2007 Spring Festival - Senior Trophy retrospective


Ballet for Band certainly tested the contenders on the day, but it was Stocksbridge who finally emerged as victors and booked their place in the Senior Cup next year with Glossop Old, Bo'ness & Carriden and Bactiguard Wire Brass.

The Senior Trophy may be the youngest contest of the reconstituted Spring Festival here in Blackpool, but since its return in 2002 it has provided a wonderful opportunity for bands to set their sights on the British Open – which in theory is only three prize winning years away for bands who believe they have the drive and ambition as well as blessed with a little touch of contesting luck.

No band has yet to make it a hat trick of promotions from the lowest tier direct to Symphony Hall, but on the evidence of the weekend the qualifiers of Stocksbridge, Glossop Old, Bo'ness & Carriden and Bactiguard Wire Brass will fancy their chances of taking a step closer next year if they can repeat the form they showed here.

Stocksbridge has already tasted success in 2007 with their victory in the First Section contest at the Yorkshire Areas, and under the direction of Dave Nesbitt they impressed once again with a thoroughly convincing winning performance of the Joseph Horovitz ‘Ballet for Band' that certainly appealed to the two adjudicators Ian Brownbill and James Scott as well as many in the exotic surroundings of the Winter Garden's Spanish Hall.

On our way back towards Birmingham: Stocksbridge win the Senior Trophy
Picture: John Stirzaker

Both judges felt that the detailed and very precise approach of the Yorkshire band was just what they were looking for on a day when in their opinion far too many bands and conductors were unable to reconcile their competitive intentions to the style and musical character required of the lightly scored piece.  Speaking to 4BR Ian spoke of their disappointment at hearing so much poor playing: "We were rather surprised to hear so many bands and players unable to capture the style required, especially in regard to the dynamics. Some of the playing was poor today with a real lack of appreciation for dynamics and balance."

Ian, who it has to be kindly said, is no stranger to the odd fish and chip supper, also rather mischievously added: "Some of the performances today sounded as if they were written for a ballet with me in it!" It was a neat piece of self-deprecating wit that made a very accurate point, not lost on the audience at the announcement of the results.

4BR it must be said was a bit off the mark with our post contest predictions. Sometimes you seem to tie in with the thoughts and impressions of the men in the box and sometimes you don't. On this occasion the performances that appealed to Ian and James, didn't appeal to us, although when we managed to speak to the judges you instantly understood what they were looking for on the day. Both were in no doubt about what they wanted and theirs was the opinion and decision that counted. These are two excellent musicians who know the ropes top to bottom, so no complaints at all with the decision.

According to the judges the winners were a notable exception to what they had heard from many on the day and Ian emphasised that their approach of seeking the detail, style and character of the music (the clue really was in the title he said) was just plain good musical sense. "The winners followed the instructions on the score and played accordingly. It was an intelligently shaped performance that many others should have followed. We had no problem in picking it out as the winner."

The extended sections of delicate scoring in the test piece caused problems with balance and timbre for many bands, whilst the main lyrical central section with extended solo lines for flugel, soprano and cornet also highlighting the need for control and musical shape, especially at the low dynamic levels marked on the score. In addition the sly wit of some of the writing, most noticeably in the bass duet was missed too, with many bands insisting on an almost slapstick approach to the humorous cameo roles that appear as interjections throughout the work. 

Interestingly Stocksbridge MD Dave Nesbitt felt that the title was in many ways something of a red herring as it may have inadvertently conjured up certain ‘Sugar Plum Fairy' ballet imagery.

"The composer does say that it is left up to the imagination to what type of ballet he is portraying, but in my experience of over 200 pit orchestra performances over the years, not all ballet music can be so readily defined as being archetypical Tchaikovsky inspired. There are so many different types of ballet music that I felt it would be wrong just to interpret it in such a way. We tried to deliver just what was written on the score, although I did ask the band to keep a lid on the dynamics somewhat to bring out the subtle detail and the character of the music."

It was certainly an approach that appealed in the confines of the tent and after their relegation from the Senior Cup after failing to make it to the contest last year, Stocksbridge are heading back towards the British Open, where they last played in 1996. It was a performance full of precise ensemble work – as we said, perhaps the most technically secure of the day, clean and direct with no histrionics. We thought it just lacked a touch of humour and imagination, but we were way off the mark (we had them 7th). The judges had no problem in picking them out from the rest of the field though and that's all that counts.

Joining them there will be three bands who also delivered performances of merit that drew on the need for a refined approach to the dynamics in particular.

