2006 Welsh Regional Championships - First Section retrospective


12 years after they won the National First Section title, the Northop Band are back to try and win it again after taking the honours in a very good contest in Swansea.

The Northop Band has been through some rough times of late, but 12 years after it last won the National First Section title in 1994 they will return once more to Harrogate after securing a fine win a contest that although never rising above the ordinary in terms of quality still had enough about it to make it interesting for the listener and for Malcolm Brownbill in the box.

Happy or what! Northop celebrate their win

Malcolm gave a very accurate and perceptive analysis to the hall at the conclusion of the contest that suggested that although each of the eight bands brought something out of Goff Richard's test piece ‘Voyage of Discovery' only the top two really got near to it both in terms of overcoming the obvious technical hurdles placed in the score but also the sense of musicality it required for it to come to life.

"It is a very good contest piece," he said. "However, bands must try and do more than just play the notes. Musically they must try to do something with it, and not everyone did that today." 

"The beginning is of course very difficult," he added. "Some bands played safe, whilst the Andante needed to be artistic and more refined. The score has plenty of markings to give an indication to the MD of what approach is needed, but many didn't take the instructions at face value. Playing the notes is not enough." 

That was indeed a very accurate synopsis of what he had heard from the bands on the day. A day in which many struggled to give that little bit of ‘extra' that comes when the technical problems are mastered and the players feel comfortable to use expression to enhance their own, and their bands performances. Too many sounded mechanical and lifeless as MDs struggled to get their bands to master the basics of playing in time, in tune and together.

That certainly wasn't true of the winners. Northop delivered a very musical account under the baton of Thomas Wyss that made it a clear victor on the day. A lovely sense of style pervaded all that they did, and with players of the calibre of Geraint Jones on principal cornet able to lift even the smallest phrase away from the mundane, the performance always had a sense of poise and control.

Look what I've won! Thomas Wyss celebrates his wins

The MD gave his players the time to shine in the places that required a touch of class, whilst he kept a very tight rein on dynamics and tempi (especially with an almost metronomic accuracy to the opening bars) that showcased their technical abilities to the full.

The piece itself can sound a touch meandering at times as a lot of the thematic material is never fully explored, whilst there are a few too many ‘cheesy' moments in it (the ‘Dangermouse' entry of the troms after the initial semi quaver runs, and the Chinese take away bass duet for instance). However Malcolm was quite right in suggesting that it was also a fine test piece that makes life easy for an adjudicator in that it presents all the necessary judging requirements on a plate.

The soprano cornet players have a brown trouser moment as they opt for the top C (4 crackers, 3 near misses and 1 brilliant cheat in Wales this year), the horn has a rare chance to shine in their linking cadenza and each of the sections has something to contribute towards the performance of a whole.  There is a difference in stylistic approach required between many of the sections, whilst the ending in particular calls for a clear head on the MD and fresh lips on the players to make come off.

Northop had all these bases covered in fine style and although they did have one nasty moment when the euph came in too soon before the final cornet led Presto, it was a quality performance that always held the listeners (and crucially, the adjudicators) attention.  It came as little surprise that they were declared worthy winners on the day and they will head for Harrogate confident of doing very well. Tom Wyss meanwhile looked relaxed and impressive and is certainly enjoying himself after a bit of a sabbatical away from top line banding. In that time his golf handicap has been pared down even further, but his ability to bring out the most from a band he enjoys working with has grown. It was nice to see him back.

Joining Northop in Harrogate will be Penclawdd who set the early marker for the contest off the number 1 slot under Tony Small.

Thanks Mal! Penclawdd enjoy their second place with Mr Brownbill

Tony has worked miracles in this banding outpost over the years and he has once again produced a talented bunch of young players who compliment the older heads in the band to fine effect. He is also lucky to have some great stalwart players from the early years when the band were winning the Championship Section here as far back as 1986.

And it was one of those, soprano player Gurnos Rees who led the way for the band with an admirable display despite being confined to his sick bed for most of the week prior to the contest. The rest of the band seem to be inspired that he was battling through in the Penclawdd cause and so by the time they were halfway through the piece and the adrenalin had worn off they were playing at a level that put them very much in the hunt for a podium place.

