West Midlands BBA Contest - Retrospective


Chris Thomas was at the Royal Spa Centre a couple of weekends ago to listen to the bands compete in an enoyable West Midlands battle.

Just one week after the snow had descended on Wigston for the Leicestershire Brass Band Association Open contest, the midland contesting road show moved thirty miles or so down the road to Royal Leamington Spa where fortunately the weather was a good deal kinder to the bands involved. 

The Royal Spa Centre has been the venue for the annual West Midlands Association contest for many a year now and like Leicester, the contest is run on an open own choice format, a formula that certainly appears to retain its popularity with the competing bands.

With only a week historically separating the two contests it has frequently been the case that numerous bands competing the previous week in Leicester have travelled to Leamington to ply their trade in an attempt to capture the local double, the culmination of an extremely busy period for the bands brave enough to take on the challenge. This year was no exception with all of the sections featuring at least one band that had been seen action in Leicester the previous weekend.

With an entry of thirty bands across four sections (there was no Open or Championship Section in Leamington) Philip Harper presided over the Fourth and Second sections whilst David Horsfield, refreshed no doubt from his journey to Leicester the previous weekend, was the man in the box for the Third and First Sections.

Fourth Section 

Six bands battled it out for honours in the fourth section, notably including Cubbington Silver and Amington, the two bands that had represented the Midlands in Harrogate a few weeks before. Taking to the stage bright and early at 9.30 (well, early anyway!) and following a number one pre-draw was Bletchington Silver and Nigel Hall. 

Their performance of Darrol Barry’s 'Pennine Moors' set a good marker and although nerves took a slight hold in the slow third movement, the band found some real spirit in the quicker music and clearly enjoyed Barry’s typically attractive score. The result of third place was a well deserved outcome.

Two bands chose to play Gilbert Vinter’s 'Vizcaya', a choice that as Philip Harper pointed out at the close of proceedings calls for confident soloists around the stands. 

Wantage Silver “B”, playing from number two, earned fourth place for their performance which was marked by a young star in the making, the band’s youthful principal cornet player who demonstrated a lovely rich tone and almost faultless delivery to deservedly carry off the solo prize of the Len Pepper Memorial Shield. 

The other band to choose 'Vizcaya', Rushden Town, had gained ninth place in Leicester the week before but at Leamington the band would have been disappointed with their sixth place. There were passages of some style but odd accidents and rhythmic inaccuracies were to go against them in Philip Harper’s points tally.

The West Midlands Association rules allow for unregistered bands to compete in the Fourth Section and it was a particular pleasure to hear Mike Amplett and Knighton Silver Band play Vaughan Williams’ 'English Folk Song Suite', Knighton being the only unregistered band to enter on the day. In a creditable performance let down only by occasional tuning issues (excusable in the exposed central movement) the band could take much heart from its fifth placing. 

And so it fell to Cubbington Silver and Amington to battle it out for the first prize. 

In a “re-match” of the Harrogate final (Amington emerged the victor of that particular battle with an excellent second place) there was a little added spice in that both bands chose to stick with the finals test piece, the fine 'Roman Tryptych' by Leigh Baker. On sheer excitement and adrenalin it was Cubbington that could have emerged the victor, but with the excitement came a few tuning problems as the dynamics rose. Consequently it was the control and sense of space in the music created by Amington and Wes Kendrick that was to win the day in another fine result for the Tamworth based band.

Third Section

With eight bands competing in the third section a keen contest was in prospect. 

Dronfield and Matlock, playing Peter Graham’s 'Dimensions' and Victor Ewald’s 'Symphony for Brass' respectively, didn’t find the going easy although Dronfield’s principal cornet player offered individual playing of quality. Matlock’s choice of the unflashy Ewald might not have helped their case although in a performance that did have its moments of quality the band might have felt a little disappointed with their seventh place. We had them fifth.                                       

In sixth place, University of Warwick and Simon Hogg chose to play Stephen Bulla’s 'Chorale and Toccata'. It was good to hear a Bulla piece, not to often aired even in own choice contests and there was a good deal to admire in a performance that showed considerable confidence. Some harsh sounds in the louder music however are likely to have cost points with David Horsfield.

Arrow Valley Brass under David Stanley gave Kenneth Downie’s 'St. Austell Suite' an enjoyable reading although nerves took their toll in the second movement and a few too many clips just spoilt the flow in the outer movements resulting in a fifth placing. 

Playing from an early number two draw City of Birmingham gave a very solid performance of Edward Gregson’s 'Essay' that was marked by a strong band sound and confidence around the stands. We had them second although it was occasional strained tuning in the louder passages that is likely to have resulted in David Horsfield marking the band down to fourth.

Echoes of the area championships were the order of the day for Avonbank (Evesham) Brass as they chose to play Darrol Barry’s 'Prelude and Jubilate', a work that had proved to be a considerable challenge for the bands involved earlier in the year.

As had been the case for many bands at the area championships, the exposed opening also exposed a few nerves for Avonbank although once through those early bars the playing really did gather in confidence and a spirited Jubilate helped the band on to third place.

Taking to the stage last, Leicestershire Co-op were one of the bands who had competed in Leicester, gaining fifth place in the third section and fourth in the second; a busy two weekends for the band indeed. Graham Jacklin directed a performance marked by well graded dynamics that capped the band’s busy fortnight with a deserved runner up spot.

Of the winner though there was no doubt with Rushden Windmill’s cracking performance of Goff Richards 'The Aeronauts' enduring from the number one spot to win the day in some style. From the opening bar it was clear that Rushden were a band on form with John Fletcher and his players delivering a reading that was exceptionally well shaped, never overblown and musically aware.  

