A large field of twenty bands took to the stage in the Main Concert Hall in Stevenage to tackle Frank Wright’s arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘English Folk Song Suite.’
An enjoyable morning and afternoon’s listening, there were performances of varying standards on show, but some in the upper echelons were very impressive and the region will be well represented in Cheltenham.
Adjudicator David Lancaster certainly made it clear in his pre-results speech what he had been looking for.
Dynamics were key, he told the large audience, as well as ensuring that the most important parts were heard throughout and were not obscured by accompaniment.
Soloists were also very important, with confidence the key, something that was noticeably lacking in a number of performances on the day.
Top five oustanding
David thought that the top four or five bands were outstanding, and in his opinion the winning band was head and shoulders above the rest.
However committed the bands may have been to gaining the best possible finishing position on the day, the choice of test piece must have made the task of competing even harder.
The programme itself states that the piece was written almost ninety years ago, in 1923, so surely there must have been hundreds of other, more imaginative, pieces that could have been chosen that would have provided a sterner musical test to the bands.
The comparative simplicity of the score meant that bands really had to do something special to stand out here, as there was often very little to choose between performances.
Moving to the bands, after around 6 hours of play it was Amersham that managed to finish top of the pile, after a performance that was characterised by consistently excellent sound and balance, with lovely shapes created by the MD and a wonderfully warm sounding euphonium soloist.
We thought that some other bands’ soloists were more confident and that the 3/4 section in movement two was taken at a very stately pace, but overall this was a solid performance that more than merited its eventual first prize.
Norfolk Wherry Brass was one of the bands that we would have had no complaints about had it taken first prize.
Drawn third, the band started with a confident opening and continued to give a performance that featured some great bass playing and tasteful soloists, with the shared cornet/flugel melody a particular highlight.
Some slight looseness between percussion and band and the odd instance of poor tuning may have counted against the band, but second place was more than justified and the band will, along with the other qualifiers, be an excellent representative for the region in Cheltenham.
We thought that Bletchington Silver was a touch fortunate the finish up in third place, due to a lack of real dynamic variance between the sections.
However, this negative aspect to the performance was easily outweighed by positives.
The band’s quiet playing was easily the best on the day and it had an excellent principal cornet player.
More commitment to dynamics will be needed to challenge in Cheltenham, but the band will have come away justifiably pleased with their performance and eventual result.
At the end of the day, 4BR thought that Simon Langton Brass might well have taken first prize in this section.
The band’s performance was easily one of the classiest on the day, with elegant direction from the MD and some lovely musical shapes, along with the best ending of the second movement by far with a lovely diminuendo to nothing.
Possibly more risks with dynamics could have been taken and there were a few nervous moments from soloists, but this was an incredibly well-directed and enjoyable show which was eventually rewarded with fourth place.
Grew in stature
Fifth place went to Bradwell Silver, whose performance grew in stature throughout.
A deliberate opening tempo did get slower in many places, but the brass playing was underpinned by a great percussion team and when the tempo did not slow a nice pulse was created by the MD.
Woodbridge Excelsior finished in sixth place, which we felt was a little generous.
The band’s performance had some nice moments from the basses (apart from one instance where a member of the section got out of sync with the rest by half a bar) but the main problem was the tempos being allowed to slow down constantly throughout the piece.
For us this resulted in a complete lack of drive which robbed a potentially good show. The adjudicator disagreed with us however and placed the band sixth, with which they will no doubt be happy with.
Seventh place was well deserved by Great Yarmouth Brass. We felt that it was generally not as polished as some other performances, but this band benefits from an excellent soprano player and the ability to produce a good sound even at the higher end of the dynamic scale.
A very deliberate ending rounded off a generally good show by the band that needed just that bit more drive to finish higher.
Another band we thought was a little hard done by was Chatteris Town.
The MD produced an enjoyable performance which was characterised by great dynamics (especially controlled at the lower end of the dynamic range), extremely tidy ensemble playing and very good soloists.
Chatteris also had the best side drum player on the day and the band’s sound was underpinned by sonorous basses.
Perhaps an even wider dynamic range could have been explored, as the band has the players to do it, but eighth place must have been disappointing for the band after their efforts.
Letchworth Garden City easily had the youngest band on the day, especially the cornet section where the average age could have been no more than twelve.
