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2013 European Brass Band Championships — Retrospective

4BR Editor Iwan Fox looks back at a possible defining victory for Cory at the European Championships in Olso.

Phil Harper
Looking for even more success: Philip Harper ponders...

There must have been a huge sigh of relief heard around the Cory bandroom when it was announced that David Moyes was replacing Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

Philip Harper’s credentials as the man able to successfully take over from the most decorated team leader of modern times were confirmed at Oslo’s Konserthus at the very moment Cory was announced as the 2013 European champion.

Achievement

It was some achievement; especially as it took his predecessor 8 years to win the biggest trophy in banding. His replacement has done it in less than a year.

Whether it is a result that goes on to define the rest of his tenure at the Cory helm still remains open to debate, (Ferguson only put his doubters to rest by winning his first Premiership title seven years into his reign) but the recent Welsh Area result notwithstanding, he has already done a quite remarkable job in maintaining their standing as the number one band in the world.

Others though are already certain.

Austin Davis with trophies
A man of certainty: Cory Band Manager Austin Davies with the Euro trophies

Endorsed

Band Manager Austin Davies endorsed his view that this was now Philip Harper’s Cory Band, rather than the one he inherited from Dr Robert Childs; an opinion reinforced following the news that a trio of stalwart players had given their final performances on the own choice selection of ‘Perihelion – Closer to the Sun’ by Philip Sparke.

The top brass at Old Trafford may only feel the same next season if Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes decide play their football elsewhere and they still go on to win the Champions League.

For the moment though, victories at Brass in Concert and the European has cemented Cory’s place at the summit of world banding.  

Not surprisingly, as Philip Harper himself remarked in Oslo – it doesn’t get any better than this.

It certainly does for the European Championships though.

Curious event

This was a curious event; like a cut price suit in the window of one of the fancy shops that lined the streets of central Oslo on the way to the hall. It seemed ever so slightly out of place with its expensive window dressing surroundings.

From the lack of a proper press room and internet provision in the main hall to the perfunctory opening ceremony and Gala Concert, the poorly supported Conductor’s Competition and open air farewell concert: It seemed the organisers had managed to conjure up an event that met its job description – but no more (even the excellent European Youth Band was underused).

Even the Konserthus itself was hidden away somewhat – a poor relative looking enviously at its brash new Opera House cousin gleaming like a dissolving sugar cube into the dark currents of Olso’s waterfront.

Oslo Opera House
What could have been - the wonderful Oslo Opera House

Promises

This was a European sold to EBBA with plenty of high profile promises. How different it could have been if less of them had been broken.

As always, the bands provided the audience (certainly not a sell out) with fine contesting entertainment – notably on Stig Nordhagen’s wonderfully menacing set work, ‘Myth Forest’, as they sought to portray the sinister undercurrents of the composer’s local ‘Fallen Horse’ pool.

Scruff

Eikanger seemed to have taken the contest by the scruff of the dead mare’s mane, yet the judges were split, and as was later revealed, not for compromise. 

The result saw Cory end the Friday night with a priceless one point lead over the Norwegians, with a solid, if curiously uninspired Black Dyke in third.

Schoonhoven, Buizingen and Fribourg made up the top six – an overall result that with just a minor tweak wasn’t to change despite the flashy pyrotechnics on display the following day.

Stig Nordhagen
The man behind the myth: Stig Nordhagen

Tinder box

24 hours later, the contenders returned with their tinder boxes brimming with musical fireworks – but despite the desire to set the blue touch paper underneath an enthusiastic audience, none, not even Cory, quite managed the feat.

Black Dyke came closest with a thunderous late charge for the winning line (especially in the last minute of ‘Symphony in Two Movements’) when Dr Nicholas Childs broke free of his self imposed conducting shackles and sent bolt of electricity through his band – and into the audience.

Meanwhile, Buizingen also threw caution to the wind (from the word go in fact) with ‘When World’s Collide’, in a performance that put a huge smile of engaged curiosity on the faces of listeners in the hall and revealed without doubt that Nigel Clarke is one of the most inventive brass band composers of the age.

Knife edge battle

Schoonhoven and Fribourg also gave high class accounts of themselves on ‘From Ancient Times’ and ‘Spiriti’ without quite suggesting that either would push their way into the title winning reckoning, whilst Leyland gave their all in an emotional rendition of Peter Meechan’s ‘Fragile Oasis’ – a work that brought a heartening response from the audience if not the box.

The rest though were making up the numbers (despite a very fine ‘Audivi Media Nocte’ from Paris Brass Band), as  at the business end of the contest, Cory and Eikanger played out their knife edge battle, without either quite able to land a cleanly struck killing blow.

Harper
Leading from the front: Philip Harper with Cory

Thumping

Philip Harper led his band in a radiantly polished ‘Perihelion – Closer to the Sun’ that had the occasional Icarus moment (notably in the trombones at one point) on a work that once again ticked all the familiar Sparke boxes without quite being able to burn itself into the memory banks.  

There was plenty of stunning playing on show in a performance that did the job it was intended to do – especially with a thumping finale that was played with frightening virtuosity.

Fumes

In contrast, Eikanger simply ran out of steam with the finishing line tantalisingly within their sights.

The last minute or so of ‘Spiriti’ was running on fumes – summed up by a last chord that dipped in intensity as Professor David King tried in vain to pump a bit of extra horsepower out of an engine that by now had all but blown its head gasket.

They eventually topped the own choice discipline, but overall victory had been snatched from them in those closing moments by sheer exhaustion. 

You suspect it came as little comfort that it was later revealed that the judges had once again been split – this time over the margin of their own choice victory.

David King in action
David King getting the last gasp out of Eikanger

Difficult

The announcement of the results showed just how difficult this contest has become to judge with anything other than a rock solid, subjective opinion: 

The difference between victory and defeat was so marginal as be unquantifiable thanks to an antiquated scoring system.

Judges

Perhaps the time has come for EBBA to rid themselves of awarding points and just place bands in order of merit, whilst they could also look at how the judges can get to hear a pre-contest run through of the increasing number of new works that now appear each year.

They have an almost impossible task in comparing the own choices selections – many of which are receiving first performances.

Philip Haroer with trophy
The man and the silverware: Philip Harper with the European Trophy

Future

What the future brings for EBBA and this contest will be seen in Scotland next year.

What the future holds for Cory however, we may have already caught a glimpse of already.

Manchester United can only hope things turn out just as well.

Iwan Fox



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Duncan A. Beckley

BA, QTS, LTCL, FTCL, ARCM
Conductor, adjudicator, band trainer and teacher