The first revolution is not forgotten in Lille...
The three main rallying calls of the French Revolution may well have been liberty, equality and fraternity, but is enthusiasm, confidence and virtuosity that are the driving forces behind the nation’s rapidly emerging brass band movement.
That was clear to both see and hear in Lille recently, where the 11th French National Championships took place at the impressive Nouveau Siecle concert hall, tucked unobtrusively away in the centre of a city that is fast becoming one of the most important communication hubs in Europe.
Both the venue and its transport links will be fully utilised in just over a year’s time, when the 2016 European Brass Band Championship arrives here; bands and their supporters literally able to step off the Eurostar train and head straight down the Avenue de la Marne to take their seats in the tastefully refurbished auditorium.
The impressive Nouveau Siecle will host the 2016 Europeans
The enthusiasm for hosting the banding world’s premier contest is palpable when you speak to the representatives of the Confederation Musicale de France (CMF), who used this event as a ‘dry run’ for the European challenge ahead: It’s also the same when you talk to players, conductors and supporters alike.
Brass banding (especially in this region of the country) is growing - and growing fast.
17 bands took part this year - more than at the Belgian Championships; helped enormously by the CMF’s enlightened approach to encouraging domestic musical development, which saw an invitation given to Black Dyke to perform at a packed Gala Concert and trust placed in a Belgian Jury President to choose a Swiss composer’s set work for the elite bands to perform.
It’s not just the investment in the train station links that look like putting this part of France at the centre of Europe.
A small show of Gallic pride from First Division winners Brass Band Accords
Meanwhile, the confidence that permeates the current banding scene is not misplaced either:
The CMF is well funded and run; sponsors, both big and small are supporting bands and events; local, regional and even national media are showing an increasing interest (the contest was broadcast on the internet) - and despite a few hiccups (the hall is not yet fully completed), you can be sure they will be ironed out by the next time the EBBA hierarchy comes to town.
There was also a great deal of Gallic pride on show; warm, welcoming and occasionally downright bonkers.
The concept of reserved appreciation before a band actually performs a note on stage doesn’t really apply here: The judges would have had to been deaf not to have heard the cheers of partisan support that were well and truly bellowed out at times!
French banding likes to put a smile on the face...
However, it’s the competitor’s obvious ability to revel in the ‘laissez-faire’ sense of musical virtuosity that brass band contesting allows (and there were some ambitious own choice selections on show in each section) that seems to have struck a chord with the new generation of French brass band musicians, conductors - and especially supporters.
The receptions bands received following their performances were of genuine communal acclamation.
Out of the window
The dry academic analysis that forms the bedrock of traditional French musical teaching is thrown out ‘la fenêtre’ when it comes to contesting - as was certainly shown with a thrilling quartet of set work and own choice renditions from the two elite ‘Honneur’ bands of Paris Brass Band and Brass Band Nord Pas de Calais.
Champions again: Paris Brass Band claimed their fourth National title in a row
Paris claimed the title for a fourth consecutive year under the increasingly impressive Florent Didier, with displays of outstanding musicianship; the performances of the immense ‘REM-scapes’ by Thomas Doss and ‘Earthrise’ by Nigel Clarke, delivered with abundant technical flair and intuitive musicality.
As smooth as the air suspension on a classic Citroen DS21 Presidential limousine, the rich, pyramidal depth of the ensemble sound, viscous malleability of internal balances, all topped by soloists of the highest class and artistry was something to behold - as was the elegant, gossamer-lite direction of the MD.
Subtle phrasing and well defined dynamic contrasts came naturally - artifice, if any, left for the final few moments of thumping climax.
They were some band in Perth in 2014; they will be even better come Freiburg in May. Heaven help what they could be like if they carry on like this come Lille.
Brothers in arms: Sop and flugel embrace for Calais
Calais were not far behind their Parisian counterparts (who it must be said, do have a fair old line up of professional semi professional talent in their ranks), helped by Luc Vertommen’s excellent direction - with the sense of enthusiastic confidence heard in full with their specially commissioned own choice selection of Peter Graham’s exciting ‘Angels & Demons’.
Although there was no appearance by former champion Aelous (they hope to be back in 2016), the French commitment to compete in terms of quality rather than quantity at the highest level is also an overriding tenant of their approach.
Sense of excellence
Both the CMF and the bands see the ‘Honneur’ Division as one that should retain a sense of excellence; the winners able to take the step of representing the nation at European level with substantive competitiveness.
It is an admirable long term aim (and certainly achieved this year), that should see the emphasis on musical quality remain undiluted, although in the short term, the grass roots lower sections (Excellence, First, Second, Third Divisions) are sure to be boosted in number as more and more community bands are engaged by the CMF and persuaded to compete.
Grass roots: Brass Band de l'Oise claimed the Third Division title
Although interesting (and occasionally puzzling) to hear French bands tackle the stereotypical bucolic splendor of ‘An English Folk Song Suite’ by Vaughan Williams and the Viking gore of ‘The Saga of Haakon the Good’ (you were waiting to hear someone chant ‘Allez Les Blues!’), it was still refreshing to hear the desire to impress through musicality rather than mere technicality.
Deep burning spirit
The ‘Excellence’ Section contained at least two bands that wouldn’t have been out of place in the second tier of the Spring Festival, whilst elsewhere, the standard equated to high quality Second and Third Section National Finals bands in the UK.
Competitive brass banding in this wonderful nation may still be in a fledgling state of development, but the spirit to succeed burns deep within the musical souls of performers, administrators and supporter alike.
This could well be the start of one heck of a new French Revolution…