2009 Butlins Mineworkers Championships - Championship Section set work retrospective

21-Jan-2009

Harrison's Dream turned to a Harrison's nightmare for some bands on the Saturday, but the best bands took their chance to try and lay at least one hand on the famous Warwick Vase Trophy.


Jeremy Wise
Fill her up! Jeremy Wise contemplates an expensive trip to the Butlins bar

As one off results go, being crowned Butlins Mineworkers Champions may not be quite up there with an entry in the record books gained by a National or British Open victory, but if Redbridge Brass can build on this particular success in 2009 and beyond, it could just well be every bit as significant. 

Major triumph

London & Southern Counties banding has been starved of national championship success over the years – not a true major triumph since Luton Red Cross won the Nationals in 1923.

There has been the odd sporadic period of competitiveness, but not since the Hanwell and Hendon’s ‘National’ efforts in the early 1970’s or Newham’s in the mid 1980’s has a band from the region come close to becoming a true force at the highest level.

There have been far too many false dawns (Aveley & Newham’s Grand Shield win being last one in 2006), so could this be the real deal or just another pyrrhic victory?

Evidence

On the evidence heard over the two days at Skegness, Redbridge seem to have all the requisite elements in place to build on this deserved win and become a significant contesting force in seasons to come. The difference in the overall standard of their playing from just over a year ago is quite startling.

Previously inconsistent and fragile of confidence, here they displayed admirable ensemble and solo security, a broad structured warmth to their tonal palette and a deep seated self belief in their own abilities.

Quality playing

Jeremy Wise has brought something out of this band (and there haven’t been that many personnel changes) that was perhaps hidden in their sub conscious – the unlocking of musical potential that has for far too long been held in check. This was quality playing.

There are no real star performers in the ranks (although they have benefited enormously from the recent signing of Martin Britt on soprano) and they may still struggle on works that have more individualistic contributions in their make up than ‘Harrison’s Dream’, but as a coherent ensemble, they sounded high class – something shown in their consistent excellence over the two days.  

There were certainly more talented bands on show on the weekend, but relying on flashes of individual inspiration to win a multi discipline contest is a risky strategy on which to base potential success.

Intelligent display

Jeremy Wise knows this well and moulded his resources accordingly – from the understated, yet proficient approach to the set work on the Saturday to the broadly based intelligent display of entertainment repertoire on the Sunday.

Nothing over exposed in fact – just solid, compact test piece playing allied to solid, compact entertainment fare. It all added up to seven grand in the bank, a big silver pot to fill with celebratory booze, and real step up in banding class.    

Victory basis

The basis of their victory came on the Saturday.

‘Harrison’s Dream’ was a stern test of character for the 12 competing bands – and the majority failed to fully meet the challenges of a work described by one MD as being, “…like a 1000 piece jigsaw with no instructions on how to start to put it together.’ 

In fact, many bands found it too hard to get the corner pieces in place, let alone the one with straight edges in some semblance of order. As for the bits in the middle..?

’Harrison’s Dream’ is a tough old test piece – make no mistake about it. It’s in the top drawer of recent works, musically and technically mastered by only high-class bands.

Top section killer

Here, its well earned reputation as a top section killer was on show from the word go – from the fearsome technical cornet opening to the treacherous high end work from the euphoniums and top cornets in the slower sections.

A host of percussionists found themselves in different longitudinal time zones at times (why the overhanging tam-tam to end where none is written?), as did cornet sections, whilst the use of the soprano to try and blend or mimic solo cornets on high C’s and D’s, rarely, if ever, worked.

The bells were also a major disappointment - from the ones which sounded as if played by Tinkerbell or pinched from the necks of Swiss milking cows or Third World lepers, to the surreal approach of Tibetan singing bowls (perhaps the SS Dalai Lamar was sunk off the coast of China), bits of sawn off metal work from the local welding shop and the use of bins full of water to ‘bend’ the sound as the poor souls of seamen made their way to Davey Jones’s locker. 

None captured the sense of despair and tortured loss that so infuses the most atmospheric of sections of the work.

Musical picture

In the end it was Hepworth (Cookson Homes) under Ian Porthouse who had studied the musical picture on the box the best, to deliver the most technically secure rendition of the day. 

