2007 European Brass Band Championships - 4th European Soloist Competition retrospective


64 of the best young soloists from all over Europe had headed for Birmingham but only three were left to take the stage at the Sir Adrian Boult Hall on the Thursday night.

The bumper entry of 60 or so competitors for the 4th European Soloists' Competition had been competing since Monday, with the assistance of hard-working accompanists Joane Sealey and Ben Kennedy.  Meanwhile, the Staffordshire Band had been preparing the accompaniments for each of the twelve possible pieces required for the final, one for each instrument involved. 

Prize giving
The winning moment: Ling Chin-Cheng collects the cheque and the plaudits

In the event, it was a euphonium player, a marimba player and a trombonist who successfully negotiated the semi-final stage, and rehearsed their set works with the band prior to the evening concert, which took place in the attractive Adrian Boult Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire.

Once the audience had taken their seats in the auditorium, the banked seating offering everyone a clear view of the proceedings, the Staffordshire Band, under their conductor Michael Fowles, opened the concert with Paul Lovatt-Cooper's "Where Eagles Sing".  This number, which has proved such an instant success with both bands and audiences, was presented with a full, balanced sound, the brightness of the cornets contrasting with the mellower sounds of the middle of the band, with good support from the percussion section.

Staffordshire Band
Best of British: Michael Fowles and the Staffordshire Band help things run smoothly

With no more ado Frank Renton, marshalling proceedings with his usual mix of humour and authority, introduced the first of the three soloists.  Steven Walsh (England), Principal Euphonium with the Fairey Band, stepped forward to play the set piece, Kenneth Downie's "Concerto for Euphonium", written for Robert Childs.  The solo line covers a considerable range within the first few bars, and Steven maintained a clear tone throughout, sustaining the slower passages so that the music flowed seamlessly.  There were some knowing glances amongst the audience at the multiphonics in the cadenza. 

Steven Walsh
Walsh takes the applause: Steven Walsh relaxes after a fine performance to come runner up

The band accompaniment was generally first class, although things went a little astray in the slow movement where the glockenspiel, placed on the riser a little behind the band, was somewhat out of sync with the soloist.  There was a confident start to the third movement, where the soloist is set against the timpani, and the solos in the accompaniment were handled well, particularly that on trombone.  Steven seemed most comfortable in the upper part of the register, and the solo ended with a resounding top "F", drawing well-deserved applause.

Second to play was Lin Chin-Cheng, a marimba player originating from Taiwan, but currently studying at the Antwerp Conservatoire in Belgium.  His set work was the "Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra" by the Brazilian composer Ney Rosauro, the band accompaniment of which had been specially arranged for the occasion.  He commanded the stage right from the start, wearing a distinctive sash and wielding his four sticks with confidence and aplomb.  From the opening ostinato figures the solo part was constantly on the move, elaborating phrases in the accompaniment and exchanging snippets with other instruments. 

Lin Chin-Cheng
Impressive handling: The winner opts for a four way pattern

Most impressive to many was his handling of cross rhythms, with triplets in one hand set against twos or fours in the other.  The second movement opened very atmospherically, setting the soloist against chords from the band and octave figures on cornet.  An unaccompanied section led to other instruments joining the soloist, euphonium followed by flugel.  The darker hues continued, with octave triplets set against a tremolo in the left hand, and the melody line was neatly picked out amid a busy running passage.  The third movement opened with a unison passage in octaves with the band, leading to some very intricate figures, also in octaves, and then to a vigorous fugato section. 

Throughout Lin Chin-Cheng demonstrated masterful control, especially through the syncopated sections and the unaccompanied cadenza.  From the reaction of the audience at the end of his performance it was clear that it would take something special to prevent him capturing first place.

The third soloist, Steffen Maersk, is currently solo euphonium with Denmark's Concord Brass Band, but was competing on trombone, the set work being the Rimsky-Korsakov "Concerto for Trombone and Band" arranged for brass band by Gordon Langford.  Despite having impressed the band by his playing in rehearsal, it was not to be his night, as he appeared somewhat lacking in confidence and a little tentative. 

Steffen Maersk
Third place for trombonist Steffan Maersk

Despite crisp articulation in the opening bars, he failed to make the piece his own, and even the middle movement, with its smooth tone and flowing phrases, was marred by moments of insecurity.  The finale started well and the cadenza was effective, but he never appeared really comfortable, and it was clear that he was disappointed with his performance.  Perhaps the choice of work also played a part, with it not being as much of a showcase as those selected for the other instruments, thus calling for something special to make an impression.

After a short interval, the Staffordshire Band presented a few items, commencing with Peter Graham's "Prelude on Tallis".  This came across well, although the initial canon between flugel and horn was a little on the quiet side.  They followed this with two items arranged by Wesley Kendrick, the band's Composer in Residence:  "El Relicario" is a Paso Doble by the Spanish composer Jose Padilla Sanchez, unusual in being in 3/4 rather than the standard 2/4 metre.  The arrangement was most effective, capturing the Spanish feel, with liberal use of castanets and tambourine. 

There was also a nicely restrained euphonium melody, and the band certainly conveyed their enjoyment to the audience.  Wes Kendrick's second contribution was an arrangement of the hymn tune "Crimond", opening with just a quartet of players, then expanding gradually, with an effective verse with the melody on unison trombones.  The final stanza for the full band grew to a powerful but controlled climax before dying away at the close.

The 3 finalists
The final line up to accept their awards

They closed their set with Frank Bernaerts' setting of Zimmer's music to the film "Gladiator".  With an opening theme that somehow felt as if it belonged in a Western rather than a Roman epic, and sections sounding as if they had been lifted directly from Sousa's "The Chariot Race" it seemed a bit of an anticlimax for such an occasion, despite the best efforts of the band, who produced some well sustained playing, particularly from soprano and bass trombone.

The presentation of the awards was carried out quite smoothly and efficiently, the band providing brief interludes in the form of the theme from Beethoven's "Choral Symphony" and Charpentier's "Te Deum".  In addition to the places decided by the adjudicators, James Gourlay, Thomas Doss and Tom Brevik, the Staffordshire Band had also voted Lin Chin-Cheng as the winner of the separate performance award. 

Once the prizes had been dispensed, the band, which had supported the soloists very well throughout the evening, closed proceedings with a slick rendition of "Belford's Carnival March", as the thoughts of those present turned to the challenges of the main contests of the weekend.

Peter Bale


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