Welsh bands flexed their contesting muscles in Swansea on the weekend to send a tremor of apprehension that was surely felt by qualifying rivals at all levels and in all parts of the UK.
It was a potent signal that the nation has no intention of loosening its stranglehold grip on its possession of National titles come Cheltenham and London.
Eleven powerful bands will represent Wales at the Centaur and the Royal Albert Hall in the autumn, and on the evidence shown at the Brangwyn Hall, the majority will travel as some of the short-priced favourites for success.
They will be led by the heavyweight duo of newly crowned Welsh Champion, Tredegar and reigning National title holder Cory, who produced a brace of stunning 'Cambridge Variations' that were arguably the best heard anywhere in the country this year.
Tredegar's triumph was deserved — 'clear-cut' in the view of adjudicators David Hirst and Dr Robert Childs — as Ian Porthouse drew out a riveting performance to claim the Welsh Regional Trophy for the 11th time in imperious fashion.
In his written remarks, Bob Childs called it, '...so musical and played at such a high level', whilst David Hirst described it as a performance which, '...had character and drive with excellent direction by MD'.
"I'm delighted for the players,"Ian Porthouse later told 4BR with both the Regional Trophy and the award for the winning conductor in his grasp. "We've had a few changes in recent months but the attitude and desire to succeed at the highest level remains the same.
I couldn't have asked for anything more from them all. The soloists from sop to timps were outstanding with Dewi Griffiths (principal cornet) and David James (flugel), stunning."
"It was a clear-cut win,"both judges later confirmed to 4BR. "The two at the top were excellent in anyone's book — the winner's in particular, with four taking some sorting out and two below par.
We enjoyed all eight performances, but it was the quiet playing and ensemble balances that played a great part in our decision, along with the quality of the soloists and the flugel and principal cornet in particular."
Tredegar will now represent the nation at the 2017 Europeans in Ostend, where they could well be joined by their rivals, especially if Philip Harper's band reproduces the level of excellence shown here. It took something special to beat the National and Brass in Concert champion: Others will certainly have to do the same in Lille.
The duo will also lock horns again at the British Open, while they will be joined in Kensington (and perhaps Symphony Hall) by a resurgent Tongwynlais Temperance, who comfortably claimed their place with a high quality rendition directed with calm assuredness by Michael Fowles. No band representative looked happier all weekend in claiming a cheque for £75.00 for a third-place finish.
Behind the podium finishers came encouraging performances just marred by inconsistencies, with a confident Llwydcoed leading home Northop Silver and Goodwick, with Tylorstown and Burry Port a little further back.
Earlier, the first tremor came with news of the draw — which pitted Tredegar and Cory as the first bands on stage. However, with the contest brought forward by about 20 minutes, a number of supporters missed the opportunity to revel in a brace of fascinatingly different interpretations.
Ian Porthouse laid out the score with a symphonic arc of momentum, underpinned by an extraordinary depth and clarity of detail. It was also enhanced by soloists who performed with subtle artistry — none more so than his debutant flugel star David James and deserved 'Best Instrumentalist' winner Dewi Griffiths.
In contrast, Philip Harper chose a much more lyrical, episodic approach; highlighted by moments of stunning ensemble and solo beauty. Even the first notes were completely, diametrically the opposite of Tredegar.
In the end it was perhaps the extra level of detail and free-flowing purposefulness that swayed the judges, although both bands produced performances of stunning virtuosity and musicality: However, the epicentre on this occasion was found in Tredegar.
There was a sense of apprehension of a different kind in the First Section on Saturday afternoon.
Welsh banding has recently ridden a crest of a National wave — with two wins in the last three years at Cheltenham. However, on this occasion, Edward Gregson's 'Essay' delivered a transparent message that laid bare the stark realities of prospective top class banding — even to qualifiers City of Cardiff (Melingriffith) and Ebbw Valley.
Paul Holland and David Hirst gave admirable summing-ups of nine performances which didn't really come close to mastering a work that should have been within their scope.
"We were baffled today,"David said. "Nobody won it. There were major problems throughout; with aggressive tonality in the opening which sounded if as the 'Dialogue' was being shouted at each other. There was no real sense of affetuoso in the 'Soliloquy' and the final movement lacked tempo discipline."
Paul was equally forthright. "What a frustrating contest. All the performances, even the winners had noticeable major errors. Some of the tempos veered towards the frantic — with trombones whizzing past like motorbikes.
All the performances were blighted by poor intonation. If you can't get it right in the rehearsal room you have no chance on stage."
Despite the downbeat assessments there was an air of agreement in the hall as people appreciated that it was a contest that hadn't lived up to expectations, despite some 'great' cornet playing noted by both judges. However, lessons will hopefully be learnt in time for Cheltenham if the two hard working qualifiers are to extend Welsh success for another year. It
It was City of Cardiff (Melingriffth) who returned once again as Welsh champion, despite an inconsistent winning rendition that owed a debit of musical gratitude to MD Nigel Seaman's excellent understanding of the score.
