National Championships 2004 - Harrogate - First Section retrospective


Malcolm Wood looks back at the First Section, where Rodney Newton's "Elfland" Fantasy proved a test piece too far, for far too many.

Pemberton Old Wigan JJB Band
MD Mark Peacock celeberates with Pemberton Old Wigan JJB
Band members

Great music, but a very difficult test piece and one that certainly on the evidence of Saturday evening, was a tough ask for many, with even those who finished in the placings, coming off stage bloodied but unbowed.

Rodney Newton's symphonic tone poem is a real gem, and a casual glance through the score may have led bands to believe that there was "not much too trouble for us here". However, the more you look into it, the more layers of the musical onion skin that are peeled away, the more bands discovered that there was plenty to trouble them, and it did that alright in spades.  In addition, it wasn't just the score that caught many out; a number had problems with the acoustic in the hall, which was as dry as bone.

From the audience (and adjudicators' perspective) the ambience of the conference centre in Harrogate is fantastic, as you can hear every single note, all the details, all the slips - everything.   On the stage though it is a completely different kettle of fish, and a real 'white-knuckle ride' for players, and as many told 4BR, despite your mate being sat inches away from you, at times, it felt like you were the only player out there.

Without question the bands who were aware of what was to await them on stage did well, and those that didn't certainly know now.  Yes, it was a case of what sounds fantastic in the bandroom, and the pre-contest rehearsal, disappeared very quickly for a good number of bands, and with it sadly, their chances of being crowned 'National Champions'.

The top six were worthy of being there and only Drighlington and Phil Shaw can feel a touched aggrieved that they were not placed higher come results time.  The double act of Tony Swainson and Richard Evans had no splinters in their posteriors through sitting on any fence; they were more than comfortable that they had got the result right, and we have no arguments with a top three of Pemberton, Parc & Dare & Staines - all three in a class of there own, but after the letter 'P', 4BR had the 'a' of Parc & Dare, before the 'e' of Pemberton - we just thought the Welsh were going to be worthy champions.  That said, the difficulties of the piece would not do Pemberton any harm, because this piece was an indication of the sort of stuff that bands have to contend with in the Championship Section. 

A number of bands struggled with the opening salvo's, of two baritones and euphoniums being muted and basses having fun with the octave's to such an extent their challenge was over before it started; but winners Pemberton Old JJB Wigan and Mark Peacock, were a band had clearly worked hard on the opening bars.  The opening flowed, and this gave the band a real platform to work on.  A draw of ten suited them, and the music came alive very quickly, and detail was prominent, with plenty of fine playing from the principal cornet, euphonium and baritone to name just three.  Importantly, the band caught the character of what Rodney Newton had written, and it was one of the examples of the onion ring effect, the more they peeled off, the more they found in the score and it worked a treat. 

Mark Peacock described winning the contest as 'the highlight of his career' and the MD paid tribute afterwards not just too the soloists in the band, (the euph was our star of the day and can consider himself unlucky not too have taken the solo prize) but the amount of hard work that the band has put in as a whole.  The bands in the Championship Section at Blackpool next certainly should be watchful, because this is a band in determined mood, having taken the regional title in March and have the ability within their ranks, and at their rostrum to more than adequately survive and prosper..

Parc & Dare will have been kicking themselves on the journey back.  The opening wasn't as good as it could have been, and yes, they had a few intonation problems.  That aside though, the style, the superb use of dynamics, and that real feel of conviction allied to a  great sound from the band gave them the edge for us - but as we keep telling you, you'll never get rich off a 4BR prediction.

Ian McElligott was disappointed to say the least after Staines' performance off an early number three draw.  The opening didn't come off as it should, but for us, after that glitch, the faults were minimal.  The MD crafted a strong show with detail coming out of the band, which wasn't heard that often on the day.  Gavin Hall on solo cornet and Jon Storey (euphonium) had blinders, but the little glitches were crucial, and perhaps a better performance had been given before leaving for Harrogate - but this band's day will come soon as the quality is there.

Newtongrange, Hatfield and VBS Poynton, could have very easily have finished in any variable of the fourth, fifth and sixth that was decreed on them on the day. Newtongrange with the experienced campaigner, Dr Keith Wilkinson at the helm, certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons for us in the early third of the draw (apart from Staines, it was the only other strong contender at that stage).  It was a case of the opening was fine, but that sigh of relief after that was overcome meant they took their foot off the gas, and undid them a touch around letter 'B'.  The recovery though was excellent with good sounds, and good direction.  No-one got away unscathed and again the judges were really going into the score and picking off the levels of the onion skin - the difference at the end of the day between, second, third and fourth for sure.

