2007 Spring Festival - Grand Shield retrospective


Mixed emotions were on display at the Grand Shield with the elation of PolySteel and Sellers mixed with the disappointment of Leyland and the rest of a high class field....

Strength and Shield: PolySteel take the famous Grand Shield back home with them to Gloucester
Picture: John Stirzaker

It's turning out to be quite a year for the PolySteel Band and their conductor, Philip Harper.  Having finished fourth at Butlins in January, they've now completed a hat-trick of wins courtesy of Yeovil, the Regionals at Torquay and now the Grand Shield. If this form continues then more prize money and silverware will surely come their way at the Masters, English Nationals, Open, Nationals. What a year that would be?

Over the past couple of years, PolySteel have regularly featured in the top six here; last year was sixth place off the number one draw whilst 2005 saw them finish third.  They have been so close but yet so far so they wouldn't have taken anything for granted before the announcement of the results - it could so easily have been more of the same heartbreak

PolySteel, Sellers International and Leyland could have finished in any order and whichever two had been selected to go through to the British Open it wouldn't have given many people in the Opera House much cause for complaint.  They were the three class bands on the day for just about everyone who heard the contest unfold - especially the two experienced men in the box.

For us though it wasn't a classic case of the clear winner - more nip and tuck at the top with a couple of bands cursing their luck.  In addition to PolySteel, Sellers and Leyland, our hunch was that BTM from an early draw would have a serious say on the day and give judges Alan Morrison and Frank Renton something to think about – but as we always say, 4BR is only an opinion, whilst the judges have the final say.

In the end though it was the top three of PolySteel, Sellers and Leyland that stood out for the judges and Alan Morrison reinforced this point when speaking with 4BR afterwards. "Two or three bands really got to grips with the detail, style and character of the piece and managed to portray the different colours and moods required. It's a very difficult work, very detailed with directions and instructions on just about every note, and we felt that the top three bands really did manage to do this and as a result produced excellent performances." 

Alan explained however that a number of bands didn't get to grips with the piece and failed to deliver those essential mood changes – from wit and humour to pathos and despair, whilst they also felt that many bands ignored some of the basic criteria of good brass band playing too – most notably tuning, balance and ensemble issues. The standard drop away noticeably at times, not surprising since the piece was used at the Open just two years ago when the cream of the world best bands found it a difficult ask. 

The overall standard therefore wasn't that great on the day.  Getting into the British Open from the Grand Shield is rather like out getting out of England's football Championship into the Premiership -  the glory is one thing, but the bar at which the standard of expectation is set is so much higher so that the bands get a taster of what will be expected of them later in the year if they do get through. 

Too many bands on the day struggled to cope with the overall demands of the piece, in a technical and stylistic way and it showed with some very mundane interpretations in a contest that went on for a very long seven and a half hours.

It was relatively late in the day when PolySteel took to the stage but the contest was still very much up for grabs.  Their performance was solid, musical and reeked of intense rehearsal leaving no stone unturned.  Philip Harper pulled all the stops out with a delightful Allegretto section, some excellent playing in the Adagio movement and a fine close to the end where some of the detail from the back row cornets was prominent (to us anyway) for the first time. 

Celebration time: Guess who won?
Picture: John Stirzaker

BTM, Sellers and Leyland had all played at this point and it was a case of ‘will it sneak in to the top two or won't it?' The answer came a few hours later, much to their obvious delight and there is now a sense that the years of inconsistency and rather misplaced optimism are behind them. They have been a brilliant band on the entertainment contest stage, and now they are showing that they are equally as good on the set test stage too. It's going to be interesting to see how they perform at Cambridge this weekend, but on this form they will surely be up and around the prizes once more. PolySteel are a real force to be reckoned with now.

Sellers International was one of three bands at the contest that performed the piece at the British Open in 2005.  Whilst they've had a fair number of personnel changes since then, it wasn't un-chartered territory for MD Phillip McCann and some of his players.  Having been relegated at Birmingham last September they bounced back here with a secure interpretation that benefited from the MD's meticulous approach and some excellent solo and ensemble work around the stand.

We're back: Sellers celebrate being back at the British Open
Picture: John Stirzaker

As with PolySteel, it was quality stuff, well rehearsed, so much energy and contrast, very up-tempo. Stephanie Barrett in her contest debut with the band was a real diamond with fantastic technique that earned her an appreciate kiss from the MD at the close, whilst Leah Williams was in cracking form on horn and so too Mark Bousie on euphonium.  The pure musicality of his playing throughout, but particularly the cadenza within the Adagio enhanced Sellers' performance. 

BousieMark's overall contribution gave him the best instrumentalist award on a day that was personally made even sweeter by the news that the band had qualified and the icing on the cake for the Manchester City fan – Manchester United losing in the FA Cup final.

You have to have sympathy for Leyland.  Twelve months ago they came fourth a couple of weeks after they'd played at the Europeans.  Third place this time will be galling for them.  It was a classy show that had Russell Gray's musical imprint stamped all over it. Some of the playing around the stand was amongst the finest of the day although at its conclusion you did wonder whether the band could just have left the door ajar for another band to sneak in.  Unfortunately for them, that was the case, although our hunch was they'd just done enough to gain a return back to Symphony Hall – not this time though by just the narrowest of margins.

Tongwynlais Temperance will have been delighted with fourth place from a show that had many fine moments but perhaps was a touch too bold and overdone at times.  Gareth Pritchard drew everything from the band and the soloists showed subtle touches around the stand together with compact ensemble work which gave the music time and space and paid dividends on the day. This was the type of form they showed at Skegness and as such underlined that they are a band with a great amount of potential that is now being realised.

