Philip Sparke's 'The Land of the Long White Cloud' proved to be a taxing examination of the top-flight aspirations of the seventeen bands that took to the Gordon Craig Theatre stage on Sunday morning in Stevenage.
It was also a gruelling task for the judges Roger Webster and Chris Wormald, who after more than five hours of variable competition eventually bestowed the First Section Area honours on 'clear winners' Kidlington Concert Brass led by Duncan Wilson.
Joining them in Cheltenham will be Regent Brass and Hitchin. The remaining top-six places went to Alder Valley, Fulham and Chiltern Hills Brass.
Realism and sympathy
The difficulties faced by the bands were expertly addressed by Roger, who spoke with a mix of hardnosed realism and warm hearted sympathy in his pre-results address. No one would have been left in any doubt about what the judges had been looking for, and what they felt were the shortcomings in the performances.
Tellingly, he also stated that the bands 'had made it very easy for us in the box' — a double edged contesting compliment that neatly summed up their prescient opinions.
That 'clear winner' came from Kidlington, with a performance which they stated gave them the solidity of technical execution linked to a level of musical sophistication and control that they also felt could well make a significant impression on the results table at Cheltenham.
MD Duncan Wilson was therefore understandably delighted when he spoke to 4BR. "A year ago, the band drew number 1 here and didn't give of their best," he said. "We always felt we had a point to prove this year, especially on a piece that we all enjoyed working on.
I felt it was a super performance — one built on a great deal of hard work and commitment — so my thanks go to Band Manager Dave Taylor who organised the extra sectional rehearsals.
I also had the chance to play alongside my 10 year old son with Welwyn Garden City on Saturday, so I got a real opportunity to keep a ear on the acoustic and make a few last minute adjustments to our dynamic contrasts.
The slow movement in particular was something a little special (the excellent soprano cornet Alex Elderfield taking the 'Best Cornet' award) and I felt showing that lyrical musicality linked to control in the faster sections was the key to success."
Boost of confidence
That hard working Band Manager Dave Taylor added: "Duncan has brought such a boost of musical confidence to us, which has been seen in recent results. We believe we are improving all the time, and with the All England Masters in May and with Cheltenham to come, where we came third on our last appearance in 2013, we have a great deal to look forward to."
Another band with positive future prospects will be Regent Brass, as they showed the type of quality that just five years ago saw them claim the Area top section title. Led with controlled authority by professional trumpet player Nicholas Thompson, their performance off the number 2 slot gave the judges the substantive, well-tempered marker (aided by a splendid 'Best Bass' team) that very nearly held its own right to the close.
Meanwhile, Hitchin, who followed immediately after Regent, claimed a second successive Area podium finish to return to the National Finals for the first time since 2013 as they gave a robust account under Graham Chambers.
First half highs
In fact, the first third of the contest provided the judges with plenty to ponder, as a purposeful Alder Valley followed to eventually finish fourth, with Chiltern Hills' solid marker off number 1 also repelling later challengers to end sixth.
Only Fulham, with a persuasively shaped rendition under John Ward to end fifth (immediately followed by Kidlington) really impressed the ears of the judges in the second half of the proceedings, although the likes of Jersey Premier Brass, Horsham and Sandhurst may have just been left scratching their heads a little that their colourful approaches didn't resonate in the box as much as they did in the hall.
Elsewhere, Philip Sparke's work was at times at the very limit of a number of bands current First Section credentials, and indication perhaps that with 29 bands in the top two sections in the region, the overall competitive structure is in need of a timely and realistic re-appraisal.
We always felt we had a point to prove this year, especially on a piece that we all enjoyed working on. I felt it was a super performance — one built on a great deal of hard work and commitmentMD, Duncan Wilson
Test Piece: 'The Land of the Long white Cloud' (Philip Sparke)
Adjudicators: Dr Roger Webster and Chris Wormald
1. Kidlington Concert Brass (Duncan Wilson)*
2. Regent Brass (NicholasThompson)*
3. Hitchin (Graham Chambers)*
4. Alder Valley (Lee Woodward)
5. Fulham (John Ward)
6. Chiltern Hills Brass (Gordon Davies)
7. Egham (Gareth Green)
8. City of Cambridge (Peter Bassano)
9. Jersey Premier Brass (Tim Pritchard)
10. Bedford Town (Steve Phillips)
11. Sandhurst Silver (Andrew Porter)
12. Horsham Borough (Mark McLaughlin)
13. Becontree Brass (Nigel Taken)
14. Ware Brass (Phillip Littlemore)
15. Epsom & Ewell Silver (Paul Graham)
16. Cawston (Leigh Sharpe)
17. Colchester (David Maddocks)
*Top three bands qualify bands for National Final at Cheltenham
Best Cornet: Alex Elderfield (soprano corent) — Kidlington Concert Brass
Best Basses: Regent Brass