"We knew we didn't perhaps play as well as we could,"Nigel told 4BR. "It's such a difficult piece, but one that's of huge benefit to work on. Getting through to the Finals once again is a great achievement, but this experience means we know we will have to work even harder to try and turn victory here into a victory there."
Meanwhile, Ebbw Valley claimed the chance to win a record-breaking fourth successive National title with a high-octane performance that became fractured by a desire to almost bulldoze their way to Cheltenham. Afterwards, they also acknowledged that further hard graft will be required if they are to create history in the autumn.
Behind them came a series of performances that simply didn't give the judges cause to place them higher: Llanrug's spirited account ending third — thanks in no small part to the wonderful 'Best Instrumentalist' contribution of 15 year old principal cornet Owain Llestyn.
The rest, despite brave individual contributions, failed to resonate in the box in what, as the judges so accurately remarked, was a frustrating and ultimately disappointing contest.
A famous name of Welsh banding secured its first Area title in 18 years, as Thomas Coaches Mid Rhondda took the Second Section honours with what the judges called 'an easy win' after an enjoyable brine-soaked battle of wits on Philip Harper's set-work.
Joining them in Cheltenham will be Deiniolen after the duo produced two contrasting, but equally evocative takes on the Cornish love-story under conductors Alan Gibbs and Lois Eifion.
Youth versus experience
It really was a tale of youth versus experience — as Mid Rhondda produced a mature performance of balance, texture and control that certainly reflected the vintage of a band with an average age of 55. Their veteran euph player Bob Burnett, took the 'Best Instrumentalist' award for his wonderfully lyrical solo contribution.
Meanwhile, the vibrant north Walians pushed them hard with a colourful rendition that bubbled with energy and excitement from start to finish.
"There were four or five really good performances,"adjudicator Paul Holland revealed. "The difference between first and second was the time and quality given to the main soloists. The winners had that plus all the basics in place. It was an easy win to judge."
"We are all thrilled,"winning MD Alan Gibbs later told 4BR. "We've rebuilt over the last few years with players who enjoy their banding and like to perform together. The piece was enjoyable to work on and allowed us to use that experience built up over the years by players such as Bob who has performed at the highest level."
Alan added: "It's great to return to Cheltenham again but even better to do so as Area champion after such a long time."
In a contest that saw a number of bands deliver exciting, stylish accounts, the final podium place went to a spirited Crwbin (who took the 'Best Percussion' award) , which just edged out a trio of excellent efforts from Abergavenny Borough, Ammanford Town and Royal Buckley Town.
There could be no excuse for the seven bands on Saturday morning not understanding the inspiration behind 'A Cambrian Suite' by Michael Ball.
Thankfully, all of them did in a contest described by adjudicator David Hirst as a 'good standard' — although the day did get off to a somewhat surreal musical start with a rather peculiar arrangement of the National Anthem played by Crosskeys.
Unfortunately, it rather summed up their contest, as they were later disqualified for taking to the stage with an ineligible, un-registered player.
No such problems for the two qualifiers though — with Rhyl Silver successfully retaining their title under MD Keith Jones with a performance described by one of the judges in their written remarks as, '...a great reading, excellent musical flow, with accurate dynamics and rhythms'.
The remarks also reflected the judge's views before the results. "First place was a superb performance,"David Hirst said. "There were some really good bands today, but only one lit up the piece by grasping the technical and musical picture."
Rhyl will be joined in Cheltenham by a delighted Briton Ferry, who qualified for the Finals for the first time since 2002 with performance that just pipped last year's Fourth Section National Champion, Usk.
"It was close between second and third,"David added. "Both gave performances of merit."Just behind the podium finishers came Abertillery Youth & District, Severn Tunnel and Gwaun Cae Gurwen.
In a contest where the adherence to the Michael Ball's score instructions was crucial, Rhyl's MD, Keith Jones told 4BR that was exactly what he set out to do.
"That was good to hear and read from the judges,"Keith said. "I studied the score carefully. The players really enjoyed working on the piece, and we're delighted to be able to represent Wales as National Champions once again in Cheltenham.
He added with a smile though: "It's a great achievement — so we are going to start fund raising in our bar in the bandroom as soon as we get back!"
If the Championship Section battle saw two heavyweights battle for supremacy, then the Fourth Section saw all six bantamweight contenders produce excellent accounts in a fantastic Sunday morning aperitif.
"We were staggered by the standard,"adjudicator Paul Holland said. "From first until last there was great playing all-round. Every band was fantastic — and we are sorry that someone had to come last."
He added: "It was wonderful to judge and the winners were incredible. Their intonation was perfect, the solo players did themselves proud and the music making was fabulous. Overall this was the best playing we have heard at this level for many years."
Fellow judge Nigel Seaman agreed: "The standard was absolutely amazing. If this is what Wales can produce our only disappointment was that we didn't have more bands taking part. We have to encourage bands to play smashing pieces like this — even when they are sort on numbers. The benefits are immense."