Fifth place for Virtuosi GUS was a surprise for many as it was a performance that just didn't hit its straps.  The opening and closing sections were steady and whilst some of the solo playing was excellent (Rebecca Crawshaw on soprano and Chris Jeans on trombone to name just two) the overall stylistic approach adopted by conductor Rob Wiffen was idiosyncratic at times with great use of rubato..

Jason Katsikaris is increasing his reputation as a fine MD who transmits so much energy to his troops during a performance.  BTM are certainly benefiting from having him in front of them and playing from the number six draw it was a performance that really appealed to many within the hall.  The tempo's were a touch quicker than some at times, but the detail throughout was prominent, the interpretation was very musical and they were worthy of a top six place and can consider themselves unlucky not to have finished higher.

Tredegar drew the late draw of seventeen and the set out with plenty of intent and promise. With some excellent dynamics that were never over-cooked and Allan Ramsay's insight into the piece it reaped rewards.  In our live comments we suggested they might just get into the top six but they'll have been delighted with seventh as it just sounded a touch scrappy in places. It wasn't a winning or top three-to-four show, but there was plenty of evidence to show they too are moving back towards the top once again. It rounded off a fine day for the Welsh bands, even though Burry Port finished outside the top ten.

David Maplestone and Staffordshire produced a fine interpretation that needed a touch more fire in its belly to make the necessary impact to really be in the mix.  The approach had a nice musical style to it with plenty of detail, but it was crying out for some dynamic contrast for us on the day. Meanwhile Mount Charles certainly benefited from Garry Cutt's interpretation that had quality playing, plenty of detail and dynamic contrast.  Unfortunately, there were individual blips that cost them a chance of a real challenge for promotion but at the conclusion of the results we had them in sixth place whilst the all important men in the box had them ninth. Their time will surely come here.

The final top ten place was taken by Yorkshire Imperial Urqhuart Travel who didn't really start off particularly well and took time to settle.  Thereafter the Allegretto was full of character and the Adagio was impressive but the close reflected the opening, it just wasn't quite on the money on the day. Ray Farr delivered a fine reading once more, but the execution was quite good enough on this occassion although it was a performance rich in promise for the future.

When the draw took place, BT and Pennine had a 50-50 chance of being drawn number one (they were the last two bands in the hat) and it was the Stockport based outfit drew the short straw.  To be fair though, Michael Fowles drew a very confident show out of BT that gave it everything, but they just seemed to run out of steam towards the end which was a real pity.

Melvin White's Redbridge showed plenty of promise that if it had been maintained would have perhaps finished further up the results table than its eventual twelfth place.  The MD brought the music out but their was errors and a touch of tiredness towards the end that impacted on their performance and no doubt the London & SC outfit will have been disappointed with their placing.

So too the Welsh outfit Burry Port who found it hard work on the evidence of their performance here.  Things took to long to settle and the interpretation seemed a touch bland and it lacked impact whilst tiredness was certainly evident within the final sections. 13th place was about bang on the money. Duncan Beckley and Newstead suffered much the same although as always where the MD is concerned, the approach and style was well thought out and it had some fine moments. It just didn't have the necessary impact especially against the quality of the top seven or eight bands and they were another band that strugged with stamina towards the end. 

Ian Porthouse and Pennine was the final band of the day and they'll have been wondering what happened to come fifteenth, as many people had them in and around the top six.  It was certainly a no nonsense approach and they really did go for the jugular with nice changes of pace and style in the Allegretto, but there were some liberties taken though in the solo lines which sounded a touch heavy at times. Perhaps more dynamic contrasts would have paid dividends, but it was a performance of confidence and vibrancy on a day when others lacked both virtues.

Trevor Jones' Sovereign Brass opted for a steady sometimes over cautious approach that didn't really come off on the day.  The Adagio and Allegretto sections showed the band at its best but the opening and closing sections just didn't come off. 

With Ransome withdrawing in advance of the contest, the relegation battle was a tough call on a number of bands who struggled somewhat with a very difficult set work.

Ashton and Philip Chalk started off with plenty of promise but they were unable to maintain it and sadly it fell away towards the end.   The opening sections were well executed with plenty of detail in evidence but parts of the final sections were a touch scrappy at times.  Having been in the Open for the past couple of years they are now faced with the Senior Cup. That may be a bit of a body-blow though for the Lancastrian outfit has enough about to make a quick return we are sure.

Meanwhile Richard Evans was his typical energetic self in front of Fishburn but unfortunately the band wasn't able to maintain the early pace that had been set.  That pace was bold and quick although the detail didn't always come through from a performance that although nicely shaped didn't quite come off. A touch harsh to come where it did perhaps, but it was up against a high class field of bands who didn't quite have the same high error count.

As for Alliance Brass it was very steady, cautious and under-done in parts.  There finest moments came latterly in the Allegretto and into the Adagio but it was as undercooked as a sushi ready meal in places with the percussion at times seemingly inhabiting a different time zone. No complaints we feel with the result on this occasion although it was nice to see them back in contest mode.

In the end more than two bands could have gone through to the British Open but the Grand Shield is undoubtedly one of the hardest contests to win and where the second placed band celebrates as much as the winner. It is also the contest where just missing out hurts the most and Leyland in particular will have felt this one like a smack in the belly from Mike Tyson with a horseshoe in his glove.

Congratulations though to PolySteel in particular who have now shown that they are a very high class band indeed. This could be a very successful year for them if they continue to play to this type of form.

Malcolm Wood


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