2008 European Brass Band Championships - Championship Section: Own Choice Retrospective

7-May-2008

The title was still up for grabs come Saturday afternoon - and a truely memorable climax to the 31st Championships unfolded...


 Waiting for the results
The wry smile or the prayer to the contesting Gods: Cory and Grimethorpe's reps sweat out the final few seconds before the announcement of the winners... 

There really was an expectant air to the championships in and around the Stavanger Concert Hall on the Saturday afternoon.

There can’t have been to many venues as pleasant to visit than here either, with the domed hall set in a pleasant urban park, with a view over the Stavanger fjord and the sun shining down on the small pockets of bandsmen and women, supporters and brass band lovers as they enjoyed a beer or a cup of coffee.

Great atmosphere

The hall itself may have resembled the home of the teletubbies from the outside, but inside the acoustic was dry and precise, the stage set intimately close to the audience, and crucially, the plush seats were just about full to the brim with bums of all nationalities as the first of the 11 contenders took to the stage. It was a great atmosphere.

Thankfully there had been no repetition of the ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’ moment at the 8.00am draw to decide the running order of the afternoon, although Grimethorpe would surely have loved to have been picked out of the hat a little later in proceedings than number 1.

Stunning marker

In the event they set a stunning marker – although they surely knew that they hadn’t also done enough to slam the door shut from the word go on any of their potential rivals for the title.

Their ‘Vienna Nights’ touched many a memorable peak, but also had a few too many slips from the prescribed track to the summit too.   The ‘Turkish’ romp was electrifyingly brilliant, but before that they had shown fragility, especially in the solo lines – none of which was truly 100%.

The faces of the players as they left the stage seemed to suggest that they knew that it wasn’t good enough by their exacting standards – and so it proved. Even the die hard Grimey fans were hard pressed to suggest they were more than a touch fortunate to come runner up on the day, and perhaps, overall.

Fine performance

Kirkintilloch meanwhile had possibly wished for a redraw too, but they put that behind them with a fine performance of ‘Music of the Spheres’ that benefited from some superb solo contributions, especially Allan Wardrope at the opening and Stevie Stewart on soprano throughout.

Against this opposition though even a colourful and vibrant a performance such as this couldn’t hold its own, and although they didn’t deserve to come 11th they will have left knowing just how noticeable a step up in class this contest has now become. 

Privilege

After these two tasty aperitifs we all sat back to see what the Austrians of Brass Band Oberoesterreich had in store for us.

To say it was a privilege to have witnessed a performance of this magnitude may well do it a disservice. This was brass playing of an entirely new era – a bit like the advent of the jet engine to air flight. This made everything else we have heard on the contesting platform around the world until this point, redundant – and we don’t say that lightly. 

The standing ovation their performance of Bertran Moren’s ‘Dreams’ (a much more coherent work than his ‘Beyond the Horizon’ last year) received from the entire audience was not artificially orchestrated – it was the summation of an appreciation of hearing playing of the rarest brilliance.

The clarity of execution, the sense of musicianship and style, all led with such artistic authority from the scoreless MD was enough to set any sense of national favouritism from any member of the audience, aside.

Why then it found little or no response in the box with the judges David King, Jens Larsen and Jan van der Roost is a complete mystery (although to be fair they had scores and the vast majority of the audience, including ourselves, didn’t).

Mystified

On the Sunday at their hotel, the players and MD were equally mystified too, as according to them, the adjudications indicated that they had taken far too many liberties with the score, swapped parts, played things that were not written, and had generally failed to adhere to the intentions of the composition.  

The Austrians were adamant that they hadn’t done that at all – and although they fully accepted that there were to be times when their performances didn’t favour with judges, the reasons for it on this occasion seemed puzzling to say the least. They were not alone.

Different stratum

There is a general acceptance that Oberoesterreich is a brass ensemble of unparalleled brilliance. And that is perhaps the key.  Even with the improvements in the middle of the band to give them a richer, more even ensemble timbre, they still sound like no other brass band on the planet. That surely is more than enough?

 Here they inhabited a totally different stratum of musical achievement – one that not even Cory or Grimethorpe at their best could match. 10th seemed cruelly unjustifiable in the opinion to the vast majority of people.

State of shock

With the audience still in a state of collective musical shock it was left to the Swedes of Stockholm to deliver a decent effort on ‘The Year of the Dragon’, which although it did feature a quite outstanding solo trombone in the central section, never quite mastered the outer ones both musically or technically. How it came 6th  was also a mystery, given the substantive error count and obvious flaws.

