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It's Checkmate for Blackpool

It's a trio of seriously hard pieces for the Grand Shield weekend in Blackpool 2002.


Trio of Testers for Blackpool Qualifiers

It’s going to be a very hard days work for all the bands who will be hoping to qualify for better things at the Grand Shield weekend come the 11th May 2002, as the organisers have chosen three damn hard pieces to sort out the wheat from the chaff for the Grand Shield, Senior Cup and Senior Trophy contests.

For the two bands that will be getting the nod to compete at the British Open will have to come top of a heap that will be tackling the seriously hard Eric Ball arrangement of Four Dances from the ballet “Checkmate” by Sir Arthur Bliss. The organisers have some sympathy with the competitor’s plight, as they will only require then to perform three of the four dances with the usual middle mazurka movement dropped.

The piece was originally used as the set test for the National Finals in 1978 when Yorkshire Imperial Metals under the baton of Dennis Carr took the title, and since that time it has very rarely surfaced as a test piece (mostly due we think because it’s so bloody hard). It makes as rare an appearance as Osama Bin Ladan, but many of the players and audience will be familiar with at least two of the movements. The Finale was used by many a band at entertainment contests as a big finisher, whilst the atmospheric middle movement, “Ceremony of the Red Bishops” has been heard before. The opening however is seriously hard for the cornet section in particular, and will weed out any bands that don’t have lips of iron and the stamina of a Russian weightlifter. It’s a cracking choice.

The Senior Cup combatants have a bit of an easier time, but there will surely be many a sleepless night from euphonium players as they lie awake in the pre contest early hours thinking about what horrors await them in the form of the famous euphonium solo from Frank Wright’s arrangement of the Berlioz Overture to “Carnival Romain”. Sop players and the cornet section will also have to be on top form if they are to survive and flourish. It’s another hard but very fair choice.

The piece has been used at nearly all the top contests and has always been a test that brings the best out of the top bands, so it’s a very good selection. It was last used at the Grand Shield in 1991 when Whitburn took the title back north of the border.

The newly reconstituted Senior Trophy sees the organisers deal a real stinker to the bands with the seriously hard choice of Robert Farnon’s “Un Vie De Matelot”—a piece that has caused horrors and mayhem for solo cornet and sop players ever since it was first used as the set test at the 1975 National Finals when Black Dyke took the title.

The piece should not be underestimated just because it’s the choice for the Trophy and not for the higher sections, but it remains a very difficult piece technically and more importantly musically—from the very start and the sop to the lung-bursting ending. It’s superb descriptive music that is very, very much harder than it looks.

A few years ago it was the set test for the top section for the Regional Championships and many of the countries top bands came a cropper, whilst it had almost Stephen King horrors when it was rather inadvisably used as a lower section test piece for the Mineworkers a couple of seasons ago. It was last used for the Grand Shield way back in 1988 when CWS (Glasgow) took home the title.

Three great choices for us then from the organisers who have deliberately chosen difficult pieces that reflect the standard the bands must realistically play to if they think they can compete at the very highest level. Things could get a bit messy on the contest stage, but then that’s how it should be if the strongest are to prosper and qualify for higher things.


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Ian Holmes

BA (hons), PGDip (RCM), ARCM, ALCM
Conductor, piano accompanist and educator