosi GUS.

For a band that has seen more than its fair share of problems in recent times, this was a performance from players that appeared to be totally rejuvenated in Berryman’s hands. It was quite simply the best we have heard GUS play in a good long while.

Conducting without the aid of a score or baton, Berryman gave his expressive musical nature full reign in a performance that whilst occasionally tending to the heavy (it was this that we suspect sealed victory for Desford with the adjudicators) still succeeded in achieving a sense of style that left no doubt about the top two bands on the day.

A comfortable number five draw could have been cited as a help but in reality it made no difference; the result would have been the same wherever the band had played. There were impressive levels of detail on display throughout, whilst in the Romance the soloists all acquitted themselves well with Chris Jeans the outstanding trombonist of the day in his contributions.

The Impromptu got pretty close to Desford in style with urgency where required but never at the expense of the music, which John Berryman continued to shape impeccably throughout. In the final analysis it just wasn’t quite enough but with a one point margin it was pretty darn close.

Sovereign draw

Sovereign
had the unenviable task of playing off the number one draw but threw down an excellent early marker with the benefit of an inspired David Maplestone in the middle, fresh from the achievement of securing the runner up spot with Phoenix West Midlands Brass the previous day on the band’s First Section Regional debut.

There could hardly be a greater contrast between Maplestone and Berryman in the latter’s expressive, almost understated style compared with David Maplestone’s sheer charisma, dynamism and force of personality on the stage. There is no shortage of expression though and Sovereign’s performance was notable for its conductor pulling every last ounce out of his players.

It was a technically and musically assured showing too; the band’s soloist’s were on good form in the Romance and there was tight ensemble on display in the outer movements. It did get a little too weighty at times but it was a performance that endured in the audience’s memory throughout the day and made up for a trio, along with Desford and GUS that was comfortably ahead of the rest of the competition.

Fourth place

In fourth place and following Sovereign onto the stage with an early number two draw, Staffordshire was not quite able to match the quality that had seen the band take the 2007 title on Isaiah 40.                                                   

Amongst the positives of the performance were careful attention to dynamics, in particular a genuine attempt to get down to the quieter dynamics of the Romance and quality sounds around the middle and bass end of the band. 

Individual contributions were not always entirely secure however and ensemble was not always as tight as we suspect Simon Kerwin would have wished. We had the band fifth and the players will know that it was not their best day.

Reunited

Thoresby Colliery
was another band reunited with an old friend, with Stan Lippeatt returning to the fold following Martin Heartfield’s departure shortly after last year’s Regional contest. Fifth place was a modest but notable improvement on Thoresby’s seventh place in 2007, but for our money it was a performance that suffered from a tendency to the brash; it just wasn’t really Mozart.

Geoff Hawley was notable amongst the individual contributions in the Romance and there were passages when we felt things might settle down, but ultimately it was simply too erratic to figure any higher in the rankings. We had the band in sixth place.

Improvement

With John Berryman having departed for Kettering, Kibworth had sought the services of Jeremy Wise in another game of musical chairs. From the number nine draw the band will have been pleased with sixth place which saw an improvement of three places on last year’s ninth.

On the day the notes were all there, but Kibworth’s performance was one which didn’t quite manage to capture the stylistic elements of the music. In the Overture, clarity of detail was sometimes lacking and tuning issues were noted on several occasions. The band’s solo euphonium player did well in the Romance, but overall style and flow were again an issue in the Impromptu. The band can be pleased with the improvement on last year though and will no doubt go forward with fresh confidence in 2008.

Disappointment

For Duncan Beckley and Newstead, last year’s sixth place was a great disappointment following the band’s victory in 2006 although 2007 was not all bad news by any means with a very creditable seventh place being achieved at the English Nationals.

This year’s Regional result saw a further slight slip to seventh position and on the day there were just too many insecurities in the performance to warrant a higher finish. Newstead were another band that were all too often heavy handed and although there were moments of quality (William Davis veteran Lyndon Cooper on euphonium was one such high point) untidy ensemble and individual entries were to undo any good work.

Few cracks

Brett Baker is a man that knows Festival Music from the inside following his victory from the first trombone chair with Black Dyke the previous week. From the number three drawer Ratby Co-operative got off to a solid start under his direction although a few cracks started to appear as the Overture progressed. Solo contributions in the Romance were again negotiated well (many on the day were) but in the Impromptu tempos tended to rock and it was clear that the conductor was wrestling to control matters. Eighth position was the outcome following an impressive fourth last year.

Jaguar (Coventry) have been underperformers in recent major contest results and ninth place at Bedworth was a further step in the wrong direction following disappointing showings at last year’s Senior Cup, Pontin’s and more recently Yeovil.

Dave Lea got things off to a positive start in the Overture, with well judged dynamics and controlled sounds from around the stands. There were odd lapses of concentration but the overall impression was of a band trying hard to capture the spirit of the music.

Tempos did not always settle in the Romance and the conductor could be seen trying to steady the ship on a couple of occasions, but the style was good with quality contributions from Ben Godfrey on cornet and Darren Lea on soprano. The Impromptu was again not without its blemishes but the band did succeed in capturing the essential style of the music. On a different day it was a performance that could have finished several places higher.

Consistency

In tenth and eleventh positions respectively, Derwent Brass and Enderby both suffered from a lack of any real consistency, although in the case of Derwent Brass there was at least a creditable attempt to get inside the Mozartian Style of the music. For Enderby though there was a sense of panic from the opening of the Overture, as tempos rushed and rocked in just about every direction. Unfortunately it was clear early on that Huw Thomas was fighting a losing battle in trying to control it all.

Jonathan Mott and Raunds Temperance found the going tough from the start also and for the second consecutive year found themselves to be at the bottom of the pile. First section banding beckons for the Northamptonshire band next time round but they will live to fight another day and should fare considerably better amongst First Section competition next year.      

Glories

On a day when justice was seen to be done then, it is the two greatest stalwarts of the Midland region that will go forward to contest the National finals in October. For Desford it will be another opportunity to recapture the glories of the past, whilst GUS will hope to open a new chapter and slam the door firmly shut on recent difficulties.

For the contest itself, run with exceptional slickness by the Midland Regional Committee of John Slater and his team, the new venue of Bedworth proved to be a triumph that will ensure the competing bands look forward to next year’s vent with renewed enthusiasm.

Christopher Thomas 

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