Aggressive turn

The contest then took an appreciable turn towards the aggressive with two performances of Derek Bourgeois works – the first of which was ‘Concerto Grosso’ from Buizingen.

This was yet another decent effort on a very difficult work – although once more there were noticeable errors and flaws throughout. The main solo lines were pretty well managed (especially a fine flugel), and although overall the piece lacked the drama and wit, it still had style and presence and found favour in the box to come 4th.

If there was going to be a European Award for gratuitous musical violence then it surely went to Lyngby Taarbaek and their performance of ‘Apocalypse’.

We all know what the subject matter is with this one, but never could it have been so graphically delivered than it was here – at times it made your ears bleed. That was all well and good, but the sheer volume at times obliterated the detail and the essential caustic wit, and so all we ended up with was an aggressively overblown display of sheer bloodymindedness.

Exceptional

Stavanger meanwhile must have known they had it all to do, and for the most part they very nearly achieved their goal.   

A fantastic start led them to produce an exceptional performance of ‘Music of the Spheres’ with a certain amount of true élan. This was Stavanger nearly back to their very best, and whilst there were signs of that fragility at times in the more exposed sections, overall it was an immensely satisfying performance to claim 5th place.

As for Willebroek?

After delivering an absolute scorcher of ‘Battle Creek’ they must have felt they had done just about all that they could in defence of their title - but winning the own choice discipline this time was nothing other than a pyrrhic victory.   

It really was a tour de force performance enhanced by a wonderfully expressive reading of the score, but despite the outcome it mattered little in the final scheme of things. Willebroek left Stavanger beaten but certainly not unbowed though.

Three in a row

The draw meant that there were to be three consecutive performances of ‘Music for Battle Creek’ – the type of anomaly that makes for interesting listening but also displays the lack of inventive and innovative choices made by many of the competing bands.

De Waldsang also displayed that it was a choice that was perhaps just above their abilities too, with a decent effort that held promise to start but fell away as stamina and the need to master the technicalities of the final jazz inspired section took their toll.

Crunch time

That just left the final two bands and for Cory it was crunch time.

With the foundation for victory in place from the Friday this was a contest to lose only if they didn’t play to form – and with a display of fortitude and character they just had enough left in their impressive musical tank to do just that. It was a close run thing though. 

Their ‘Battle Creek’ took a little while to really hit top gear (a strange three way split cornet contribution to the fiendish duet cadenza with the euphonium, was an exceptionally risky strategy to take – although it just about came off).

Enough?

The quality was on show though too, with Phillip Cobb once again producing a little gem of a cameo amid the occasional nasty little blips and blobs in places which just meant that they had to regain some ground going into the final jazz section of the piece.

 They did just that – led by a sparkling piece of trombone work from Chris Thomas and some stunning ensemble playing from the rest of the band that led to a triumphant close. No wonder they looked shattered at the end. 

Was it enough though?

Highly polished

With Fribourg once again delivering a highly polished and accurate ‘Vienna Nights’ (with another display of outstanding soprano cornet work a feature) the doubts arose in many quarters. Fribourg themselves may well have thought they were in with an outside chance too and they close with a controlled panache that left a real impression on the mind.

Now came the wait…. And wait…… And wait….

4BR totted up its table and came up with top six on the day of Oberoesterreich, Willebroek, Cory, Stavanger, Fribourg and Grimethorpe, which led us to just predict a final table of Cory, Willebroek, Oberoesterreich, Grimethorpe, Fribourg and Stavanger.

If it was to be Cory, then they had done it by the narrowest of margins – and so it proved.

Wait 

After an interminable Gala Concert the results were announced and the final two representatives were left to literally sweat it out in front of the packed auditorium; John Southcombe, wry smile on nervous lips for Cory, Terry Webster, head bowed in secret prayer for Grimethorpe.

The announcement, after a series of collectives gasps of astonishment from the hall (and not just for Cory’s 99 points on the set work and the closeness of the results) meant that it was Cory that finally ended 28 years of hurt to claim the one prize that since Dr Robert Childs’ appointment in 2000 had eluded them.

Cory was the deserved 31st European Champion – and the Year of the Dragon had worked its magic once again. The sounds of the celebrating Welsh (and a few honorary Celts amongst the band) rang into the still Stavanger air long into the night. No one could begrudge them their achievement.


 Iwan Fox

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