Hatfield and the knowledgeable Graham O'Connor can be mightily proud of their efforts.  The Yorkshire outfit is a band that is building and their success as Regional winners in March demonstrated the talent within the band.  They could have easily finished higher than fifth, and can consider themselves a tad unfortunate to be the 'meat in a delicious sandwich' with Drighlington & Pemberton Old being as mouth-watering as the bread either side of them in the draw.

The opening was the Achilles heel so to speak, not quite getting going, but their effort was far from sunk with a good strong recovery and the MD bringing some real quality out from the players.  Without doubt, a name to look out for and who knows in 2005?

VBS Poynton and Alan Lawton really impressed us, and again, some slips, and what we said was a touch of 'muddy playing' in the lower end cost them dear for us.  What Poynton had by the bucket load though was excitement - at times edge of the seat stuff, and if it had been consistent throughout, then it certainly would have pushed Pemberton/Parc & Dare very close indeed.  Alan Lawton is another of the 'been there, done it, got the t-shirt brigade' and nothing was left to chance with plenty of detail in evidence, but the slips were costly this time, although we think they will return here again all the stronger.

Drighlington were unlucky not to be as high as fourth.  Phil Shaw is another MD with loads of experience and his band gave for us one of the most consistently solid performances right the way through.  Runners up to Hatfield at the area, they showed that they can cut it with the best, but it wasn't as smooth round the edges as what the judges wanted.

Away from the top eight, there were a lot of indifferent performances with some bands for us finishing much higher than they deserved, and sadly for the lower placed bands, it was just a piece that was too much to contend with.

Clacton's MD Melvin White used all his experience to pull a performance out of the bag that wasn't bad, but was never going to figure in the prizes.  The opening was ok, but it had a number of uncertain entries (back to the 'Am I the only player on the stage?' syndrome) as the acoustic certainly affected the band's performance.   But for the MD's know-how this could have been a lot worse, but they survived, probably relieved to have finished, and not too disappointed with a middle placing.

Bournemouth was a band that put a performance in for us that lacked sparkle and bite to really contend for the title.  In truth, bands that finished higher had more slips, but this needed to push on more than the band was able to accomplish.

To play last isn't always a bad thing, and the honour fell to Kirbymoorside, who for us would have been delighted in coming tenth.  The opening wasn't the best and it sounded like hard work and that the band were uncomfortable with the surroundings, with intonation really costing them (for us remember not the judges) but they did have some quality in the cornet/euphonium solo lines.

Newmilins, Barrow and Wrexham all had different challenges to face in their quest for honours, and all of them, struggled to put together solid performances that convinced.  Newmilns had the satisfaction of euphonium player, Alan Cameron, taking the soloist award, whilst Barrow took an age to settle, and Wrexham had the dreaded 'number one' slot to contend with.

Lanner, Riddings and Northfleet were three bands to suffer from being drawn in the early segment, and all found it tough going for varying reasons: Intonation, uncertain entries, tiredness and problems with the duets all cost them, but they should learn from the experience and be better for it.

Langley was a band whose minds were probably elsewhere.  This was the day that Steve Freckleton, the band's bass trombone and chairman should have been with them, but Steve's death after playing as a dep with another band at the Regionals was a shock to everyone.  Granted, it wasn't the best, a little untidy in parts, but it wasn't the worst either, and it is significant that prior to the results, every person rose as one to applaud Steve's wife, Jude, whom with donations from the world over presented an engraved baritone to Langley Band.  The contest that had gone before us was merely that, but everybody appreciated the significance of Langley's participation and through the donation, Steve's dedication, hard work and memory will live on.

For those of you who want reminding, we had a top six plus a dark horse as follows:

1) Newtongrange - finished fourth
2) Parc & Dare - finished second
3) Bournemouth Concert - ninth
4) Pemberton Old - winners
5) Drighlington - seventh
6) VBS Poynton - sixth
Dark-horse: Hatfield - fifth

Taking all things into account we didn't do too badly; six of the top seven names were there come results time - although not necessarily in the right order.
The day though belonged to Pemberton Old and Mark Peacock from Wigan, who will do battle in the Championship Section.  Rodney Newton's deserves acknowledgement once again for a fine composition, and so do Langley Band for competing on a day that was certainly emotional for them, and it certainly put the day (if not the whole weekend) into context.

Malcolm Wood


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