They finished ninth, and we thought this could have possibly been even higher.
The playing was clear thoughout and in the second movement the shared cornet solos were extremely well handled, as were the flugel and soprano parts.
A touch more drive would have worked well in the third movement, but it is clear that this is a band going places.
Tenth place went to Royston Town Band, who benefited from a confident trombone section and a solid bass section, especially at the bass melody line four bars before figure 20.
However, too many insecurities in both melody and accompaniment did detract throughout and tenth place was just about bang on the mark.
Witney Town drew number one, and eleventh place was a fair return for the band’s efforts this time around.
The band was lucky to have one of the best soprano players on the day and generally well organised ensemble playing, but too many tuning problems and a sprinkling of note inaccuracies meant that a mid-table finish was going to be a realistic outcome for this year.
Twelfth place was awarded to King’s Lynn Town, whose main problem was a lack of real dynamic contrast and the tendency to allow the tempos to drag.
Confident solo playing was enjoyable to listen to and the ensemble work in the third movement in particular was well handled, but more confidence from the players would have resulted in a higher finish for the band.
Next year should bring better returns for King’s Lynn.
Drawing unlucky number thirteen eventually resulted in a matching thirteenth place for Snowdown Colliery, a result that the band could not really complain too hard about.
The MD tried hard to create a flowing musical picture and the cornet solo in the second movement was well played, but too many insecurities throughout meant that a higher placing was not to be on this occasion.
Cottenham Brass had great cornet and xylophone players (‘Very nice cornet soloist’ is highlighted in our notes from the day!) and created a generally solid performance throughout.
However, it all felt a bit too safe and the balance between sections could have been improved in many places.
It all started very well, but the band seemed to tire towards the end and the eventual fourteenth placing was an accurate reflection of the band’s efforts.
Fifteenth place and last on was City of Oxford Silver, whose performance started off confidently but just lost a little bit of polish.
The third movement was the band’s best, as the second movement saw several losses of tempo as well as an occasional lack of cohesion between sections of the band.
The band’s trombone player was good and the MD did create some nice shapes that enhanced the performance, but inherent problems in ensemble did affect the overall impression.
Charles Church Camberley could have on another day finished higher than their eventual sixteenth place.
The band’s second movement was very enjoyable to listen to, with excellent cornet and soprano features, and it was the only band on the day to use tubular bells.
However, some tiredness did creep in and a lack of sparkle in the third movement prevented the band from securing a higher final position.
Milton Keynes Brass Development had a nice mixture of young and old take to the stage, and the MD ensured that everything was kept within the limits of the band’s ability, resulting in a performance that was enjoyable to listen to and which featured some great solo playing.
The bumper up cornet made a lovely job of the cornet solo in the second movement and soprano and flugel also added some nice touches.
There were some insecurities in solo and ensemble lines which may have contributed to the seventh place they were awarded, but the band looked as though they really enjoyed the experience of playing in Stevenage.
Marsh Gibbon Silver ended up in eighteenth place in the table, and more attention to tuning could have ensured a higher placed finish.
The third movement saw the band’s best ensemble playing and the second movement had some nice solo moments, especially from the solo cornet, but the tempos were a touch too steady for us and tuning problems reared their ugly heads on a few too many occasions.
Fixing these little problems will allow the band to challenge for a better finish next time around.
Bit too much
Many sections of the piece were a bit too much of a struggle for Martlesham Brass to warrant a higher placing from the adjudicator.
The band benefited from great soprano and flugel soloists but did suffer from a lack of balance and too many inaudible lines to knit the piece together.
Nineteenth place was the outcome, but improving the balance in the band’s playing will ensure they reap better rewards next year.
North London Brass is a new outfit and made its debut here.
A fairytale victory was, alas, not to be on this occasion, but despite the tempos never really cementing themselves (the playing did speed up quite considerably in many places) the band had a very nice cornet soloist and will no doubt come back stronger next year.
The impeccable organisation which one has come to expect at this contest ensured the day ran incredibly smoothly and there was an encouraging number of listeners and members from other competing bands (and, it seems, several expectant sit-at-home pundits) present for each of the bands.
Thanks also to Zone One colleague and Soham Comrades MD Keith Schroeter for his help throughout the day!