Although it did have its hard edges at times, the security and precision of the cornet work, allied to splendid euphonium contributions in the slow sections marked them out. It was compact and polished, and certainly found favour from adjudicators Philip Sparke and Alan Morrison as well as the majority listening in the hall. 

Shaded

Behind them came Redbridge, and their more subtly shaded performance – with chamfered edges to the cornet work and a broader, warmer overall band sound. It lacked the technical security of Hepworth for certain but nonetheless it was a quality show, well drilled and coherent, and one that impressed.

It was nearly the same story with Virtuosi GUS in third  – plenty of quality playing, spoilt at times by sloppy ensemble and some nasty little individual clips.  John Berryman allowed the music to flow, and despite the odd occasion when it just lapsed in consistency, there was much to enjoy in the approach and execution.

Colourful

The minor placings of the top six were taken by EYMS, under Jason Katsikaris, who produced the most colourful and musically interesting interpretation of the day, marred by too many annoying errors in ensemble and solo lines.

Although never totally at ease, there was always a sense of high sea adventure about their approach that brought the music to life – even at some rapid tempi.

Inherent class

Desford meanwhile had extended periods when their inherent class shone through (Robin Taylor on euphonium was outstanding) but they saw their chances of finishing any higher than 5th robbed by occasional technical insecurities in the ensemble that showed that they were in need of perhaps a few more rehearsal hours under the belt.

Carlton Main on the other hand will have known that they were bedevilled by self inflicted wounds – especially in the first quarter of the piece where sloppy ensemble playing robbed them of any chance of coming higher than 6th. From the slow movement on the quality was displayed for sure, but those early lapses proved too costly to ignore.

These were the only bands to really get to grips with the piece in a true major Championship manner (comparing and contrasting is a dangerous thing to do, but Hepworth’s performance would have given them a top 10 place at the Nationals back in 2000 – the rest were decent midfielders.)

Standard fell away

Below these and the standard fell away – at times dramatically.

Wingates were a disappointment. Riddled with ensemble imprecision and insecurity, the musical approach was broadly painted by Andy Duncan, but fell foul of sloppiness and unforced errors.   Every now and again the glimpses of Wingates on form appeared, but they were fleeting and couldn’t be maintained.

Yorkshire Imps too were much the same. At times there was a sense of adventure and stylishness about the approach that drew you into their performance directed by David Evans, only for it to be quickly extinguished by patchy ensemble work and wayward technical precision.

SWT Woodfalls also lacked consistency in their technical and musical approach to have come higher than 9th. Nicholas Childs craftily managed his resources, but the exposed nature of much of the technical work was brittle and took the gloss off other areas of good playing.

Bottom three

That left a bottom three led by Skelmanthorpe, who certainly showed that they had worked their socks off in preparation for their top section debut.

John Roberts and his band gave it their all, but this particular piece was just a notch or two above their current comfort zone. There were encouraging signs though that less taxing test pieces will certainly be well within their technical grasp.

Thoresby meanwhile found their ‘dream’ turning into a bit of a nightmare at times, with a litany of ensemble and solo errors undermining their effort. It never sounded comfortable at all, and as a result they could have had no complaints over their eventual placing.

So too United Co-op Milnrow, with a performance that struggled to meet the technical aspects of the work from the word go. Musically there was a great deal to admire in John Ward’s broadly spaced approach, but at this level, errors (and nasty ones at that) count dearly - and this was a very expensive day at the office.

Won and lost

Every band knows that no two legged contest is ever won after the first day – but it can certainly be lost.

Hepworth found themselves at the top of the pile and perhaps with one hand just reaching out to grasp the mighty Warwick Vase and the £7,000 first prize – but only with their fingertips.

Chances all but gone

For their rivals, some might have already known deep in their contesting consciousness that their chances were all but gone.

We had opted for a top six of Desford, Hepworth, Redbridge, EYMS, GUS and Carlton Main – all of whom we felt were still in with varying chances of winning the overall title the next day. The judges went for Hepworth, Redbridge, GUS, EYMS, Desford and Carlton Main. The rest were out of it.

All that was now left was too see what the bands had in store for us in the entertainment stakes on the Sunday.

Iwan Fox

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