2009 British Open Solo & Quartet Championship - Postcard from Dukinfield

3-Nov-2009

The numbers may not be the same, but there was plenty to smile about at Dukinfield Town Hall - even for the man himself...


Jef and Lode
Brilliant Belgians: Jef Vermeiren and Lode Violet

The British Open Solo & Quartet Championships hold a rather unique place in the affections of the brass band movements in this country – or not as the case may be.

For those of a certain age, the contest is a tangible link to a banding past, starting in 1944, that saw literally hundreds of competitors descend on Oxford and the headquarters of Morris Motors Band in a bid to become something of an icon in banding movement – a National Champion.

Roll of honour

The names of those who made the journey from all parts of the country is now just about lost, but the champion roll of honour remains: James Shepherd, Lyndon Baglin, James Scott, James Watson, Philip McCann, David Read, Alan Morrison and Peter Roberts; Quartet Champions from multiple entries from the likes of Black Dyke, Fodens, Fairey, CWS (Manchester), Grimethorpe, GUS, Brighouse & Rastrick and City of Coventry.

Such was the rivalry and the prestige that the likes of the famous GUS (Footwear) Band even had Gilbert Vinter write quartets for them to play at the contest.

And such was the importance attached to the title, that even in the last couple of years of the Second World War, ‘Bomber’ Harris (not usually a man who had regard to rivals in battle) allowed a quartet from his RAF Bomber Command to take time off from flattening German cities to try their luck at the contest (they came 2nd in 1944 and 3rd the following year). 

Shadow in numbers

Today, the contest may be a shadow of its former self in terms of numbers, but the desire to become a National Champion remains. Now the players come from bands from all over the world – Belgium and Australia especially, not so much Bradford or even Audenshaw round the corner.

The contest now takes place at Dukinfield Town Hall, in Tameside near Manchester. The venue has been sympathetically restored to its former glory – from the spruced up red bricks of its Edwardian frontage to the tasteful interior decoration of the main hall, which benefits from a 21st century heating system that was bubbling along at around 75 degrees all day on Sunday.

Hall
Puritan welcome: Dukinfield Town Hall

New Model Army

Outside stands the statue of Robert Dukinfied, a Cromwellian icon who gives the town its name. By all accounts he enjoyed his days in the New Model Army, securing the Isle of Man for the Puritan cause (his statue doesn’t sport a welcoming smile) and ending up in Parliament – although it is not known what his expenses claims were like.

His deeds are commemorated on a blue plaque on the front of the hall, whilst just around the corner, perched above eye level is another – this time to a somewhat forgotten banding icon – the composer John Golland.

He was born in these parts and died in these parts too – in 1993. It’s great to see him remembered in such as way, although you wonder if there should be a move to get the likes Harry Mortimer, William Rimmer etc remembered in the same way in their home towns. 

John Golland
Brass band icon: John Golland remembered

Support

That Golland is remembered is in many ways down to the support given to the banding movement by Tameside Metropolitan Council.

Not only do they pump in thousands of pounds for the Whit Friday bonanza, but they have also supported this event with generous sponsorship for many years (in a few weeks time they are putting in another £3,000 for their Youth Festival here) – including paying the airfare for the Senior Champion to try their luck at the Ern Keller contest in Australia.

This year the tickets will have to include flights from Schiphol Airport, as for the second year in a row the winner came from Belgium.

Daps
Dap Man: Sartorial elegance - Belgian style

Mini bus trip

Jef Vermeiren made the trip with his brother and about 20 other players from a variety of Belgian bands in a mini bus driven by Willebroek conductor Frans Violet and friends. The journey started at 4.00am on Saturday morning and ended catching the 5.00am ferry back to their home country on Monday. 

It is obvious the prestige of winning a British Open Solo title means something then – even if the Brits have become increasing blasé about it.

Of the 22 competitors in the Senior Solo contest, 6 came from Belgium and 2 from Australia (it would have been 3 but the Ern Keller Champion, Bruce Myers was unable to make the trip die to illness) – just 2 came from Yorkshire.

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Euthanasia

Seeing the support the Belgians gave their fellow compatriots was heart warming – even if a number of the players were playing for a brass ensemble called Exit Brass – which sounded like a Swiss euthanasia clinic for clinically depressed cornet players.

A number of their players were also sporting green daps – the shade of the old YBS Band jackets – although that apart, they at least took the opportunity to dress for the occasion.  Without sounding that old fashioned, some of the contest wear on display wouldn’t have been out of place in a Student Union bar.

Stage craft is an important aspect of solo playing, but not many of the senior competitors seemed to know much about it – quite a few performers came, played and departed without a by or leave of acknowledgment to those listening to them play.

Extinct

Unfortunately, this year there wasn’t a single entry in the Junior Quartet category and just four in the Senior event: One of the staple ingredients of developing good ensemble playing is in danger of becoming extinct in this country –  blasé or just plain apathy then? 

Whatever the reason, it is a great pity as the organisation of the event is excellent – Frank Hodges, Derek Atkinson and the officials of the North West Counties BBA did a fine job all weekend – even to the point of making sure they encouraged, cajoled and congratulated a few nervous young performers before and after they took to the stage to play in the Junior Slow Melody Contest. 

judges
Judges of the Solo Court

Excellent

The line up of judges was excellent (and their written remarks as well as their pre results comments were full of encouragement to the younger competitors), whilst the accompanists were superb too - although surely the time has come to allow the Junior and Intermediate Sections to benefit from their skills.

Little benefit

There seems little benefit in subjecting young players to such an ordeal without a sympathetic pianist who can help them through a solo. Just hearing four bars of solo playing followed by four bars rest (excuse the unintended pun) seems ludicrous. 

It would add nothing to the time it takes a performer to play, and would help both players and listeners alike to enjoy the experience.

It was perhaps the only musical gripe of the day – a day in which the overall standard of playing from the youngest competitor to the oldest was very high indeed.

Even old Richard Dukinfield would have had a smile on his sour old Puritan face about that.

Iwan Fox

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