2008 European Brass Band Championships - Championship Section: Set Work Retrospective

7-May-2008

The foundation for the first Welsh win in 28 years was laid on the Friday night as Cory very nearly touched perfection...


Winners
Well worth the wait: Cory celebrate their European victory

The Year of the Dragon: First the rugby team, then the boxer, then the football lads and finally the brass band. It’s doesn’t come much better than this if you are a proud Welshman. 

All that is needed to put the icing on the cake is for Dame Shirley Bassey to win the Eurovision Song Contest, and the Principality can bask in the glow of its achievements (however unlikely some of them have been this season) for years to come.

28 years

Cory finally put 28 years of near misses, hard luck stories and even the odd conspiracy theory behind them here in Stavanger – they were deserved winners of the 31st Championships.

The celebrations in the band hotel went on long into the night, and for some players (no names, no pack drill on tour) the only time they fell into the arms of Morpheus was when they finally got on the coach to take them back to the airport on Sunday lunch time. Who can blame them?

Foundation

The foundation of the second win in their history came on the back of a truly inspiring performance of the set work, Hakon Berge’s enjoyable, and subtle ‘Brass Blot’ – pronounced ‘Blout’.

Although not the most technically demanding work any of these bands would have ever played, it still had more than enough about it musically to ask a number of searching questions – primarily the MDs ability to produce balanced textures and dynamics, clearly define the lyrical melodic line and, perhaps most importantly of all, do so amid subtle shifts in tempi.  

Highest class

Cory were the one band that did so - with a comprehensive sense of control that until they took to the stage late on the Friday night had been unheard of all contest. That it gained 99 points from the three judges, Nigel Boddice, Armin Bachmann and Arvid Anthun came as little surprise too – it was brass band playing of the highest class.

The performance also contained some lovely solo contributions from Phillip Cobb on third man as well as the usual suspects of Chris Tomas, Owen Farr and David Childs, but it was the sense of control, the subtle colourings of the balanced ensemble and the clearly delivered differing tempi that so stood out.  You couldn’t ask for more, and there were few in the hall that felt they were not in pole position at the end of the day.

Different story

Behind them, it was a different story.

Grimethorpe could have had no complaints about coming runner up to Cory on the night. Allan Withington and his lads produced a superbly structured account, more powerfully delivered in terms of dynamic than Cory. The subtle gears changes and balanced textures were more pronounced too, but it just lacked that extra bit of clarity that made their rival’s performance just a little bit more special. The two point margin was a fair reflection going into Saturday’s climax.

Dead men walking

For the reigning champion, Brass Band Willebroek, the defence of their title was already over.

Their stylish rendition under Frans Violet failed to make just about any impression in the box and ended up in 9th place (we had them 2nd) – an almost incomprehensible result given the quality of their playing.

Perhaps that more overtly stylised approach was their undoing, but it was hard to see why, as everything had a touch of musical subtlety amid razor sharp execution. It was a most persuasive account for us, full of quality and security, but talking to the players on the Sunday morning it appeared that the judges felt it lacked balance, was overblown, didn’t observe the tempis and lacked security!

Whatever the reasons from the box, Willebroek were dead men walking by the time they left the stage.

Swiss precision

It was the Swiss of Brass Band Fribourg who eventually took third spot, with a performance that certainly made an impression and deserved to placed well in the top six (we had them 4th).

Everything about their performance spoke of control and precision – it was like a musical rendition of the Swiss railway timetable at times. In fact, everything was in its appointed place; the solo lines were clear and secure (with the best sop player of the weekend), the ensemble sound balanced and textured.

Even the subtle changes in pace were executed with a degree of comfort not many others managed to achieve on the night and it came as little surprise that it eventually featured highly in the judges minds.   

Stavanger pressure

For Stavanger, the pressure was on.

Garry Cutt made sure everything was in its right place, but you couldn’t help thinking that when it came to the more exposed sections of the work they rather opted for a ‘safety first’ approach to both dynamics and style.

There was nothing much wrong, but the sense that it was all based on quite fragile confidence wasn’t too far away either. The loud stuff was great, but the central slower section was more brittle and nondescript. 5th was about bang on the mark (we had them 6th) for a performance that had the potential to be a little bit better, bit a whole lot worse.

Surprise

The final top six placing (we had them 8th) was taken by Brass Band Buizingen, who not for the first time on the weekend produced a performance that surprised many.

It did take a little while to settle, but led by a fine percussion section the jazz episodes in particular were tremendously stylish and confident. For us, the quieter sections perhaps lost them valuable points, but a fine reprise gave them a second wind and left a persuasive impression with the judges.

Performance of note

The one other performance of note for many came with the Austrians of Brass Band Oberoesterreich who followed Cory onto the stage as the final band of the first leg of the contest.

Theirs was the most complete interpretation of the day – a superbly constructed edifice by the MD. However, there were noticeable cracks in the musical masonry too, with annoying ensemble and solo slips from even the greatest of sources.

It was enough just to take the high gloss finish off the performance, and whilst we still had them in with a real shout in 5th place, the judges were not as generous in their overall assessment and put them in 8th. It was to prove to be a disappointment enhanced tenfold within 24 hours.   

Jake the Peg

For many, these bands were the ones still in with a realistic chance of taking the title (although we didn’t know that Willebroek and Oberoesterreich were already as good a bet as Jake the Peg winning the next series of ‘Celebrity Come Dancing’.)

Fluctuated

The Danes of Lyngby Taarbaek however were very much in the hunt as they claimed 4th place from the judges. Their performance may have fluctuated overall, but it did so between really high class playing and a few blander, less secure moments or two.

We didn’t quite have them up as far as the judges (we had them 7th) but you could understand why their vibrant approach caught the ear – it was certainly never less than exciting. 

Unpretentious

Kirkintilloch
meanwhile put the disappointment of the draw behind them to deliver a competent world premiere of the set work, that was solid and unpretentious, if also in need of a little bit of polish and precision.

Even if the draw didn’t help, they could have little to complain about in coming 10th – as at this level, and fine virtues that they are, solidity and unpretentiousness need to be supplemented by more than a hint of just artisan understanding and execution. 

Solid

The same could also be said of Brass Band De Waldsang, who like the Scots delivered another competent and solidly delivered performance that just lacked that greater degree of drama and class. Like the Scottish champions, there was much to admire, but when compared to what the rest of the field was also doing with the music, it just fell short.

Academic

Finally, Stockholm with a performance more of a high quality brass ensemble than a true brass band (and that was something to bear in mind for at least one other band the next day).

As a result their performance just sounded a touch too academic and strangely uninspired though the vast majority of the technical work was well delivered.

With the clock just ticking past 10.00pm (and right on the organisers mark) the first leg of the 31st European Championship were over and the well pleased audience walked back into the warm Stavanger night with plenty to ponder over.

There was no doubt that Cory was the band to beat, but could the likes of Willebroek, Grimethorpe, Fribourg, Oberoesterreich, Stavanger (the 4BR top six) do enough to stop them from taking the title?

The new day dawned, and we were about to find out…

Iwan Fox

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