2009 Australasian Open - Retrospective - Open Championship

31-Oct-2009

4barsrest looks back at the 2009 Australasian Open Chamionship where the 7 bands battled it out on Peter Graham's 'The Torchbearer'.


Unlike the close run contest at the Royal Albert Hall the previous weekend, the destination of the Australasian Open title seemed in little doubt after Mark Ford and Kew Band Melbourne trekked off the Coolangatta stage with smiles as wide as an upturned Sydney Harbour Bridge on the Saturday.

Although the band did have its problems with Peter Graham’s, ‘The Torchbearer’, a performance rich in detail, classy solo work and solid ensemble was a class apart on the day, and deservedly took the A$5,000 first prize.

Not out of place

In fact, it was a performance that wouldn’t have been out of place in Kensington either – and a reminder that at its apex, Australian banding can rival the best of rest in the UK.

That is said without meaning to be disparaging – the top four bands at the Albert Hall were in comparison a class above this winning performance, but it would have certainly more than held its own amongst the other 16 there on the day.

Strangely, not all the bands here took advantage of the 2 minute ‘warm up’ which was allowed (a fine idea the bands at London would have welcomed for sure) – and strange given the treacherous nature of the opening few bars.

Kew Band Melbourne
Kew Band Melbourne

Kew Band Melbourne certainly did, and it seemed to give the band a sense of settled confidence as it opened what proved to be the winning performance.

Mark Ford’s lyrical approach to the score was at times beautifully realised, and whilst a degree of the detailed technical work was sometimes smudged, the excellence of the solo playing was a worthwhile compensation.

The MD even had his own take on the ‘muted’ question that saw tongues wag with vigour at Black Dyke’s win in London; the use of harmon mutes bringing a timbre that no other band achieved on the day - even if it wasn't to our taste.  Even a well milked final section, where the MD very nearly got Ball’s blood from out of a stone didn’t take the gloss off a high-class reading and performance of true merit.

The eventual winning margin was just half of one point – a photo finish if ever there was one in statistical terms, but one that in reality was much more clear cut.

David King and Peter Graham were generous judges for sure – 197 points for the winners an indication of that. Given that according to the Association of Brass Band Adjudicators in the UK, 197 is the top mark they would consider for a Championship Section performance, you were left wondering what mark Black Dyke’s winning performance would have elicited from the box in Kensington – this was some way below that.

Still, comparisons are invidious at times. Suffice to say, this was a worthy winner – full stop.

It was the final performance of the contest that eventually ran Kew the closest, after John Saunders led Warringah Concert Brass through an exciting, colourful, but very error strewn rendition.

It was perhaps the most stylised performance of the contest too – the pastiche Ball handled with a lightweight approach to dynamics and nuance feeling for tempo. That gave the music the character it demanded, and with some fine lyrical solo work (especially the solo cornet) there was much to enjoy.

It was also nice to hear some high class xylophone work rewarded too (something that wasn’t that great in London it must be said) as Anthony Brahe picked up the ‘Best Instrumentalist’ Award for his razor sharp contribution.  

The error count though was high – very high - and eventually tarnished the glossy veneer created by the considered approach from the middle.

For K&N Spring Gully Brass in third place, a performance high on the musical Richter scale of excitement had to be balanced against the hard ensemble delivery and the more obvious lack of nuance and subtlety in execution.
 
The solo playing was the most secure of the day, but mere note bashing was never going to bring this affectionate score to life. Forced sounds and lack of tonal warmth meant that this was Eric Ball dressed in Ned Kelly’s armour – it took some getting through to reveal the beating heart beneath the iron clad exterior.

There was quality there all right, but you had to dig deep to see it shine through.

In almost complete contrast came fourth placed Gunnedah Shire Band, who started the contest off on the stroke of 12.30pm.

This type of music is mother’s milk to the Welshman Nigel Weeks – he won his first major contest with Tredegar Band at Pontins in 1990 playing Eric Ball’s music – and so it came as little surprise that his was a warm hearted, lyrical reading of the score.

The broad sonorous brush strokes though couldn’t hide the fact that a lot of the detail wasn’t secure, and whilst the spacious solo lines were well handled, unforced errors and ragged ensemble in the quicker sections meant style couldn’t quite overcome substance.

The bottom three bands fell quite neatly into place.

Brisbane Brass never quite seemed at ease with the music – despite a superb opening bar that held rich promise (and showed that using the 2 minute warm up to practice it was a clever idea if there's nothing to say you shouldn't).

That was the high water mark though, and whilst the bravura approach (especially in the quicker sections) meant high excitement value, the lack of security saw a rather disjointed rendition lose focus and clarity way before the tired close.

That it beat Footscray Yarraville and St Marys Band Club perhaps told you a great deal, as neither of these bands came close to mastering the technical hurdles posed by the work. As a result both performances were flawed from the start in such a way that the desire to bring the music out from the score was always fatally undermined.

That was a pity, as Ken MacDonald certainly knew his Ball from his Graham. The opening quarter of the piece saw a great deal musical style to go with the inconsistent technical substance, but a growing error count soon blighted and then very nearly destroyed what could have been a performance of real integrity.

It was much the same with St Marys too – a performance of real hits and misses.

When things did come together there was a cohesiveness under Paul Terracini that drew the listener in, but all the good intentions amounted to very little given the flawed execution which at times was insubstantial and at others, worrying.

A performance of such technical insecurities was never going to come much higher than it eventually did.

Generous margins

With just the seven bands to compare and contrast, David King and Peter Graham still took their time with their deliberations before Peter Graham thanked the bands for their contributions. When the results were eventually announced after the entertainment contest the following day, there were few people who disagreed with their observations, even if the margins between the bands did seem a little on the generous side – the winners were a good head and shoulders ahead of the field.

Still, in the contest business, a win is a win – margins are left to accountants.

All Kew’s accountant needed to know was that the band’s bank balance had been boosted by five grand. They certainly deserved it.

Anthony Banwell

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