Having previously won at Leicester by two points the victory capped off a cracking two weeks for the Northamptonshire band.

Second Section

With the sad withdrawal of Bilton Silver due to bereavement in the band, the second section saw seven bands in competition with Carlton out to join Rushden Windmill in capturing the Leicester/Leamington “double”.

Having a creditable third place under their belt at Leicester, Nigel Howard and Daventry Brass will have been disappointed with seventh place at Leamington after a controlled reading of Philip Sparke’s 'Tryptych'. Ultimately it was tuning and just a few too many shaky entries that kept the Leamington points tally down. 

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gave a solid performance of the Leighton Lucas 'Symphonic Suite' that was possibly a little too muscular for Philip Harper. It was a sterling effort by the players although perhaps lacking a little refinement, light and shade, the result being sixth place.

In fifth place Jayne Murrill and her East London Brass chose Philip Sparke’s 'Celtic Suite', the outer two movements showing plenty of spirit. It was the exposed central movement that showed the cracks though as nerves kicked in and interrupted the flow of the music. Oddfellows Brass were worthy recipients of fourth place with a thoughtfully shaped reading of Ray Steadman Allen’s 'Chorale' that demonstrated some neat ensemble and was a little unlucky not to squeeze into the prizes.

For Carlton the double was to prove just beyond reach as Walter Ritchie and the band once again tackled Gregson’s 'The Plantagenets'. There was much to admire with some excellent individual contributions, notably from the band’s soprano player who had carried off the award for the best instrumentalist at Leicester. In the final analysis it was a few too many clips and shaky entries that were to result in third place although we had them as runners up.

For our money though the unluckiest band of the day was Phoenix West Midlands, dynamically directed by David Maplestone in Denis Wright’s 'Tam O’Shanter’s Ride'. 

This was a classy, stylish performance that brought out both the humour in the music and at times the subtlety of Wright’s scoring. The band injected real character into the music which was clearly appreciated by the adjudicator in placing the band three points ahead of Carlton although Phoenix ultimately had to settle for the runner up prize.

In the wake of Rushden Windmill winning the Third Section from the number one draw, it was The Egham Band that was to endure from number one to take full second section honours with 'The Plantagenets'. 

Gareth Jones and the band gave a performance that showed some passages of real quality, albeit possibly not the most consistent in delivery of the day. Victory crowns an excellent year for Egham after securing area triumph (again with Philip Harper in the box) in Stevenage earlier in the year.

First Section

The First Section saw a strong entry of eight bands with David Horsfield relieving Philip Harper in the box. 

After a long wait Bedford Town was the last band of the day to take the stage with Philip Sparke’s 'Tallis Variations' proving to be a tough task for the band and resulting in eighth place. In Kenneth Downie’s 'Music for the Common Man', St. Albans City chose a piece that is not always easy to pull off and whilst the band made a good attempt to capture the musicality of the slower passages it was a performance that struggled to get going. We had the band down as sixth although David Horsfield settled on seventh.

Under the direction of Kevin Steward and fresh from his last minute exploits with Desford at Brass in Concert, Wigston was another band that found the going on the day difficult in Philip Sparke’s 'Endeavour'. Notes failed to speak in the quiet, muted opening and there was often a lack of rhythmic clarity in the faster music. The players did gather a little confidence as the piece progressed but by then it was too late to turn things round. 

With 'The Plantagenets' being the most played piece of the day with three performances, Brackley and District tackled Gregson’s 'Connotations' and once again fell prone to a degree of inconsistency in the form of tuning issues and clipped entries which held the position of the band to fifth. We had them sixth. 

Matthews Norfolk Brass and David Stowell was the only first section band to play 'The Plantagenets' and although the sound was sometimes a little forced in the louder passages, the band got inside the character of the music well, progressing to a strong conclusion and earning fourth place just outside the prizes.

The top three bands though were well ahead of the field with Steve Tubb and Chalford gaining 185 points for a well deserved third place. Their performance of James Curnow’s 'Sinfonietta' had energy from the start and although the central slow movement faltered slightly, there was a great deal to enjoy in the playing as whole. 

Having entered the First and Open Sections at Leicester, Enderby and Huw Thomas claimed the runner up spot at Leamington but could very easily have vied for top place. 

At Leicester the band’s performance of 'English Heritage' sounded tired in the wake of their First Section 'Year of the Dragon' but at Leamington there was a new vigour about the playing that despite a few blips here and there, did not detract from a spirited reading that both band and conductor must have felt confident about. As an added bonus the band’s principal cornet player took the instrumentalist award in the form of the Philip Cooper Memorial Trophy.

Victory though was to fall to Bedworth Brass, on the rebound from a slightly disappointing fourth at Leicester (we had them third) and once again launching into a weighty performance of James Curnow’s 'Trittico' that was both dynamically aware and carefully judged by Stephen Tighe and the band. 

Whilst not entirely free from the odd blemish there was much to admire from the band, with a sense of confidence about the playing that no doubt owed a good deal to a healthy number of experienced heads around the stands. The band should be on good form then when the Midlands Area Championship arrives in Bedworth for the first time in the New Year.

With the results coming at around 7.15 it was a long day indeed for the hard working officials of the West Midlands Committee but the culmination of a rewarding and entertaining day of contesting. Next year’s date has been set for the 23rd November and with an excellent contest venue in the shape of the Royal Spa Centre, it is to be hoped that the continued success of this event is guaranteed.

Christopher Thomas. 


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