Glossop Old hasn't enjoyed the best of times here at Blackpool in recent years and since last appearing at the British Open in 2002 have suffered consecutive relegations to find themselves on the bottom rung of the Spring Festival. However, MD John Davies has been working hard to turn things around and there was real signs of encouraging form as they claimed second place with a performance that had plenty of quality and confidence about it from the opening fanfares through to the lyrical central section and rousing climax.

It was a quality performance and one that was direct and confident, shaped intelligently by the MD. We had them just out of the prizes in 8th, but the men in the box gave them a deserved 2nd place.

The early maker for the judges was set right at the start of the day with the Scottish challengers Bo'ness & Carriden conducted by Michael Marzella. They too have tasted difficult times here in the past and were relegated from the Senior Cup last year. However like Stocksbridge they showed that the standard between First Section and the Championship bands may not be as easily defined as many people may think as they delivered a bright and breezy account of musical imagination to secure a well deserved podium place and promotion back to the higher division.

It was a decent starter for us (we had them 10th at the end), bright and breezy with a real balletic sense to close, so we perhaps didn't give it enough credit for what it deserved. The bands solo cornet player Craig Robertson deservedly took the Best Instrumentalist award for his contribution to their prize winning performance.

The final qualification place was taken by the fast rising Bactiguard Wire Brass. 2007 has seen the band dip its toes into the contesting waters of the Championship Section for the first time after its quite remarkable rise up through the sections under the baton of Paul Andrews. After sizing up what was expected of them to succeed at this level at the Areas they produced a trademark account full of vibrant confidence off the late number 17 draw that found favour with many in the Spanish Hall. 

It was a quite a remarkable debut performance (we had them 5th) and bodes well for the future. It may have got a touch ‘Hollywood' as we said in places, but that was more to do with that surge of confidence that was certainly running through the veins as they rounded their performance off with a flourish. It fully deserved its top four place.

Behind these bands the difficulties highlighted by Ian and James became clear, although there were some notable performances that appealed to many (4BR especially!) throughout what was an enjoyable day.

The likes of Powerfuel Hatfield Colliery, United Norwest Co-op Milnrow and Parc & Dare all had their admirers after they produced performances that had much to admire, but perhaps just lacked for consistency in execution, whilst there was a fine return to the contest stage for Newtongrange who came a well deserved 8th just a few months after they were unable to compete at the Scottish Areas due to player shortages.

Hatfield delivered one of those performances that sticks in the mind – big, bold and commanding, but you did wonder whether the style was perhaps spot on (we had them 9th), whilst Parc & Dare could count themselves touch unlucky perhaps to just miss out on a top six place at least with a performance that was enhanced by some wonderful flugel horn playing in particular in the main central section (we had them 4th).  Milnrow caught our fancy with a very convincing performance, but perhaps the lack of consistency right to the very end cost them a few too many points as it went off the boil. Still, it was a good one that we had as high as 3rd – the judges had it 6th.

Thereafter the standard did fall away appreciably with a whole host of mid table bands either misjudging the approach required to make an impression in the box or suffering from ever increasing error counts. Two notable exceptions though were Marsden Riverhead Brewery who eventually came 14th with a confident if perhaps over emphasised account under MD Glyn Williams and Vernon Building Society Poynton under Alan Lawton who caught the ear of many with their musical approach that was unfortunately blighted by a few too many nasty individual errors.

Marsden for us delivered a performance full of zest, confidence and with a real ballet feel. It did have its clips and the central section contained some noticeable flugel phrasing, but it had quality from start to finish. 14th seemed harsh for us (we had them as winners), but given what we liked on the day, perhaps you could understand why it ended up as it did.

Vernon Building Society was the other performance that really struck a chord with us, but not in the box. We really enjoyed Alan Lawton's approach that was very, very musical, but the first third of the piece was a touch sloppy and that may have cost them dearly. It did.

The midfield finishers all had their moments but once more it was either a question of style or lack of consistency that cost them dear. United Co-op, Mossley, Blackburn & Darwen and Friary Guildford each had more plus points than minus ones but none really had enough about them to push higher than they eventually did, although the exception for us was Yorkshire Co-op Yorkshire Brass who we felt deserved a top three place after a performance that was really top notch for two thirds of the way but just fell away as they tried hard to push for the winning line. 11th place was hard luck.

Finally, the spectre of relegation made for a somewhat desperate fight in the lower reaches of the prize list. The bottom six placed bands of 15th placed Tavistock Chester le Street Riverside through to Longridge in 20th meant that they all fell through the trap door buoyed only with the hope that the organisers may give them an invite back to the contest next year.

For Stocksbridge and the other qualifiers though the British Open may now in theory be just two years away, but to those who failed to make the grade here they now find themselves further away from Symphony Hall than ever before.  It is what makes this contest such a fascinating spectacle to enjoy.

John James


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