2008 English National Championships - Retrospective

1-Jul-2008

The Corinthians of Grimethorpe retained their title at Preston thanks to a belief in their own abilities as players and a quite inspirational MD...


Grimethorpe celebrate
Happy smiley people! Grimethorpe celebrate retaining their English National title
Picture: Ian Clowes


If a contest is to be won and won well, it may as well have the hallmark of class stamped upon it in the process too. 

Grimethorpe retained the English National Championship because in the final analysis they had complete faith in their own abilities as players and that of their quite inspirational conductor, Allan Withington.

Not for them the self doubts thrown up by lack of confidence either. Where others fiddled with parts or swapped instruments, Grimethorpe’s players took to the stage and simply played better than anyone else, whilst the MD took the opportunity to mould the raw material into a quite masterful end product.

Corinthian 

As expected Black Dyke came closest to beating them, but for the purists, winners should always be the bands that perform with an almost Corinthian appreciation of the ethos of contesting closest to their hearts.

Dyke did nothing wrong in taking to the stage with two soprano cornet players in their ranks, but its like seeing a cricket team take to the field with the wicket keeper replaced by two slip fielders behind the stumps, and the captain still giving the gloves to the bloke at third man when the spinner comes onto bowl.

Depressing

On a day when the overall standard of that most specialist of positions came under the closest of scrutiny it was also somewhat depressing to see so many conductors having so little faith in their players to do the job intended for them by the composer.

Where Grimethorpe had a quite brilliant Kevin Crockford showing that he is without doubt the best soprano player in the world at the present time, others found a fairly taxing, but not overtly impossible part, seemingly deemed beyond their capabilities. 

Why so many conductors felt it necessary to remove the sop from the opening four bars of the Scherzando seemed puzzling, as it was a solo feature that was neither badly pitched (it was in the instruments mid range) or technically difficult. Those who played it successfully – such as Kevin - invariably did so by just taking their foot off the accelerator pedal to start.

It also meant that by using a cornet to play it, the timbre was also so obviously different – as the three men in the tent, David Read, Nigel Boddice and Chris Wormald (who did a fine job) told 4BR. 

Later in the piece the more pyrotechnical solo display in the Brillante section was also farmed out on occasions too, whilst the opportunity to really show the true lyrical sweetness of the soprano sound was lost at the final reprise section where many players found their stamina had evaporated into the miasma of Preston Guild Hall, leaving them to sound strangulated and cold.

Frozen peas

The overall standard of soprano playing on the day was a major disappointment (as was the xylophone work, which at times sounded as if the old con trick of emptying a bag of frozen peas on the keys was being employed – especially in the troublesome link at the end of the Scherzando and the pick up to the Larghetto by the tuba),  although a number of performers such as Jon Small of Mount Charles, Mark Harrison at Fairey and Martin Irwin with Brighouse certainly enhanced their reputations under the spotlight.

Mr Crockford however was head and shoulders above them all – and was the deserved winners of the Solo Prize and the £250 that went with it.  

His playing was also one of the main reasons why Grimethorpe came away with the £4,000 first prize and the invitation to represent England at the European Championships in Ostend in 2009. 

Rich in musicality

Drawn number 8 in the 15 band field, theirs was a performance rich in musicality as well as technical security.

Robert Redhead’s test piece, ‘Infinity’ may have been a somewhat underwhelming composition, but there was still enough about it to test the bands, even if given the subject matter from Psalm 8 of the Bible, the 13 or so minutes of actual music making never really developed into something truly memorable.

The sweet opening hymn tune held promise, but the subsequent variations of the thematic material never evolved sufficiently to really draw you into a heartfelt appreciation of the infinity of God’s creation.

The same structures found in ‘Isaiah 40’ seemed too apparent at times, and whilst pleasant to the ear, the technical elements seemed nothing more than decorative filigree work adding little to the substance of the musicality of the piece. It was a pleasant, but rather insubstantial work, one that is likely to be destined for the back of the librarian’s cupboard.  

