2008 European Brass Band Championships - 4th Conductors Competition

7-May-2008

Iwan Fox looks back at the Conductors Competition and a night when great prospective talents locked horns with something very weird...


Conductors finalists
Final three: Mathias Wehr (left) is joined by the two other talented finalists for a quick 4BR photo shoot

The major fringe event this year at the European Championships was the 4th European Conductor’s Competition that had attracted 16 competitors from all over Europe (as well as a couple from New Zealand and the USA). 

The opening rounds had taken place earlier in the week at the University of Stavanger, where the hopefuls for the 3,500 Euro first prize had been whittled down to a final three through two rounds of competition on varying wind and brass repertoire.

Perfect venue

The final was held at the Atlantic Hall, attached to the main Radisson Hotel, which provided a perfect venue for the event, especially as over 500 people had bought tickets to attend.

The judges for the final were Jan van der Roost, David King, Ray Farr and Sveinung Sand and they were given the task perched at the side of the stage to judge the three finalists: Mirga Grazinyte from Lithuania, Mathias Wehr from Germany and Armin Renggli from Switzerland.

The repertoire for the final saw each of the talented trio pick out of the hat one of three classics of the genre: ‘Belmont Variations’ by Arthur Bliss, ‘Kensington Concerto’ by Eric Ball and ‘Salute to Youth’ by Gilbert Vinter.

Belmont Variations

First up was the Swiss Armin Renggli, who had picked out ‘Belmont Variations’, and the young man, who is both a player and teacher currently studying for a Masters Degree at Zurich University showed himself to be at ease in front of a brass band.

Accompanied by Sola Brass (who were excellent all night – especially their soprano player Rune Gunderson, ex principal cornet of Stavanger) his compact style saw him draw out a convincing performance of a tricky piece, with the small ensemble elements and the famous triple cadenza earmarked with understanding and clarity.

The response of the band to his neat baton work was exemplary and it came as little surprise that the band voted for him to be given the ‘Performer’s Choice Award’.

Flamboyant

After a short break it was the turn of the German, Mathias Wehr, aged 23, who is currently studying under Maurice Hamers at Augsberg University.

Right from the start, the more flamboyant (almost to the point of being a touch over indulgent) approach brought colour and drama out of Eric Ball’s ‘Kensington Concerto’, even though there were occasions when the band seemed to finding it difficult to follow his expansive baton work.

It was a very confident and bravura piece of conducting work though and one that certainly made the more lasting impression on the audience, even if the performance from the band was perhaps the scrappiest of the three on the night.

Ecstasy

Finally, the only female finalist in the history of the event, in the petite form of Myra Grazinyte from Lithuania, who had the job of conducting the most complex of the three works, ‘Salute to Youth’ (which rather surprisingly was also the oldest in compositional date).

Despite her size, the young lady who is studying choral and orchestral conducting at Bologna University in Italy displayed a huge vibrancy and presence in front of the band, which her sense of theatre (especially when she threw her head back in musical ecstasy at every available Vinter inspired musical climax) brought quite a few wry smiles to the faces of the jury.

Even with a tired band to work with, her enthusiasm won through (despite the rather slow final tempo chosen in the third movement) and for many she was the pick of a talented bunch to take the title.

European Youth Band

With the judges sent away to debate their decision it was left to the European Youth Brass Band to provide the entertainment – something they did with enormous enthusiasm and no little amount of talent under the direction of the excellent Reid Gilje.

The opening ‘Introduction’ by Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen was clever and effective, whilst Tom Rive’s ‘I Know a Fount’ was also very well shaped and delivered too.

Machine Music

Given this was Norway and they do love their contemporary music here, Eilert Tosse’s ‘Machine Music’ was always going to be something a bit different – and given that the composer came up on stage after the performance wearing a chessboard waistcoat and what appeared to be wooden tie – you were not disappointed.

Or may be you were, for this was hard work. Despite Frank Renton’s best explanatory introduction this was industrial music of the type that would make hammering a nail into the top of your head without an anaesthetic  seem a better way to spend 20 minutes of your life.  

Dire stuff

Featuring electro acoustic effects the four movements were a hotch potch of emperor’s new clothes that have been tried before – and more successfully too.  Not even the Norwegian Samaritans would have wanted to save the last movement entitled ‘Emergencies’ – it was pretty dire stuff.

Thankfully normal service was resumed with a fair old romp through ‘Shine As The Light’, which featured some wonderful solo cornet and soprano work in particular. 

Results

With all the playing out of the way it was left for the announcement of the results, but not before there were welcome presentations to Robert Morgan and Tom Brevik for their fine efforts in helping to promote the brass band cause in England and Norway respectively over the years. 

The winner was announced as Mathias Wehr, much to his obvious delight whilst there was high praise from the judges for the efforts of the other two finalists.

As for the future for this talented young man? Well perhaps not an ultimate career with brass bands – he is more inclined he told 4BR for a future in the orchestral world, but he will be given the opportunity to conduct a major brass work at as part of a prize given by Ray Farr and Durham University later this year. He is a young man to watch out for.

Iwan Fox

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