2007 Scottish Regional Championship - First Section retrospective


Newmilns set out their stall in the First Section in exciting fashion and were rewarded with a victory and a well deserved trip to Harrogate.

Eric Ball's 'Sinfonietta - The Wayfarer' was the work chosen for this year's First Section bands to tackle. The Wayfarer of the title is reputed to have been Ball himself, with the piece presenting a musical progression through significant events in his life story.

BallIt was written in 1976 towards the end of his composition career and used as the National Championships Finals test-piece of that year. Unlike many of Eric Ball's classic test-pieces for brass band 'The Wayfarer' has received little attention from bands in recent years and would have been new territory for the younger generation of players and conductors. We're pleased to report that the piece was well received by performers and audience alike and contributed greatly to Sunday morning's entertainment.

Quite what Eric Ball would have made of the performances and the eventual result we're not sure. He was known to be a deeply religious man with much of his musical output exploring the spiritual and emotional elements of the human condition.

To that end the winning performance from Newmilns and Galston would quite probably have received the great man's blessing. Last on of the ten bands, they produced an emotional roller-coaster of a performance which had the listeners on the edge of their seats from start to finish.

NewmilnsFollowing a secure opening the allegro section fairly rattled along with great energy and excitement. It was high-risk all the way and we sensed that it could run out of control and crash at any second - but it didn't. The Exile had a hugely emotive mood developed with exaggerated crescendo's and diminuendo's dominating the musical flow. The style was far from subtle but this was a band and MD totally committed to the music. The soprano cornet obligato summed it up perfectly - big, bold, brassy sounds delivered with total conviction. The band closed well and received the warmest ovation of the day.

We knew it couldn't fail to make an impression with the men in the box - Chris Warmold and Roger Webster - we just weren't entirely sure what kind. In the end they gave a huge thumbs up to what for us was a highlight of the entire weekend. Hearty congratulations to musical director Jim Smith and his charges for providing an absorbing and memorable performance.

Ayrshire neighbours Dunaskin Doon who delivered a fine performance from the dreaded no.1 draw will accompany Newmilns to the finals.  This was a highly accurate version of 'The Wayfarer' with conductor John Boax's tempo choices well thought out and a very low individual error count.

There was some scratchiness heard in the higher cornet lines and intonation was not always spot on in some of the louder ensemble play. Overall though this was an impressive opener that we thought wouldn't be far away when the prizes were handed out  - and so it proved.

TennantClackmannan District Brass with Ray Tennant in charge may feel that they had done enough to deserve a Harrogate berth. Without doubt there was lots to admire here. The band has a powerful sound and showed this to good effect throughout. We were highly impressed by much of the ensemble work - in particular the descending semi-quaver runs through the band in the ‘Adventure' which caused major problems in some perfomances but came through with complete clarity here.

Solo features were generally well handled but unfortunately the Soprano/Cornet feature in ‘Exile' did not go well on the day. ‘Homeward' was well controlled although it got a wee bit untidy around score mark 16. The band produced a strong finish to what was overall an impressive show.

4barsrest pre-contest favourites Bo'ness & Carriden and Michael Marzella will be mightily disappointed with their 4th place finish. For us, this was the class act of the contest. The basics of good band playing were all there - good tuning, balance, control, full use of the dynamic range and beautifully phrased solo features. What's more, all the soloists had a good day (with cornet player Craig Robertson winning the best instrumentalist prize) and the MD's interpretation was, we thought, on the mark. We're not sure why the judges didn't like it as much as we did - better luck next year.

In his summing up adjudicator Roger Webster remarked that some conductors had taken terrible liberties in their musical interpretations and sagely advised that in a contest situation it's normally best to stick to what's written in the score.

It's pretty likely that this tendency would have cost Lochgelly and Tony Swainson a few points, as they seemed particularly guilty of introducing sudden variations in tempo that weren't called for. A pity, because they put on a decent overall performance and could be pleased with their efforts.

It wasn't always technically secure or well balanced however and we felt that the ‘Exile' movement lacked dynamic contrast and a bit of old-fashioned emotion. In the end they just about deserved the 5th place awarded by the judges.

The feature most lacking in Arbroath Instrumental's performance was dynamic contrast. There was no obvious attempt to produce either quiet, controlled piano play or loud, powerful forte passages, which considerably lessened this 'Wayfarer's capacity for drama. To be fair there was some tidy play round the stand at times and Michael Robertson's tempo choices were eminently sensible. Overall though we would have liked to hear far more contrast throughout.

Bathgate under Paul Drury started their ‘Adventure' pretty well but intonation problems surfaced fairly early in the gaiemente and were to blight their performance throughout. The more subdued sections of the ‘Exile' were played too loudly and quality fell away towards the close. The cornet section tired noticeably in the ‘Homeward journey' with balance and intonation suffering. After a promising start this show struggled to last the distance.

It didn't really happen for Barrhead Burgh and Chris Bradley on the day. After a somewhat sedate opening the allegro section consisted of a hotch-potch of the good and the not so good. This sums up the entire performance that had some moments of quality but far too many uncertain individual entries for it to be in with a shout. The quasi scherzo cornet feature (15) was a real mess and the band suffered from a lack of stamina towards the close.

Johnstone Silver and their MD Charles Keenan may consider themselves a bit harshly treated by the judges. We thought they put up a pretty decent show and made a genuine attempt to play what was written. It did lack clarity at times and the overall ensemble did not always hold tightly together. We did though hear some real dynamic contrast and the band maintained a good quality of sound thoughout. Although not perhaps a prize-winning effort we thought this deserved to be a bit further up the pack.

Finally Dundee's City of Discovery and Bruce Fraser would have hoped that home territory might bring some luck but not a bit of it. They delivered an uneven performance, good in patches but too often lacking clarity, detail and accuracy. The band was much more at ease in the louder passages and at times produced a rather impressive sound. This though was undermined by an inability to sustain the same level of quality into the more exposed sections of the piece. The performance also suffered from poor intonation at times.

No worries then for the two bands that got through on the day – although it was nice to see that the judges had chosen two differing interpretations – the overall technical standard in both was very good and so it was a question of which really appealed most in the box. Overall though a pretty good contest and one that shows that Scotland will send to quality bands to Harorgate both confident of doing well.

David Crookston


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