Can Cory keep winning all the silverware?
The centrepiece of the Oostende European Championship Festival will be provided by the twelve bands aiming to become the 2017 Champion Band of Europe.
No other contest in the world offers such a level of competitive musical excellence, as the contenders take to the stage at the wonderful Kursaal auditorium fired by a sense of national pride distilled in their strenuous preparations.
They will be faced on the Friday (the contest starts at 4.00pm local time) with the set-work by Belgian composer Kevin Houben. Rather grandly titled, ‘Where Angels Fly’, it takes its inspiration from ‘La Priere’ from ‘Le Retour aux Pays’ by Paul Gilson (1865-1942), who is regarded as the father of Belgian wind music.
It is the central chorale that forms the leitmotiv of Houben’s colourfully engaging composition - one that will have certainly tested the levels of ensemble stamina with its demanding dynamics and what he calls a ‘sound carpet’ of detailed textures.
Although the atmosphere in the hall (all 2000 plus seats have been sold out) can border on evangelical hysteria at times (and by heck don’t the bands and their MDs stoke the flames), the immediate Pavolvian responses of a hyper-excited audience is thankfully off-set by the more considered responses of the judges, who will be hearing no less than seven world premieres4BR
Technically it poses few problems for bands at this level, but musically the welcome lack of preposterous pyrotechnics, its insistence on open tonality and well defined ideas rounded off with a finish that could well see the roof of the Kursaal fly off into the Ostend air, should give the adjudication team of Torgny Hanson (Sweden), Jan Van der Roost (Belgium) and Roger Webster (England) plenty to enjoy as they consider their deliberations.
Own choice climax
That will also be the case less than 24 hours later, when the bands return for the showcase climax of own-choice works.
Although the atmosphere in the hall (all 2000 plus seats have been sold out) can border on evangelical hysteria at times (and by heck don’t the bands and their MDs stoke the flames), the immediate Pavolvian responses of a hyper-excited audience is thankfully off-set by the more considered responses of the judges, who will be hearing no less than seven world premieres.
The highly experienced team of Philippe Bach (Switzerland), Ben Haemhouts (Belgium) and Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen (Norway) have had the scores for a number of weeks now, so any misplaced flash, bang, wallop won’t go unmissed.
Will Philip Harper lift the famous European trophy once more?
The defending champion is the all conquering 2016 leviathan that is Cory.
Philip Harper leads the most experienced and successful outfit here, with the odds of them returning to Wales with yet more silverware to their name shorter than the frothy head on a pint of the local Stella Artois beer. This will be their fifteenth consecutive appearance, and with five wins in the last nine years you can see why the Belgian bookies are nervous.
The MD pulled a bit of a compositional rabbit out of the hat last year with his own-choice selection, so what may be in store this time around we wonder as they seek yet another title success?4BR
Rabbit out of the hat
The MD pulled a bit of a compositional rabbit out of the hat last year with his own-choice selection, so what may be in store this time around we wonder as they seek yet another title success?
The two-pronged Belgian challenge (the lack of a Scottish or Swedish representative allowed for Brass Band Willebroek to join national champion Brass Band Buizingen) is certainly a strong one. Both are highly experienced elite level performers led by MDs with proven track records of success.
Buizingen came fourth last year in Lille and have continued to mature under the considered direction of MD Luc Vertommen, whilst three time champion Willebroek returns for the first time since 2015 looking to add to an enviable record of success under their inspirational MD, Frans Violet.
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English hopes of a pre-Brexit boost of success lies with another former champion, Brighouse & Rastrick; led by a man who has more European awards to his name than anyone else - Prof David King.
The Yorkshire band qualified as the highest placed English band at the National Championships in 2015, and after coming sixth last year, and with an increasingly imposing record of recent top-flight success, they could well fancy their chances of giving their Australian MD yet another Euro title.
30 years of hurt
It is now nearly 30 years since Eikanger Bjorsvik Musikklag last lifted the famous Christopher Milton Stevens treble clef trophy in a victory celebration - although they have come close since (notching up no less than five second place finishes).
Could this finally be the year then; especially if they repeat the type of imperious form shown in winning the Norwegian National title in Bergen earlier this year under the baton of MD Ingar Bergby?
Could this finally be the year then; especially if they repeat the type of imperious form shown in winning the Norwegian National title in Bergen earlier this year under the baton of MD Ingar Bergby?4BR
In contrast, French representatives Paris Brass Band took the decision to concentrate on their artistic rather than contesting endeavours earlier this season as the eschewed the opportunity to add a sixth successive French National title to their name in Lyon.
Lots to play for here then as under MD Florent Didier they look to finally add European silverware to their name after impressing on each of their last four outings.
Arsene Duc and Valaisia already have some impressive silverware to their name
Another band that has certainly impressed on their last appearance was Swiss champion Valaisia Brass Band. Many neutrals thought they had perhaps done enough to win the title last year in Lille, but instead they ended third.
Many neutrals thought they had perhaps done enough to win the title last year in Lille, but instead they ended third4BR
That disappointment was soon put behind them though, as they went on to retain the Swiss National title in immense fashion in Montreux. If they play like that again under Arsene Duc who knows what this weekend will bring?
Trio of qualifiers
Conductor Ian Porthouse certainly ensured his presence at these Championships this year by leading no less than three bands to qualification success - including his own band Tredegar in winning the Welsh title in 2016.
They return to the contest for the first time since their third place finish in Montreux in 2011, determined to continue a fine record of achievement on what is their 10th appearance.
Brass Band Schoonhoven were one of three bands Ian Porthouse led to European qualification
Meanwhile, the Austrian champion Brass Band Oberosterreich makes their ninth appearance since their debuts a decade ago, as under the baton of Erik Janssen they look to return to the prizes for the first time since 2010, whilst a dark horse contender could come in the form of Dutch National champion Brass Band Schoonhoven.
They take their first European bow since 2014 under the direction of Ivan Melylemans boosted by a mightily impressive 2016 National title success.
Another band making their first appearance since 2014 is the very solid Danish champion Concord Brass Band under Jesper Juul Windhal, whilst the increasingly impressive German champion 3BA Concert makes its third consecutive appearance led by MD Thomas Ludescher.
Who will win?
Given the quality of the competitors this could be a contest decided by the narrowest of margins. Much then hinges on the set-work, as the differences between the own-choice selection performances can be miniscule.
Given the quality of the competitors this could be a contest decided by the narrowest of margins. Much then hinges on the set-work, as the differences between the own-choice selection performances can be miniscule4BR
Cory remains the band to beat, but can they once again repel the immense Swiss challenge of the Valaisia let alone an inspired Eikanger Bjorsvik, Brighouse & Rastrick, Brass Band Willebroek, Paris and others?
What a contest awaits.
1. Valaisia Brass Band
3. Eikanger Bjorsvik Musikklag
4. Brighouse & Rastrick
5. Brass Band Willebroek
6. Paris Brass Band
Dark Horses: Tredegar, Buizingen Brass Band, Brass Band Schoonhoven