2009 Midlands Regional Championship - First Section - retrospective

19-Mar-2009

It was a demanding test of character, technique and musical skill on 'Pentacle', but it was Phoenix West Midlands who were giving it high fives after the result.


Phoenix receive the silverware
Phoenix receive the silverware

Much has already been said about the demands of technique and stamina Graham Cole’s ‘Pentacle’ has placed on First Section bands so far in this year’s round of Regional contests.

Basics

What soon became apparent at Bedworth on Saturday however was that it was some of the very basics of technique, in particular breathing and note production that saw so many bands shoot themselves in the foot before the more far reaching complexities and intricacies of the piece were even considered.

On a day when only one band demonstrated that it had close to the full measure of the piece, it was disappointing that there were just a select handful of performances that succeeded in getting the quiet horn entry at the beginning of Wind together and balanced, or in a similar manner the baritone and trombone entry in the opening bar of Water.

Even in those performances where one of the entries was together (and there were none that managed this perfectly in both movements) poor balance was often an issue.

More thought

The vast majority of the bands would have done well to have given a little more thought to the titles of the two slow movements.

Wind and Water gives an immediate clue to the fluidity of playing that the music calls for but all too often the second movement ranged from blustery breeze to tropical storm, whilst Water seemed to be either completely frozen or mud bound at best.                   

On hand

The composer was on hand in the audience to listen to all of the bands and it was the basics that he commented on during his pre-results address to the audience, as well as to us after the results.

Perhaps for many bands, the over riding need to spend time on the technical challenges obscured the necessity to spend time on the simpler, yet more exposed passages that are all cleverly woven into an exciting  piece. 

Ultimately it did its job as a test piece well ….undoubtedly too well for the liking of a good number of the bands on the day.

Endurance

Derek Broadbent and Brian Buckley both commented on Pentacle as a test of both physical and musical endurance, touching on the need for rhythmic accuracy in the opening bars and tight percussion along the way.

But both were glowing in their praise of Phoenix West Midlands, making up for a rare disappointing showing in Harrogate last year to rise through the substantial field of sixteen bands to take victory by a comfortable margin…it would have been interesting to see what the points difference would have been had they been awarded.

Inspiring

David Maplestone’s inspiring and dynamic direction continues to be a potent factor in Phoenix’s success. But so does the unswerving commitment of the young players around the stands, as with Shirland in the Second Section, aided by a sprinkling of experienced old hands to create a winning balance.

And winning is a subject on which Phoenix has a good deal of knowledge. As runner up on the band’s First Section debut last year, Phoenix immediately stamped its authority on the section and there was almost a sense of inevitability that they were going to pull something off again this year.

As the band left the stage after its performance from the number fourteen draw though, that inevitability started to feel very much like certainty.

Detail

The detail in the opening bars will have caught the ears of the adjudicators immediately, whilst the playing throughout was never less than controlled and well paced. Most of all though the band created atmosphere and space, the former quality having been very notably absent from a good number of earlier performances or at best short lived in others. 

There were just the occasional moments of wobbly ensemble but the excitement in Fire and Quintessence was palpable. All in all it was one of those often elusive contest performances that convinced of its quality from the very start.

How the band will cope with the challenges of Championship Section banding remains to be seen but at First Section level they are up there with the very best.

Challengers

City of Coventry won the Second Section by a massive four point margin last year and gained a creditable sixth place in the Harrogate final. The band’s performance of Pentacle was one of around five that for us formed a group of challengers for the top six positions.

All of the bands in the group brought different aspects of the piece to the fore without maintaining the level of consistency of the winners and it was always going to be interesting as to which caught the ears of the men in the box.

In the case of City of Coventry it was always one of the strongest contenders amongst the bands in the first half of the split draw, high on adrenalin and excitement, perhaps too much so at times, but not without slips and minor errors around the stands.

We had the band fifth and they might just have been a touch surprised with second themselves, but it was the energy of the performance that drove it up the rankings. A great result for the players given their recent promotion and another trip to Harrogate beckons in the autumn.

Just missing out

Just missing out on a finals ticket in third place and under the experienced direction of Stephen Shimwell, Gresley Colliery gave a rhythmically detailed account of Earth but for our money didn’t quite capture the flow of the music in Wind and Water.

