2007 All England Masters International - Postcard from Cambridge


Cambridge offers something different for the brass band fraternity, even if we have to put up with the two wheel menaces on their bikes.

Cambridge offers a very different type of welcome to the brass band fraternity who descend on one of Britain's great spiritual homes of education and knowledge every year.

It has produced 80 Nobel prize winners, 50 Olympic Champions, 21 English cricket captains and 14 Prime Ministers, and now it can add three All England Masters International Champions too. It is a place that rewards excellence and Fodens Richardson were certainly that on the weekend.

You are my sunshine: Not in Cambridge on the weekend it wasn't, even though the banner in the hall suggested otherwise.

Cambridge though can be a deceptive place to visit - especially in the rain. Amid all the dreamy spires and impressive college buildings there are chip shops and kebab outlets, Starbucks and drab main street shops by the bucket load. Walk around the corner of the Corn Exchange and you may as well be in any city centre in the UK – it even has the ubiquitous JJB Sports shop and nail manicuring counters. The restaurants are good although the 4BR Editor was sick as a dog after the traditional 4BR Friday night sit down this year – crab cakes and avocado don't mix with his constitution!
Top man: Mark Wilkinson receives the Robert Howard Memorial Trophy as principal cornet of the winning band.

What is unique however is the havoc that flipping cyclists cause wherever they go here. In London they complain about 4x4's being the bane of urban life – here it is a sub species of two wheeled terrorists racing around with little or no road sense on vehicles that cause mayhem and injury to anyone who hasn't been blessed by being born with eyes in the backs, sides and fronts of their heads.

No pavement or pedestrian crossing, thoroughfare or prescribed bicycle lane is safe from them. They park them wherever they please, blocking pavements for people with small children, elderly pedestrians and wheelchair users. They ride on pavements, fail to signal at crossings and then to top it off, shout abuse or look down at you with snooty disdain as if you have caused them terminal offence by suggesting politely that they try to observe the usual rules of traffic management. Stick someone on a bike with a whicker basket on the front and they make 4x4 drivers look like saints. They are a complete and utter pain in the backside and even the cover of the contest programme has the damn things on it.

Thankfully there weren't many of them around on the Sunday at the Corn Exchange itself, although they were replaced by a couple of the hall's employees who must have been looking to win the ‘jobsworth' of the month award. How one woman could cause so much hassle to so many people trying to just get into the foyer of the hall was a miracle of bureaucratic lunacy.  She could have stopped the invading Mongol hordes – unless they had the correct ticket of course.

Perhaps she was the reason why at times you could play spot the audience in the hall. Even though it was pouring down outside it seemed that either nobody wanted to hear the first half dozen bands or that the Cerebus inspired doorkeeper had decided not to let anyone at all pass through her domain.

Spot the crowd: Not many in the hall as we get started

For at least eight bands in the day the audience numbered less than 150 – a worrying figure for the organisers who have enjoyed fairly full houses and healthy ticket sales here in the past.  Time for someone to tackle the dogs of war at the doors or review the ticket prices even?

It was even more worrying given that the organisers had made a brave and rather inspired choice with the selection of the set work, ‘In Memoriam RK' by Elgar Howarth. This fantastic piece of music provided wonderful listening to those who made it into the hall, although out of 19 bands only perhaps a third of them really got close to producing performances of insight and musical lyricism. 

It was also a pity that neither Rudolf Kempe or Elgar Howarth were on hand either to listen to the 19 performances too – although being dead for 31 years and being housebound due to a chronic bad back were pretty decent excuses.  Still they did miss a treat or two with a number of performances.

The conductors of course found the piece an exceptionally difficult challenge, whilst percussionists (or in many cases just the one) had less to do than in the middle movement of ‘A Downland Suite'.  That however didn't stop one or two lunatic timpanists from trying to break the skins by impersonating a Roman drummer on a slave ship. Poor old Charlton Heston would have been deafened by some efforts whilst the look on Ray Payne's face (he as usual did a great job in providing the equipment) at some of the theatrical efforts told more than a thousand words. "All they have do use is their wrists' he remarked caustically after one particularly gruesome effort.  

Where are the pedals for this thing? Fountain City's timpanist finds it all a bit of a problem

Still, the contest provided real highlights from some cornet players in particular with the lost art of lyrical elegance revived by the playing of the likes of Kirsty Abbotts, David Smith and Mark Wilkinson. It was a tuba player though that took the 4BR award with Les Neish the pick on the day when the standard of bass playing was exceptionally high – especially from the Europeans and Americans.

Waiting in the shadows: PolySteel's percussionist waits to come out of the wings

They of course are making the Masters a truly international event and this year it was a delight to listen to Fountain City under the elegant direction of Jospeh Parisi who impressed many with their broad warm sounds – both before and after they took to the stage - the before because they took the opportunity to have an extended warm up back stage! It worked though as they delivered a very creditable account of themselves to gain a well deserved top 10 place.

Really enjoying this: Soli's cornet player seems to be thinking of something else entirely...

With the contest itself over around 4.30pm there was the chance for the audience (who by now had swelled a bit in numbers to be fair) to enjoy what the judges had to say – although for the umpteenth time they were treated like lepers with no effort made by the organisers to get one of the three very experienced and respected gentlemen to say a thing – or conversely, an explanation given by the organisers to why they were not asked to! 

The hiatus before the announcement of the results became an embarrassment that not even the fragrant Miss Pinnock could overcome, whilst the spirited effort of the Northern Trombone Choir led by Brett Baker wasn't much better either.  Less said about their interpretation of the theme music from ‘The Simpsons' the better on this occasion. Nice idea though.

Trombones to the fore - or 17 as the case maybe: Brett Baker leads the pre results entertainment

The Gala Concert was very good with excellent contributions from both bands and the superb soloist Rex Richardson on trumpet whilst as always with the Masters the organisation was slick and professional and ran like clockwork.

There is so much to admire about this contest now that it has moved in a new direction that it is worrying to see less people making the effort to come and actually listen to the bands. It can't surely have been the music, for that was received with true appreciation by both performers and listeners alike, whilst the prize money is excellent, the organisation top notch and the even the hall was comfortable to play in this year because the rain meant that the atmosphere on stage didn't resemble a Swedish sauna. 

Perhaps we are suffering from contest fatigue (this was just a week after the Spring Festival weekend) or perhaps the organisers could try and attract back the really big UK names like Grimethorpe, Cory or YBS – or what about Stavanger or Eikanger?  The jury is out on that one given the size of crowds even with these bands attract at contests elsewhere.

The Masters continues though to be well worth coming too – especially if the music played is as good as this year in year out. As long as the organisers can do something about those maniac cyclists then the future for Cambridge looks bright indeed.

Iwan Fox. 


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