It just got a bit scrappy and a little overblown towards the very end, but Malcolm was very impressed by it in the box and although placing them two points behind the eventual winners, also placed them two points ahead of the third placed Wrexham Brass.

Trying hard: Wrexham's top man just misses out on leading them to Harrogate again

We had these two bands the other way around on the day, as we enjoyed what Wayne Ruston tried to bring out of the score with his players. They had a fine start and a nice sense of style in the 9/8 lilting section, but perhaps it was just the little insecurities in some of the solo lines and an untidy start to the final movement after an errant cymbal entry that just disturbed the equilibrium enough to rob them of the chance of making it to the finals for the third successive year.

These three bands did stand out from the rest on the day due much to the fact that theirs were all fairly secure in the solo lines in particular.  

Markham and District who eventually came fourth may well look back and think that if only they could have eradicated about 50% of their errors they too may be booking accommodation in North Yorkshire this September.

This was perhaps the most musical performance of the contest, full of lovely little nuances and carefully shaped phrases by the MD Nigel Seaman, but the execution never lived up to the plan of action. Too many slips and errors killed their chances off and although on another day it may have caught the fancy of the man in the box, it wasn't to be and they ended up coming outside the podium places.

Pontardulais Town under the nattily attired Paul Jenkins (and a very natty and elegant MD he was too) were another band that just had too high an error count to really push themselves higher up the prize table than the eventual 5th place they came.

A poor start put them on the back foot, but it did recover with some lovely horn playing and some neat ensemble work in the final Presto section right through to the end. It was a performance that also took a few risks as well – notably the brilliance of the cornet player to come in on a top F above top C to help the soprano cornet player out on her part. It would have worked a treat, but for the sop player to hit the top C herself and then just fall off it, with the cornet player then being left all alone in splendid isolation! 

The one performance that we felt nearly had the makings of a top prize winner came from Thomas Coaches Mid Rhondda, directed by Alan Gibbs.

Perhaps in the end they tried too hard, and it was noticeable that the longer it went on the band lost their ability to control their dynamics and tone and it became rather hard and harsh. All the excellent work came in the first third of the piece with strong and confident playing at the opening leading into secure solo lines and a nice feel to the 9/8 section. The sop banged a corker in on the top C (but then unfortunately decided for the rest of the piece to try and blow the roof off), whilst the other main solo lines were of the same high quality.

From the trom trio to the end though they became over excited and it all petered out in a harsh and hard ending. A pity this as it promised such a great deal.

Rogerstone's performance on the other hand was a minor triumph for the MD Graham O'Connor in making a real performance of merit from the most limited of resources.

You knew things had to be re-jigged when a band takes to the stage with the horn section in the place where the cornets usually sit and with a baritone playing second trombone whilst sitting where the back row cornets usually plop their bums.

Graham obviously knew he had to camouflage and cover parts as best he could, and for the most part it worked wonderfully well, bringing out the obvious strengths in the most obvious of places (he cleverly made the most of accentuating the small differences in dynamics and tempo) and masking the most obvious of weaknesses (the trom trio and the lack of a complete perc section). That they gained 7th place should be seen as a real success, and if they can work on what Graham has brought here on the weekend they will improve in leaps and bounds.

The final band were Deiniolen who took to the stage in uniforms that seemed to be carbon copies of Black Dyke's and were greeted on stage with the same over the top applause the band from Queensbury sometimes get.

That is where the similarity ended unfortunately though as this was an error strewn performance that never quite captured the technical or musical elements of the test piece in a coherent fashion. The sop though was on cracking form as was the horn, but others simply didn't play to the same level (the perc in the bass duet nearly threw a real spanner in the works). By its end it was too messy and full of errors and although it received the type of whooping and hollering usually heard at a Texas spit roast it didn't impress Malcolm Brownbill in the box and he gave them 8th place.

Northop though will be delighted that after so many years in which they have struggled to maintain a presence here at Swansea their long term strategy of developing their own youngsters (they had half a dozen youth band players in their ranks on the contest stage) now seems to be paying dividends. They are a great bunch of people and after showing so much character in the hard years, they should deservedly enjoy the good ones which are now very much on the horizon.

Iwan Fox.


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