There was plenty of good technical stuff around the stands although by the time the band got to the final movement, we felt it was just slacking a bit as lips and concentration started to tire. Third place was a good result for the band, no doubt justified for the adjudicators by the degree of rhythmic accuracy that not many got near.

Fine sense

Pete Collins and Foresters Brass 2000 produced some fine playing for the band’s fourth place from the penultimate draw of fifteen. Rhythmic incision and a fine sense of atmosphere were evident for much of the performance but it was the tally of individual slips and clips that ultimately held the band back from what could have been a serious challenge for qualification.

On the day it was one of those that was so close and yet so far but this is a young band that will challenge again.

Further victims

In fifth and sixth positions Foss Dyke and Carlton were further victims of unevenness. For Carlton in particular there was some very impressive playing on display but it was one very serious mistake in Fire that nearly threatened to derail the whole thing.

Other parts of it were good to the point that we still thought they might squeeze into the top four, but sixth was the direct result of the near car crash in the third movement. Foss Dyke was another band that started Earth cleanly and was rewarded accordingly by the men in the box. We had them a tad lower down the table on account of a high error total but there were some nicely flowing passages in both Wind and Water.       

Home team

In seventh place, the home team of Bedworth Brass were one of the unluckiest on the day for our money. From an early number three draw the band were the first to set any kind of pace, with plenty of atmosphere and generally secure soloists amongst some of the experienced heads around the stands.

There were a few lumps and bumps in the slow movements and the percussion section were not always quite on the nail in Fire, but elsewhere there was plenty of musicality. We had the band in the top four but in the event, it was not to be.

Falling standard

From here the standard was falling away rapidly with many bands struggling to get beyond the technicalities of the work to breathe real life into the music.

Brackley and Wigston, occupying eighth and ninth places, both managed to extract something from the score in patches, with Brackley demonstrating a good, solid band sound and Wigston capturing some excitement even if it was at the expense of accuracy at times.

For Brackley though eighth is likely to have been a significant result, having come last in 2008 and therefore lifting the band away from the drop zone. 

Close behind

Close behind in tenth and eleventh positions, Hathern will have been disappointed that they were not able to capitalise on an excellent third place last year, with Hopkins Blidworth slipping one place to twelfth against last year whilst paradoxically turning in a better performance on Pentacle than the band managed on James Cook in 2008.

Hathern was one of the bands that threw it away in the two slow movements after a promising start, with Water in particular losing its way badly in the central section.

Long wait

A long wait for Blidworth to play last at sixteen probably did little to help the band’s nerves although scrappiness through the opening movements improved to build to a much better conclusion as relief no doubt set in.

Harborough was our pre-contest dark horse, giving a rather restrained performance that aired on the safe side. It was never going to be easy with four players short and initially the safe approach seemed to pay off in the opening movement. Ultimately though it fell away dramatically and twelfth was the result.

Low placing

In thirteenth position, Langley’s low placing was a bit of a mystery to us. Faultless it was not, but a big band sound, good soloists and well chosen tempos gave the performance momentum if not always total solidity in ensemble.

The dynamics were at times a little on the heavy side but thirteenth seemed to us to be a pretty harsh result in the final analysis. Even if we were generous in our own opinion, the band has every reason to be disappointed with the outcome.

Tough task

Playing number one in a field of sixteen would have been a tough task for any band, but with the unenviable task falling to Huw Thomas and Towcester Studio, it was a performance that never really got off the ground. Fourteenth was the result. 

It was much the same story for Shirley and Ibstock Brick Brass occupying the final two places, with the demands and stamina sapping nature of the piece just proving too much on the day.

Disappointment

The result will be a particular disappointment to Alwyn Green and his band, slipping from a creditable seventh place in last year’s contest.

In common with the other Regional First Sections so far this year, Pentacle was always going to separate the field out into just a few quality performances. The fact that it turned out to be something of a one horse race is to the immense credit of David Maplestone and the players of Phoenix West Midlands.

Conversely, it should give many other bands in the field plenty to think about in terms of those basics.

Christopher Thomas

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