2009 Australasian Open - Postcard from Coolangatta

31-Oct-2009

FABB's Australasian Open is a breath of fresh air for contesting downunder. But what does the future hold for the contest?


It may seem a little unfair to point out the obvious disparities between the sun kissed Gold Coast of Queensland and the windswept splendours of the A55 coast road of North Wales, but having spent many a year making the trek to the Pontins Holiday camp in Prestatyn, 4BR was looking forward to spending a contesting weekend at the Federation of Australian Brass Banding Australasian Open.

Twin Towns Clubs and Resorts
Twin Towns Clubs and Resorts - right on the border of QLD and New South Wales

We were not disappointed either.

Innovation

Not only was there great weather, but there was also the feeling that something innovative and far reaching is taking place with a brass band contest here too: Sun, sea and not one mediocre performance of Symphony of Marches.

The Australasian Open has filled a real hole in Southern Hemisphere banding, which for far too long has been caught between the twin stools of outmoded tradition and lack of imagination.

For a country that prides itself on its ‘can do’ attitude and spirit of adventure, it may surprise you to learn that getting the FABB venture off the ground has been such hard work, but it is not just the British banding movement that is blighted by inherent conservatism to change.  

However, that hard work is now paying off, and now in its second year the Australasian Open attracted seven bands to Coolangatta. A slightly disappointing number but a solid foundation on which to grow and prosper.

Warm welcome

Coolangatta itself is not a bad place either, with only the contest venue itself sporting the type of architecture that wouldn’t be out of place in Las Vegas let alone Llandudno, but the warm welcome and the desire to provide a first class visiting experience makes it a town that offers much more than a sun kissed beach.

Coolangatta Beach
...only 200 metres from the venue

The Federation (FABB) has managed to capture the imagination of bandsmen and women in its home country by showing them that brass band contesting can be innovative, flexible and fun, without losing its musical integrity. Coolangatta is the ideal place for it.

It does help that the organisation has people on board with vision as well as hard nosed business acumen, so that that they know both the value, as well as the price, of putting on a contest that managed to attract a decent number of bands and a sizeable audience.

Disappointment

There was of course disappointment that no one could make it over the Tasman Sea from New Zealand. However, with a realistic aim of eventually being able to get around a dozen or so bands to compete here in future, or perhaps two contesting sections, the FABB business plan has realistic aims and objectives – and ones that can benefit New Zealand banding too.

It also benefits from the fact that the icon of Australian banding is very much on board with the venture. Professor David King was here both as Music Advisor and adjudicator, and his drive and enthusiasm for the project has been invaluable.

Talking to him over the weekend you could sense his belief in the need for the event to prosper not just for the benefit of FABB but for Southern Hemisphere banding as a whole too.

His role in the decision to link up with the National Championships in Great Britain in securing Peter Graham to provide the musical commission ‘The Torchbearer’ was one such innovative move.

Flexible rules

Meanwhile, the equally far reaching decision to allow flexible rules on player registration meant that bands were able to tailor their musical needs for both the separate test piece and entertainment disciplines of the weekend.

Flexible rules give flexibility to bands, and that was heard (and seen) to fine effect over the two days. What you heard on the Saturday on the set work was good quality playing that at its best wouldn’t have been too far out of place at the Royal Albert Hall just a week before, whilst the best of the entertainment on the Sunday certainly wouldn’t have been out of place at Brass in Concert in Gateshead in a few weeks time either.

With David King joined by Peter Graham in the box to judge on the test piece, and with Steve Bastable to add his opinion on the musical entertainment, the competing bands could have no compliant about the aural judging process.

No complaints...


They could have no complaint either with the visual one too – especially as Lady Adrienne Stewart, a well known and respected Patron of the Arts here was such a fantastic judge herself.

Here was a bubbly, feisty, incredibly intelligent and generous woman who knew her remit and knew what she wanted to see and hear from the bands if it was to tickle her fancy. Some ‘Lady’ indeed - she would be a hoot at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party.  

Her opinions though were concise, articulate and razor sharp. She is not a woman to be trifled with we suspect.

Lateral thinking

The two days did provide very enjoyable music making, but it was the ability of the bands to think very laterally in the entertainment contest on the Sunday that was most impressive.

There is little doubt Australian banding has talent – by the bucketful it seems. It does take some harnessing though, as sheer enthusiasm is one thing. Great ideas but sloppy execution marred a lot of the playing at times, but the thinking behind some of the ideas was amazing. That was a minor quibble however as what we got was 100% commitment to the cause, even if some of the efforts did raise the odd eyebrow or two.  

It also reflected the desire of the bands to take this contest very seriously too.

Generous prizes

With the generous prize money, the great venue and facilities, a top notch test piece (which incidentally saw the study score priced at A$10 – less than half the price it was at London at the current exchange rate), high class adjudicators and slick organisation, you could also see why everyone here wants the FABB Australasian Open to succeed too.

The Federation of Australian Brass Bands has started something special here – now it needs the support and commitment of the banding movement in the Southern Hemisphere for it to flourish.
 
Given that the alternative is a weekend in a former World War 2 prisoner of war camp at the fag end of a miserable autumn in North Wales, you can see the attraction too.

Anthony Banwell

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