Stunning

Grimethorpe made the most of it though and delivered a quite stunning rendition. Each of the stylistic elements was delivered with classy aplomb, with understated emotion and tasteful restraint. The Scherzando was light and breezy, the Larghetto tasteful and vibrant, the Brillante just that, and the final descent into restful repose, expertly shaped and controlled. It was going to be nigh on impossible to beat – and so it proved.

Black Dyke gave it their very best shot. Dr Nicholas Childs drew from the richest palette of sonority throughout, with beautifully realised internal balances allied to a more powerfully realised emotional musicality than their rivals.

The substituting of that soprano line was noticeable however at the Scherzando, although it was in no way the single reason why it just failed to find ultimate favour with the men in the box. That was perhaps more to do with clarity at the chosen tempos – Dyke hit the Scherzando at 168 and running, whilst Grimey started off at around 150 and wound it up. 

Both were spot on in style and vibrancy, but crucially Dyke were unable to really bring the razor sharp clarity to the filigree work at that speed in the rather muddy acoustic of the Guild Hall as Grimethorpe were able to do.

On such small margins are contests won and lost between bands of such stature at this level, and there was little doubt that after sitting through 15 bands on the day, these two old rivals were a good length or three ahead of the rest of the field.

Grimethorpe will of course head to Ostend, but you could have a great deal of sympathy and support for the judges and their strongly held opinion that both Grimethorpe and Black Dyke were more than worthy of representing England there and that some way should be explored into looking at a possible ‘weighting’ system for qualification to the contest. 

Impressive

With the fight for the title going to the wire, it was always going to be interesting to see which other bands would force their way into the final reckoning.

Brighouse & Rastrick provided further evidence that Alan Morrison is starting to develop an impressive band under his command by taking third place.

With a greater emphasis on a much more rounded, less strident ensemble sound, they delivered a fine performance, not without error, but still with that traditional Brighouse ‘thrill factor’. They may not quite have that all encompassing stamp of class entirely within their grasp just yet, but they are getting mightily close to it and the podium place was well deserved.   

The announcement of Mount Charles in fourth place may have come as a bit of a surprise to those who hadn’t heard them play, but after a well shaped reading from Andy Duncan was backed up with solidity from the ensemble and some real sparkle from soprano Jon Small in particular, it shouldn’t have been too much of a shock to see them flying so high. 

Like Brighouse, Mount Charles are still a ‘work in progress’, but this showed that the foundations are very much in place for them to now build on for the rest of the year.

Stunning opening

Fodens Richardson meanwhile can have little to complain about after coming home in fifth place after a performance that couldn’t quite maintain the quality of a quite stunning opening section.

The soprano ‘opt outs’ were noticeable too (although Alan Wycherley delivered a bit of a masterclass later in the lyrical reprise section) and although they occasionally touched the heights, there was a distinct lack of their usual highly polished sheen to much of the ensemble work.   

Hepworth on the other hand will have headed home delighted that the poor form of the past few months seems to have been consigned to the contesting dustbin. 

Ian Porthouse also took the step of moulding a much more coherent ensemble sound and as a result the bands proficient technical expertise was allowed to shine without that harsh brittleness that undermined them so much at Cambridge.

It was a highly encouraging performance ahead of the British Open and Hepworth is back on the right road once again.

Vary in quality

Outside the top six the performances did start to vary in quality- quite noticeably from tenth place down.

Rothwell once again showed that when it comes to delivering the goods, the solid virtues of hard work and adherence to traditional values will stand in good stead, even if they do lack that touch of sparkle about the actual delivery at times. On this occasion there was also a hint of inconsistency too and that was enough to just keep them out of the prizes.

The opposite is true of course with Leyland.

Jason Katsikaris is one heck of a talent, but not for the first time his emotionally charged approach to a quite understated score was a just a bit too richly laid on.

