2008 London & Southern Counties Regional Championship - Retrospective: Championship Section

18-Mar-2008

Are Redbridge and Avely & Newham becoming the brass band version of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs? If they carry on winning here they may get sponsored by Microsoft...


Redbridge
The winning smile: Redbridge take the honours again in Stevenage

If the near total domination of Redbridge and Aveley and Newham bands at the London and Southern Counties Regional Contest over the last twelve years were to be translated into global business terms, it would be a feat of monopolisation that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs themselves would be proud of.

Statistics

The statistics speak for themselves. Since 1996 only one band has broken that monopoly by emerging victorious from Stevenage. That was in 1999, the band First City Brass; and they are no longer in existence.

Sadly Alliance Brass, the only other band to come close to victory on more than one occasion by stealing the runner up position in 2003 and 2004, has recently become another victim of the times and called it a day. Staines Brass came close in 2006 when they qualified for the Royal Albert Hall, pushing Redbridge into fourth place in the process, but since then it has been Redbridge and Aveley and Newham once again that have reigned supreme.

In fairness to both bands it is very much to their credit that they have remained as dominant as long as they have, but a quick look at the neighbouring Regional Championship in the Midlands, where the last five years have seen five different winners, reveals very clearly that the London area is in desperate need of a serious challenger to the usual two suspects; or ideally several serious challengers.

Challenger

For many in the audience at the Gordon Craig Theatre (including us) hopes for that serious challenger this year lay principally with Paul Archibald and Zone One Brass, a band that impressed us immensely last year with a musically aware and beautifully controlled reading of Robert Redhead’s 'Isaiah 40' that was to gain third place but on a different day could have squeezed into the top two. Festival Music though, was to prove an altogether different proposition and Zone One’s once again musical, but this time somewhat inconsistent performance was to drop them down to fourth place.

With jubilant debutants Milton Keynes Brass (Broseley) and Paul Fensom gaining a magnificent third place then, it was ultimately Redbridge and Aveley and Newham that were to secure their almost customary finals places in their local musical temple, the Royal Albert Hall.

Style

Once again 'Festival Music' proved that its challenges of style and interpretation, let alone the musicality it calls for from the players themselves, was more than enough to test the very best. Of Redbridge and Aveley and Newham’s supremacy there was no doubt however. Both bands gave very fine performances indeed and the only question in the minds of the audience, and possibly adjudicator David Horsfield, was which of the two would carry off the title. For us it was a very close run thing indeed.

Elsewhere amongst the twelve contenders, the standard was to prove much more variable with the closest challengers to the qualifiers turning in well shaped accounts that were stylistically well conceived whilst marred by slips that were to prove too costly. There were then those for whom Mozart was substituted for something that sounded like a cross between Bruckner at his most blazing and Def Leppard, whilst others were nobbled by their own MD’s, with cripplingly slow tempos in the 'Romance' and 'Vivace’s' in the 'Impromptu' that sounded like the band were trying to qualify for the one hundred meters in Beijing rather than a place at the Royal Albert Hall.

David Horsfield’s requirements though were admirably simple. “There are going to be slips, I accept that, but I was concerned with the flow and line of the music. The flow should be maintained throughout the entire piece”.                        

Victory scalp

For Redbridge, victory meant not only another scalp from their local rival, but more importantly an eight to four lead in the head to head count with Aveley and Newham over the last thirteen years. Melvin White’s departure from the band some months ago had also deprived Redbridge of their first trombone player and the band’s withdrawal from Butlin’s in January was an indicator that things were not entirely easy for the band as the Regional contest approached.

Rob Wiffin was the man drafted in to pick things up and from a number nine draw (the band could hardly have wished for better) he stamped his musical authority on the performance from the start. The opening of the 'Overture' was well shaped with all parts audible and whilst the band sound was muscular at times, the dynamic contrasts were achieved with panache; something that very few other bands were able to lay claim to. 

The tempo in the 'Romance' was well judged, the musical line finely shaped and complimented by soloists that gave the notes space, notably Ralph Brill on cornet who deservedly took the prize for the best cornet player on the day. Ralph Brill was to impress in the 'Impromptu' also, whilst the changing moods of the music were well captured, dark at the opening and exuberant in the 'Vivace'.

Stylistic awarness

Taking to the stage at number five, Nigel Taken and Aveley and Newham was the first band on the day to give the audience a performance that combined stylistic awareness with security around the stands. The “flow” that David Horsfield alluded to in his summing up was evident throughout, whilst individual contributions were of high quality. 

For us there was just a tendency to push the volume a little too far at times although at the other end of the scale, the band were one of only a small group that were successful in getting down to the quietest of dynamic levels.

The 'Romance' got off to a slightly unsteady start with a first note that was clearly not together, but things soon settled down to reveal sonorous sounds, an impressive sense of control and excellent solo contributions from all. The outstanding performer here was Derick Kane on solo euphonium, a man whose artistry shone through very clearly to all present. 

The euphonium prize was just reward although the band’s soprano, horn and trombone players all made telling contributions. The 'Impromptu' was marked by tight ensemble and clarity of detail and although the conductor took a few chances with the markings of the score, the quality of the overall performance was never in doubt.

