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2013 Spring Festival — Grand Shield - retrospective

Chris Thomas looks back on a contest that certainly lived up to its unpredictable nature as Milnrow claimed an emotional victory.

Marieka Gray
Marieka Gray has her fill with the Grand Shield....

It’s all too easy to be cynical about contest results – especially at an event as traditionally unpredictable as the Grand Shield.

However, as Milnrow players celebrated their win with tear stained faces etched by a mix of delight and shock, there was a poignant moment that restored your faith in this particular 93 year old contest.


It came when one of the band’s stalwart bass players turned to MD, Marieka Gray, and uttered in a voice cracked with emotion, that he had waited 42 years to play at the British Open.

No wonder she later confessed to being a ‘bit full up’ by her band’s remarkable victory.

Deeply ingrained emotion also played an integral part in Milnrow’s win, according to the judges Frank Renton and Allan Ramsay.

Milnrow celebrate
Emotion wins the day for Milnrow players...

Their ‘Red Priest’ wasn’t necessarily the most flawless performance of the day (Rothwell took that particular prize) and certainly wasn’t the most imposing either (Flowers claiming that award), but what resonated most in the box was its vibrancy, that according to the duo, ‘brought the music to life’.

The MDs admirably straightforward adherence to the score enabled her players to observe the marked dynamics and tempi to a fault.  

As a result, they were able to portray the spirit of Wilby’s interweaved homage to Vivaldi through attention to detail and stylistic awareness, rather than misplaced aggression – the Achilles heel of so many rivals.


In short, it was a triumph of interpretative common sense over brute force on what for the judges must have been a long and frustrating day.
Frank Renton’s request at the draw that they would like to hear bands, ‘play in tune, play together and play musically’, seemed to have been taken with a pinch of salt last reserved for Lot’s wife, by MDs who should have known better than to try and power their way through the delicacies of Wilby’s detailed scoring.

His rather blunt (but necessary) pre-results appraisal in adding that, ‘hardly any of you did’, to a packed Opera House audience, may not have endeared him to those who failed to qualify for the British Open, but it was a précis of acute accuracy.

Blown away

Too many bands simply blew away their chances of getting to Symphony Hall.

It was also puzzling to hear so many MDs fail to recognise that ‘Red Priest’ is modelled on a baroque Concerto Grosso; a form of writing that although allowing for a degree of ‘abandoned virtuosity’ in the words of the composer, also requires the delicacy and lightness of touch of a small string ensemble.

What was often heard was more like the shower scene from ‘Psycho’; conductors demonically hacking their way through the ‘Winter’ curtain of ice, not so much with a sharp knife, but with the help of a sledgehammer: 

It was as if they were ridding themselves of this particular turbulent priest through blunt force trauma.

Birmingham bound for Kirkintilloch

Thankfully, not all though.

Runner-up Kirkintilloch found a tender, lilting beauty in the 'Barcarolle' to contrast with the chattering fragility of the winter cold and the majestic grandiose style of the opening.

With confident and largely unscathed soloists, it was a thoughtful, intelligent presentation of the score by Philip McCann which thoroughly deserved its qualification spot.

Peeved rivals

That said - the problem for some seriously peeved rivals, wasn’t the fact that Kirky returned to Symphony Hall through well placed musicality, but that the Scots turned up with a band that allegedly had more occasional ringers in its ranks than the local Blackpool campanology society.

Philip McCann later admitted that he didn’t see a full band in rehearsal until the morning of the contest.

It also revealed the extent of the confusing situation surrounding registration employed at the Spring Festival – one which will undoubtedly leave lingering after effects even in Birmingham in September.


Kirkintilloch was not the only band to take to the stage with a dep count rumoured to run into double figures (and under the rules they did nothing wrong), but the laissez - faire approach by the organisers that enabled them to do so, seemed neither fair nor comprehensible.

The particular pros and cons of a confusing system will need to be clarified in time to avoid the real possibility of chaos there.

Third placed smiles from Aldbourne

Back at the contest, it was heartening to see a smile on the face of a band rep receiving the trophy for coming third, as Aldbourne confirmed their remarkable rise to top section prominence under David Johnson.

Lifted the spirits

Missing out at the Grand Shield is viewed by many as one of great miseries of the contesting world, but to see the joy it brought here lifted the spirits – and reflected admirably on the band’s rapid rise through the Senior Cup, Trophy and Grand Shield in consecutive years.

Meanwhile, Rothwell Temperance’s fourth place following their Open relegation came as a result of a return to the solid attributes of confident technical assurance that have served them so well in the past, whilst in contrast, Whitburn were left to reflect on their puzzling lack of consistency.

They were outstanding in winning the Scottish Championship in March, but considerably less so here: 

They had no cause for complaint with fifth place and will have left for home rueing the fact that with the Europeans to consider next year, the task of getting back to Symphony Hall could become harder still.

Forlorn hope

For sixth placed Flowers, a forceful approach to the opening sections left them with too much ground to make up in the box.  

Accurate and assured thereafter, it had many in the Opera House tipping them for the title, especially after principal cornet Andrew Smith had been announced as the outstanding winner of the soloist prize.

However, it was a forlorn hope, as it emerged that the judges felt the muscularity of the playing to be at odds with the character of the music. 

Sixth may have been harsh, but it left both band and audience in no doubt as to the strength and consistency of Frank Renton and Allan Ramsay’s findings.

They will now have to wait another 12 months to fully convince lingering critics of their major championship winning credentials. 

Andrew Smith
Certainly not the sixth best : Best Instrumenalist winner Andrew Smith of Flowers

Neck break

The midfield finishers simply knew they hadn’t done enough to end their stay in Blackpool, whilst the relegated quartet of Marsden Silver, Redbridge, Mount Charles and Wingates fell through the trap door with the type of unforgiving neck breaking jolt that was a painful reminder of just how precarious life in the upper tier of the Spring Festival can be.

The difference between the drop and mid table security could be measured in pretty small margins.

Those are worries for others when it comes to Milnrow now though, as the emotional imprint of this win will live long in the memory banks and will serve them well for the task ahead at the British Open. 

Chris Thomas

Contest: London & SC Regional Championships

Saturday 17 March • Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre, Lytton Way, Stevenage SG1 1LZ

Contest: Welsh Regional Championships

Saturday 17 March • Brangwyn Hall, The Guildhall, Swansea SA1 4PE

Contest: North of England Regional Championships

Saturday 17 March • The Gala Theatre, 1 Millennium Place, Durham DH1 1WA

Black Dyke Band - Victoria Hall, Bolton

Saturday 17 March • 37 Knowsley St, Bolton BL1 2AS

Contest: London & SC REgional Championships

Sunday 18 March • Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre, Lytton Way, Stevenage SG1 1LZ

Wakefield Metropolitan Brass Band

March 17 • Musical Director due to work commitments, the Wakefield Metropolitan Band seeks applications for this position. 1st section band with a 5th place at the areas. We require someone with the drive and ambition to take us to the next level is this you ?

Walsall Brass Band

March 17 • WALSALL BRASS BAND are looking for Cornets, 1st Baritone, 2nd Euphonium, Bb Bass and Percusion.

Cheshire Constabulary Band

March 17 • We are urgently looking for a Tenor Horn, Cornet and snare drummers (for our Corps of drums). Smart friendly well run band with varied engagements, just one rehearsal a week. Open to all walks of life ( you do not need to work for the Police!)

Brett Baker

BSc (Hons), ARCM, PG Dip
Rath clinician, conductor, teacher, adjudicator, editor