There was confidence and control and some lovely little touches that other MDs simply missed, but in the end it was one over emphasised rall or elongated rit too many, and it just cried out for a touch of simplicity so that the quality of the solo and ensemble work could come through unfettered.

The final band to really master ‘Infinity’ was Fairey – although they too were bedevilled with inconsistencies in ensemble and solo lines to really have challenged for a higher placing that it eventually came.

Mark Harrison on soprano was a stylish soloist throughout, but the percussion in particular was wayward and robbed Phil Chalk’s well laid out reading of clarity of execution. 

Loss

With Reg Vardy having to overcome the loss of their MD Richard Evans and solo euphonium Paul Robinson to ill health (David Thornton had to stay on stage to play again, and did a superb job) in the last two days before the contest, they will be delighted to have come home in 10th place under the direction of Steve Malcolm.

He ensured that everything was laid out in sensible fashion, and whilst there were obvious shortcomings throughout there was a determination about the performance to make the most of stretched resources. It did vary in quality at times, but so did the others that filled the bottom six places.

For YBS the hard work will have to continue if they are to make up the ground on their rivals at major contests.

Morgan Griffiths is certainly putting in the hard yards and the results are starting to bear fruit – but only slowly at present, with their performance highlighting both their obvious strengths (Mike Kilroy on euph was top notch) and their more obvious weaknesses (some of the ensemble playing was harsh and strident at times).

They are getting there, but it may be a little while longer before we see them back into the prize lists at this level.

Not going to plan

For PolySteel, things are not going to plan. On this occasion there were extended periods when their playing was of top six quality – especially in the faster sections and the Latinesque dance, but a terrible opening when ensemble precision (and tuning) was all at sea, and an equally wayward close was more than enough to confine them to the lower reaches of the results table. It was far too inconsistent a performance to have come any higher than 12th.

For PolySteel read Carlton Main. After the mystery of Cambridge came the reality of Preston – this time they were truly way off the pace.

A performance hallmarked by Russell Gray’s lyrically inspired musical interpretation also unsuccessfully camouflaged the technical shortcomings of the scrappy ensemble and less than secure solo lines. It was a bit of a confusing mix, musically well delivered, but technically never secure, and it got what it deserved from the box.

Two steps forward, one back

So too Redbridge with a performance that was never in the same league as the one that they produced at Cambridge a few weeks earlier. Inconsistent and error strewn it never really settled into a coherent musical picture and felt like hard work from start to finish.  After two major steps forward at the Masters this was a little one back so to speak, but they are still a band heading in the right direction under Jeremy Wise.

Finally, Fishburn who had the honour of delivering the world premiere contest performance of the piece (the judges incidentally had the opportunity to listen to the piece on a special recording before the event).

In the event it wasn’t a memorable one with poor technical execution and unease with the musical flow – nothing seemed to click into place. That it came where it did was no surprise, but Fishburn are a better band than this poor day at the contesting office showed.

Varied speeches

With the contest all just about wrapped up 4.45pm and with no Gala Concert to endure there were thoughts of an early finish in time for a night of joy in Preston.

Unfortunately however there were a set of varied speeches still to come, one of which came from Gwen Redhead, the wife of the composer, which was personal, heartfelt and genuine in intention, but was nevertheless misplaced. 

Describing the inspiration behind the piece and thanking the participants for the music making is one thing; taking the opportunity to then tell the audience to go out and find Godly inspiration from it, quite another. It sounded very like we were being subtly preached at.

If another guest speaker, such as a local politician, had taken the opportunity to thank everyone for their musical efforts but then also added that we had to seek doctrinal Marxist inspiration through the music to help overthrow the capitalist state then people would be up in arms. This was not the time or the place, however genuine the calling, for it to happen.

Dénouement

That just left the dénouement – and Grimethorpe’s retention of the English National title was met with just about unanimous agreement from the hall after Mount Charles were declared fourth, Brighouse, third and Black Dyke as runners –up.

It was their day yet again – now they have to try and do the same thing in Ostend just under a year from now.

Iwan Fox

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