2009 Lower Section National Finals - Fourth Section: retrospective

30-Sep-2009

There was an outstanding winner in the Fourth Section on a day when not too many MDs covered themselves in glory.


Fourth Section first
Awaiting a Cornish destination: 
Picture: Rob Fletcher


Sometimes it is very easy to get carried away with the more obvious delights of the Fourth Section, but Saturday afternoon was a bit of a reality check.

Getting to grips

For all the enthusiasm, youthful endeavour and mature commitment, there is still the question of actually getting to grips with the test piece on the stand.

And although the contest here was enjoyable, it did go to show that all those virtues are not enough if the conductors themselves are not up to the mark.

’Alta Vista’ was a stern test, but in no way in the same depressing manner as ‘The Talisman’ at the Areas, or for that matter, the level of difficulty of ‘The Shipbuilders’ here last year.
 
This was a playable piece, and, as the best bands showed on the day, one that was well within the capabilities of MDs who were able to manage their resources with understanding and intelligence. Unfortunately, there were not too many of those on display. 

Problem

The main problem lay in the middle ‘Empire State Building’ movement – and the exposed writing that required solidity in the solo and accompaniment lines and a feeling of flow in the musical phrasing.

These are difficult things to do at this level of course, but it is not helped when conductor’s ignore basic ensemble requirements, do not help individual players and can’t work out coherent beat patterns to engage musical flow.   Some of the time signature changes clunked together like a sticky gear ratio on a Massey Ferguson tractor.

The winners


Conductors fault


The players were not at fault here – the conductors were.

Why for instance didn’t the poor soprano get assistance to try to play with a cup, harmon or bucket mute to give more security in the filigree accompaniment that hallmarked that second movement?

Just getting them to plonk a Denis Wick tin mute in and hope for the best was invariably a recipe for disaster given the exposed nature of the writing and the dry, unforgiving acoustic of the hall.

The outer movements allowed the MDs scope to make more of the basic ensemble requirements, but time and again all that was heard were bands crashing headlong with incessant volume and excitable pace.

The bands were better than this, but the conductors seemed blind to the chance to show control, balance and warmth. It was crash, bang, wallop stuff, and it invariably hurt the ears and the senses.  The players deserved better, some MDs deserved a horse whipping. 

Class apart

The eventual winners, St Breward, was a class apart.

Conducted by Kevin MacKenzie (who only had 10 rehearsals as a late replacement for original conductor Derek Greenwood – so late in fact his name didn’t appear in the programme) the band produced a performance that had all the essential basic requirement locked into place.

Their flugel horn player in particular was the pick of a batch of high class soloists, whilst the ensemble sound was rounded, warm and never overblown. The control that came from the MD ensured that the character of the music was revealed, and despite unforced errors, the overall picture was brought to life with musical intelligence. The band won by some margin.

Dronfield
Just right! John Davis leads Dronfield to second place
Picture: Rob Fletcher

Fine effort

Dronfield CMW
pushed the Cornish champion as best they could, but will have known that their fine effort wasn’t going to be quite good enough to have taken the title.

John Davis led his band in a confident, classy performance, which bore the hallmarks of sensible musical direction and an understanding of the different characteristics of each of the movements.  That is came where it did was well deserved.

Marker

So too Rivington & Adlington, with a performance that preceded Dronfield and set a very useful marker that more than held its own.

Once again the MD’s approach to the technical and musical obstacles proved just as valuable as the performances of his confident soloists and neat ensemble, and so it came as little surprise that Malcolm Wilson’s band had plenty to celebrate (especially for their solo horn player, Andy Harrop who picked up the Best Instrumentalist Award) come the announcement of the results.

Solo award
Best Instrumentalist: Andy Harrop smiles for the cameras
Picture: Rob Fletcher

Merit and quality

The final places in the top six came from a group of bands all of whom delivered performances of merit and quality.

Wantage B, crept under the radar a bit to come 4th after a mixed a rendition. When it was good though it was very good, but some scrappiness and tuning issues did take the patina off a polished performance.

Farifield (Buxton) meanwhile will also be delighted after their solid show brought them 5th place. It just needed a touch more contrast to have made a further impression up the prize list, but it went to show that getting the basics right at this level invariably gets you in the prizes.

The final band in the top six, will perhaps have left Harrogate disappointed. Cheshire Constabulary really did produce a fine performance, full of mature sounds and a coherent reading from the MD. It didn’t quite resonate in the box to the same degree it did with many in the hall, but it was one to be proud of.

Rivington
Keeping strict time: Malcolm Wilson keeps Rivington on track to third place
Picture: Rob Fletcher


MD problems

With one or two exceptions after the top six, the standard did fall away, and the problems of the MDs became more and more apparent.

Eccles can perhaps count themselves unlucky to have ended up in 9th place, but the rest of the midfield finishers will know that they either delivered with too many basic errors or fell foul of their MDs misplaced desires.

Kirkby Lonsdale, Pontypool, Maltby, Ebbw Vale, Battle and Test Valley, all had their moments good and bad, and on another day could have ended up in just about any order.

What was noticeable was that each band had the obvious potential to play the piece and play it well (Maltby, Test Valley and Battle for instance really did have the potential for a top six finish), but nervousness and unforced errors in solo lines, and some rather uninspired direction made Roy Roe and David Horsfield’s job easy.

These were solid Fourth Section outfits in need of a touch of inspiration from the middle.

Lack of thought

The lack of thought given to overcoming the problems in the second movement was depressing at times though. Many ploughed through thinking that getting it over with quickly was the best option, whilst others just hoped for the best. A bit more thought and a little more self-confidence may have proved beneficial.

St Breqard
Cornish pride: Kevin MacKenzie leads the St Breward smiles
Picture: Rob Fletcher


Bottom six

For the bands that ended up in the bottom six, there could be no real complaints.

Each of Brass Sounds Inverclyde, Downton, Whitwell, Thurcroft Welfare, Peebles and Kingsway Printers Cleethorpes gave it their best efforts, but their problems, many self induced from the middle, were too much to overcome.

Inverclyde rounded off the contest with an uneven performance that had most of the basics in the right place, whilst Downton required a more sensitive approach to the dynamic contrasts in the score.  Whitwell’s was one of many that was plagued by inconsistencies, whilst Thurcroft’s was a performance of very individual idiosyncrasies.  

Encouraging

For Peebles there were encouraging signs of better times ahead as an improving band tried hard to capture the musical characteristics of the score, whilst Kingsway struggled but tried hard to capture the vibrancy of Bruce Fraser’s writing. 

As for the winner though, there was no such problems with the vibrancy, the precision, the basics or the direction – winners of this quality never do.

Iwan Fox

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