Pemberton Old Wigan DW rounded off the Cheltenham weekend by claiming the First Section National title for the second time in their history late on Sunday evening.
Led by Ben Dixon, the North West Area champion was one of the very few contenders to come close to mastering Eric Ball's 'Tournament for Brass', in a contest that shone a startling light on the lack of understanding of a form of stylised brass band music that has become endangered by unnecessary and undeserved neglect.
Elegantly refined in approach and technically if not always perfectly secure, Pemberton also benefited from the sublime principal cornet work of Joanne Johnson, who deservedly won the 'Best Instrumentalist' award.
Behind them came further joy on a memorable weekend for Scotland, as Bathgate led by Anne Crookston came runner-up, with Kidlington Concert under Duncan Wilson in third. The remaining top-six places went to Regent Brass, Unite the Union and Newtongrange Silver.
Pulled no punches
Adjudicators Paul Holland and Michael Fowles (who picked the work as part of the Kapitol Music Panel) pulled no punches in their excellent pre-result addresses.
"We've given extensive remarks to highlight what we were looking for today," Mike said gravely.
"The music needed refinement, elegance, time, space and poise. This is brass band chamber music. All the performances were in need of it."
He added: "Bands must pay attention to what is above and below the stave. There were what I call endangered species on display in the score — the morendo and the pianissimo. Both were nearly extinct today.
Nearly all bands had intonation problems and conductors should realise that semi-quavers can be melody and not just technique."
Paul Holland reinforced the joint opinion. "It was a frustrating contest. There were moments of real class then over the page something of a disaster," he said. "All bands had problems and flaws, especially in the more exposed parts of the piece. Every single band scratched around at times."
He then added that the overall standard had led them to 'weigh up the negatives' between bands.
"If bands were waiting for the light to appear on the box, it was because we were comparing flaws after a performance. We felt that several bands may have changed positions if only they didn't make so many obvious mistakes. Too many didn't give of their best today."
He concluded: "Perhaps it's because this type of music is now so different — exposing the basics. They were quite lacking in the lower positions. We were expecting a higher standard."
Few in the audience would have disagreed with their findings — ones further confirmed to 4BR. "It was a real disappointment." Paul later said. "We did ask ourselves a number of times if bands and conductors have forgotten how to play this type of wonderful music."
Mike added: "Even the best bands today were not without major flaws and problems. The winners were good, but even they faltered at times."
That was borne out even in the written remarks for Pemberton, with Paul writing: "A most enjoyable performance, lots of quality on display although tempi occasionally a little hurried', whilst Mike stated in his summing up: "Much to admire with occasional lapses along the way."
Touch of realism
There was also a touch of realism about the celebrations on stage, with Pemberton's talented MD giving a very honest assessment of his band's winning performance. "Coming from a Salvationist background, Eric Ball's music is something I love. I also know how deceptively difficult it is too," Ben Dixon said.
"We tried to bring the elegance out without any aggression, and I think we did that. We had little mistakes of course, but we also showed so much good playing, especially with Joanne on solo cornet, who was brilliant."
Joanne Johnson returned to the band after a short break to add to her 17 years of service, and was still bubbling with delight after picking up her award and being the first onto the stage to help raise the National Trophy in the air. "I'm just so pleased for Ben and all the players who have stuck with us," she said.
"We were down to seven or so regulars just over a year ago, so Ben's amazing work and the dedication of so others has paid off. We are still building, but this has given us a huge boost for the Championship Section next year."
That is in no doubt, although in contrast, other bands will have left Cheltenham wondering how on earth an almost 65 year old work could have caused them so many basic problems: It was as if they had been mugged by a kindly looking pensioner.
The amount of misplaced stylistic aggression, poor tempo choices and dynamic balances, intonation troubles, unforced errors and even wrong notes, was at times bewildering.
Paul and Mike certainly earned their money in the box — whilst far too many bands left their chances of success in the rehearsal room. Either that or they need to reacquaint themselves in future on a more regular basis with Eric Ball's music.
Here and now
For the here and now though there will have been delight for Bathgate, as a stylishly portrayed account saw them come runner-up (off the early number 4 draw), as well as the London & Southern Counties duo of Kidlington Concert and Regent Brass in third and fourth respectively — thanks to renditions that certainly captured the essence of Eric Ball's elegant music despite the noticeable errors.
Unite the Union and Newtongrange rounded off the top-six with performances that in their comparative ways, almost but not quite, married fine stylistic intent and technical security, whilst pre-contest favourites Rainford were left to rue an account that for the judges, never quite made the most of its fine intentions, to end seventh.
Behind them it was a frustrating display of increasing mediocrity — at times bewilderingly so. Few bands and their MDs will have had cause for complaint at their final result.
In a contest when 'Tournament for Brass' showed that it had lost none of its relevance, acuity and beautifully crafted deadliness, it was the neat stylistic virtues confidently portrayed by Pemberton Old Wigan DW under their young MD that came out on top.
They were the deserved victors: Eric Ball however, was still the undisputed winner.
Coming from a Salvationist background, Eric Ball's music is something I love. I also know how deceptively difficult it is tooPemberton Old Wigan DW conductor, Ben Dixon said.
Test Piece: Tournament for Brass (Eric Ball)
Adjudicators: Paul Holland and Michael Fowles
1. Pemberton Old Wigan DW (Ben Dixon)
2. Bathgate (Anne Crookston)
3. Kidlington Concert (Duncan Wilson)
4. Regent Brass (Paul Archibald)
5. Unite the Union (John Roberts)
6. Newtongrange Silver (Andrew Duncan)
7. Rainford (Gareth Brindle)
8. Bournemouth Concert (Melvin White)
9. Parc & Dare (Jonathan Pippen)
10. Rushden Town (Adele Hudson)
11. Shepherd Group (Richard Wilton)
12. SW Comms (Chris Spreadbury)
13. Marsden Silver (Alan Widdop)
14. Hitchin (Graham Chambers)
15. Foresters 2000 (John Davis)
16. Llanrug (Keith Jones)
17. Westoe (Callum Harrison)
Best Instrumentalist: Joanne Johnson (cornet): Pemberton Old Wigan DW