In the end it was Phoenix — the feeder band for the amazing Goodwick Brass organisation, who produced a stunning Phileas Fogg travelogue under Luke Jenkins that wouldn't have been out of place if it had been used as the soundtrack to the film.
Full of classy style, character, brilliant dynamics and intonation, it set a marker off the number 1 draw (described as 'exceptional' by Nigel Seaman in his written remarks).
Not even an outstanding account from runner-up Newport Borough led by Robin Hackett, which would have won just about any other regional contest by a margin, could match it.
They did however see their principal cornet Seamus Gallagher deservedly take the 'Best Instrumentalist' award, whilst 9 year old Sam Howell enjoyed a day to remember with Phoenix as he celebrated an Area title as well as being the youngest player on stage.
Just behind the top two were splendid efforts from Upper Rhondda, Ynyshir, RAF St Athan Voluntary and Oakdale Silver — all of who delivered performances of huge credit to players and MDs alike.
"We've loved working on the piece,"the winning MD, Luke Jenkins later told 4BR. "There was something for everyone to do — from soprano down to percussion, so nobody was bored and every part was important. Now we have to build on this for Cheltenham — and we can't wait."
Despite road works causing some delays, and the need to try and help more bands from north Wales finance their trips to Swansea, the contest was once again run splendidly by the regional committee in a venue that continues to provide an excellent stage for the very best bands in Wales, and perhaps later this year, the UK.
I couldn't have asked for anything more from them all. The soloists from sop to timps were outstanding with Dewi Griffiths (principal cornet) and David James (flugel), stunningWinning MD, Ian Porthouse
Test Piece: Cambridge Variations (Philip Sparke)
Adjudicators: Dr Robert Childs and David Hirst
1. Tredegar (Ian Porthouse)***
2. Cory (Philip Harper)**
3. Tongwynlais Temperance (Michael Fowles)*
4. Llwydcoed (Chris Turner)
5. Northop (Andrew Berryman)
6. Goodwick (Matthew Jenkins)
7. Tylorstown (Gary Davies)
8. Burry Port Town (Tom Davoren)
***Tredegar qualify for Natinal Final and to represent Wales at 2017 European Championship in Ostend
**Cory pre-qualified for National Final
*Tongwynlais Temperance qualify for National Final
Best Instrumentalist: Dewi Griffiths (cornet) — Tredegar
Best Basses: Cory
Test Piece: Essay (Edward Gregson)
Adjudicators: David Hirst and Paul Holland
1. City of Cardiff (Melingriffith) (Nigel Seaman)*
2. Ebbw Valley (Gareth Ritter)*
3. Llanrug (Paul Hughes)
4. Parc & Dare (Andrew Jones)
5. Markham & District (Matthew Rowe)
6. Pontardulais Town (Paul Jenkins)
7. BTM (Jeff Hutcherson)
8. Lewis Merthyr (Craig Roberts)
9. Blaenavon Town (Jamie Jones)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Best Instrumentalist: Owain Llestyn (cornet) — Llanrug
Test Piece: The Mermaid of Zennor (Philip Harper)
Adjudicators: Dr Robert Childs and Paul Holland
1. Thomas Coaches Mid Rhondda (Alan Gibbs)*
2. Deiniolen (Lois Eifion)*
3. Crwbin (Lynne Turner)
4. Abergavenny Borough (Alun F. Williams)
5. Ammanford Town (Glyn Davies)
6. Royal Buckley Town (Lee Skipsey)
7. Melingriffith 2 (Jack Capstaff)
8. Penclawdd (Tony Small)
9. Newtown Silver (Steve Edwards)
10. Ogmore Valley Silver (Alice Jones)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Best Instrumentalist: Robert Burnett (euphonium) — Thomas Coaches Mid Rhondda
Best Percussion: Crwbin
Test Piece: A Cambrian Suite (Michael Ball)
Saturday 19th March
1. Rhyl Silver (Keith Jones)*
2. Briton Ferry (Jeff Pearce)*
3. Usk (Jeff Jones)
4. Abertillery Youth & District (Josh Ruck)
5. Severn Tunnel (Grant Jameson)
6. Gwaen-Cae-Gurwen (Jeff Hutcherson)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Best Instrumentalist: Stuart Parry (cornet) — Rhyl Silver
Disqualified: Crosskeys Silver (Benjamin Atkinson)
Crosskeys Silver was disqualified for a player registration infringement
Test Piece: The Journal of Phileas Fogg (Peter Graham)
Adjudicators: Paul Holland and Nigel Seaman
1. Phoenix (Luke Jenkins)*
2. Newport Borough (Robin Hackett)*
3. Upper Rhondda (Jayne Thomas)
4. Ynyshir (Gary Davies)
5. RAF St. Athan Voluntary (Craig Roberts)
6. Oakdale Silver (Kerry Bowden)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Best Instrumentalist: Seamus Gallagher (cornet) — Newport Borough
Youngest Player: Sam Howell (aged 9) — Phoenix
Withdrawn: Oakeley Silver (John Glyn Jon)