In the final analysis it was a tough decision to separate the two front runners, although it might just have been Aveley and Newham’s tendency to force the dynamics coupled with a few tiny blemishes that were too seal the adjudicator’s decision by the slenderest one point margin.

Some style

Paul Fensom is a man who has tasted success at Stevenage before, having had the distinction of guiding Regent Brass to Championship Section victory in 1994. His Milton Keynes Brass (Broseley) will have been disappointed with twelfth place in Harrogate last year having emerged as the First Section champions at Stevenage, but if there was any doubt about the band’s ability to compete at Championship level it was dispelled here with some style.

As debutantes, taking to the stage as the last band of the day in front of a pretty full theatre must have been a daunting prospect, but Paul Fensom directed a performance that attempted to capture the Mozart of the music from the start. It is true to say that the 'Overture' was marred by some nasty clips and blemishes, but the style that the band was trying to achieve was evident. 

Although ensemble occasionally wavered in the 'Romance' and there were the odd intonation issues, things did settle down and the 'Impromptu', whilst not without flaws once again, featured excellent dynamic contrast and spirit. Although three points behind Aveley and Newham, Third place was an achievement that the band will not forget in a hurry.

Inconsistencies

In the case of Zone One Brass, it was again inconsistencies around the stands that just took the edge off a reading that offered much potential, both musically and interpretively. Paul Archibald’s stylish and expressive direction, without the use of a baton, was a joy to watch and the shaping of the music in the 'Romance' in particular came as close as any band on the day to the Mozartian spirit of the music. 

In the end though, the number of clips, lapses in ensemble and general insecurities amongst the players was just too great and fourth was exactly where we had the band come the end of the contest.

It was good to have Staines Brass back at Stevenage after what has been a difficult time for the band. Having lost Ian McElligott and a number of key players the band was forced to withdraw from last year’s contest, having competed at the Royal Albert Hall just a few months before.

With Melvin White at the helm this time round, the band gave a performance that gathered in confidence as it progressed. The 'Overture' did not get off to a good start with a nastily untuneful first note, but by mid way through the 'Romance' the playing had settled down and although heavy dynamics got in the way at times, the style was often good. 

The 'Impromptu' was better again but by then it was just a little too late. For a band getting back on its feet though there was a good deal of promise on display and fifth place will give the players a much needed confidence boost for the contesting year ahead.

Heavy handed

Melvin White’s other band on the day, KM Medway, drew an early number two and suffered from a heavy handed approach that whilst not without its moments of quality never really captured the lightness of style that is so essential to the music. We singled out the band’s soprano player as making a solid contribution amongst the soloists but sixth was about the measure of it; we had them seventh.

In seventh place, Clacton-on-Sea Co-operative and Terry Brotherhood blazed their way through the piece as if it were a Whit Friday march with sounds that were at best brassy, at worst downright aggressive. If only the edge could have been taken out of it the band would have sounded so much more comfortable but as it was the performance lacked any grace or subtlety, with the brash sounds all too often having the effect of distorting intonation.

Wry smile

As with Virtuosi GUS in the Midlands the previous week, John Berryman conducted eighth place Bedford Town with the use of neither baton nor score. His fleeting, wry smile as he turned to the audience at the end of the piece though said it all. The conductor worked hard in his usual expressively, fluid manner to shape the performance but unfortunately the band were never quite on the same wavelength as him and the performance had an uncomfortable, wooden feel that was never quite shaken off.

Philip Bailey and Wantage Silver “A” drew the short straw of number one and with an opening tempo that was more brisk than some on the day, delivered an 'Overture' that was dynamically controlled but lacking in flow and shape. Nerves played a part in the 'Romance' with edgy individual entries despite a safe dynamic level (pp was never really achieved throughout) and although the 'Impromptu' was an improvement with good contributions from soprano cornet, the pace of the final Vivace gave the players problems in finding the necessary clarity of detail.

Consistent

In achieving a third and fourth place in the last two years (we also heard them gain a creditable second on Harmony Music at the Leicestershire Association Contest in November) Kidlington Concert Brass and Catherine Underwood have been one of the more consistent performers at Stevenage in recent times.

This time around an early number three draw might not have helped them for there was a good deal to enjoy in the band’s performance, from the careful attention to style by the conductor to decent solo contributions and a touch of period instrument colour from a narrow bore, triggered “G” bass trombone. Now how many of those do you see around these days?

For us it was a pretty solid show, with rounded sounds from the middle of band in particular, a fine effort from the band’s solo euphonium player and dynamics that were always controlled. Tenth position will have been a disappointment for the band and rightly so.

Propping up

Propping up the section in eleventh and twelfth places, Welwyn Garden City and Haverhill Silver found the going pretty tough, with neither band quite able to capture the fluidity of the music or any real consistency around the stands. For Haverhill in particular it will be a bitter disappointment after a very creditable fifth place on the band’s Championship Section debut last year.

For Redbridge and Aveley and Newham then the domination lives on and as disappointing as it was that no band on the day was able to mount a totally credible challenge to their supremacy, it was pleasing to hear that the London and Southern Counties still have two Championship Section bands that are capable of challenging at the highest level come October.

As to the stranglehold being broken, we will have to wait until next year…..in the meantime Bill Gates and Steve Jobs can continue to admire.

Christopher Thomas

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