Cheltenham has seen many a famous final furlong success in its time.
Fitting then that it was the last runner out of the starting gate that claimed the honours in the final race at this West of England regional festival.
An irresistible surge of energised quality drove Aldbourne past gasping rivals to win the Championship Section title by what proved to be more than a short head. It was a victory every bit as memorable as any seen at the Gold Cup in recent years.
No lucky bet
Deftly led by Glyn Williams over the treacherous hurdles of 'Contest Music', it was the Wiltshire band's first top-flight Area victory since their sole success in 1981, although it was by no means a lucky outside bet come good.
This was a thoroughly deserved success built on a decade long resurgence of form. Since 2011 they have risen from the First Section to top-10 British Open contenders and Albert finalists in successive competitive years. There could well be many more major appearances to come.
It provided a thrilling finale to a fine weekend of competition.
Cheltenham may have its detractors as a contest venue, (nothing could come close to the race festival that attracts over 60,000 punters a day let alone 63 bands) but given that there was a real possibility of it not taking place, it was an undoubted success.
Bullet shell opening
Wherever it returns to in 2023, Aldbourne will be a contender to fear: The informed balance and dynamic relevancies, ensemble cohesion and outstanding solo leads inspired by the MD's lead never faltered from the bullet-shot timpani opening to the cymbal clash heralded final chord.
With perhaps an unintended use of racing parlance, adjudicator Alan Morrison summed up his written remarks with; "Wow — this performance really raised the stakes and provided excitement but with extreme control".
Bob Childs also used the exclamation to illustrate his commendation as the band made that energised dip to the Molto Animato line; "Wow! Great finish. A super performance on so many levels. Bravo!"
The waspish menace of the first movement contrasted with the solid, elegant flow of the central section and the crisp execution of the finale. Only the most fleeting moment of concern appeared on the face of the MD, soon replaced with a smile of acknowledgment as the playing immediately regained focus.
By the close he was beaming: He had every reason to.
Quality and questions
Behind them came a close batch of rivals; all making eclectic qualification cases for Kensington Gore, but all knowing that they had been beaten by a better band on the day.
Chief amongst them was Flowers, whose undeniable hallmark of quality also came with a few questions marks.
Paul Holland's band was not at their very best; the usual solo line confidence and precisely calibrated balances chipped by little errors and uncertainties, as well as the somewhat risky strategy of using the soprano to cover many of the exposed solo cornet lines.
Given that Alan Morrison said in his pre-results remarks that Wilfred Heaton's score, "didn't have one note wasted", that "all were integral and so well integrated", and that the sop in question was one of the most sublimely recognisable tonal talents in the banding movement, it tempted fate.
Thankfully there was still enough thoroughbred quality to see them through to the Albert Hall, but it came with a degree of apprehension.
That would have been heightened when both Alan and Bob said they had considered the qualification merits of "three or four really good performances", and that some conductors, "...had good intentions, which didn't always come to fruition, especially in the top places."
Those also just tarnished the marker of controlled consideration by Camborne off the number 1 draw, and an equally informed account from Verwood Concert Brass. David Hirst and Kevin Smith managed their resources with care, the players responding with confidence — notably the outstanding solo cornet players.
Behind them, St Dennis would surely have been in the running after a superb opening section. Unfortunately, some noticeable moments of unease thereafter saw it tail off from podium consideration to end fifth.
These were the bands that displayed a variant command of the intricacies of the Heaton score; the forays into occasionally dangerous interpretative waters (and some over enthusiastic bass trom playing that caught Bob's ear) notwithstanding.
Elsewhere, sixth place went to a delighted Filton Concert Brass, who emerged from a difficult period to give an inconsistent but thrilling rendition led by the talented Dutch conductor Erik Van de Kolk.
As was the case all weekend, when no band won at a canter or fell completely away from the pack, the remaining contenders drew substance from the 'Contest Music' score — aided by MDs respecting the literal intentions of Heaton's precise structures.
Lots to consider then in somewhat inconsistent accounts from Brunel Brass down to Roche Brass as from the excellent to the uneven, the immense challenges were met with informed appreciation and few complaints about the end result produced.
Two of the most experienced conductors at Cheltenham played integral parts in helping their bands secure their 'Spectrum' embossed return tickets to the National Finals.
John Maines and Nigel Seaman will have either played, conducted or adjudicated Vinter's masterpiece countless times over the last 50 years. It showed as they top and tailed an enjoyable contest with performances of tempered colourings and tasteful transitions.
That said, so did most of the MDs, as it became obvious the majority had been savvy enough to take note of what judges Alan Morrison and Bob Childs had spoken about with their admirably consistent views and opinions on how to perform the work.
What Alan said at the Midlands Area in February he repeated here: Play with an adherence to the tempo markings and an appreciation of the musical lines. In addition, Vinter's adjective descriptions of each colour variant — from the ferocity of 'Red' to the pastoral flowing 'Green', were unambiguous but needed to context to what surrounded them.
"The successful bands did that," Alan said, whilst Bob added that they also "integrated" the brass and percussion elements. "That was significant for us" he added, as was "balance and intonation."
He also highlighted the context of tempi — such as the consistent meter of 'Blue' and the following 'Indigo' waltz.
The judges knew exactly what they were looking for. Any contrary opinion was made somewhat redundant by their precise observations.
That meant that the cultured appreciation of John Maines and Bodmin gave the substantive marker that couldn't be matched by the 14 rivals that followed; the compact ensemble and textured colourings seeping into each other through carefully considered transitions.
"A well-controlled performance always musical — well chosen tempi", wrote Bob Childs, whilst Alan Morrison added that it had been, "an authentic reading which did exactly what is on the tin".
Perhaps Dulux should give John a call before they launch their latest Summer collection. He and his band colour matched their performance here to prize-winning perfection.
Mix & match
Nigel Seaman also showed his 'mix & match' expertise in leading Hyde to their first National Final appearance since 2007. The fluid, glossy colourings, nothing fluorescent or Dayglo were marked in their Vinteresque appreciation to secure a deserved qualification.
Behind them came a batch that also displayed thoughtfulness; few misplacing 'Red' blooded ferocity with frenzy or trying to make 'Yellow' sound like an aural pint of 'Sunny Delight'.
And whilst some thumped the nails into the 'Purple' Vinter coffin with Thor-like hammer blows on the bass drum, they were the exception.
Quality and confidence
Quality and confidence then from the vibrant shadings of third placed AW Parker (Drybrook) as well as Andover in fourth, to the slightly more subdued engagements of Bournemouth and City of Bristol.
And whilst there would have been few complaints over final placings from Lanner & District down to Wotton-under-Edge, perhaps Glastonbury could count themselves unlucky that their 'Spectrum' of shaded pastel colourings and subtle meanderings didn't find favour in the box.
The clearest margin of victory on the weekend came from Helston Town.
Directed by the experienced John Berryman, they gave a wonderful rendition of Goff Richards' 'The Aeronauts' to add to the title success claimed in 2018.
Even in a contest dotted by performances of character and imagination, theirs rose highest in the sky. It left delightful musical vapour trails in its wake in evoking the twists and turns, dives and daring do of the squadron of aircraft the composer used to watch at the RAF base near to the Cornish home of his youth.
Perhaps the finest praise came not from the judges Gary Davies and Steve Pritchard-Jones, but by Goff's widow, Sue who said that it was "just what Goff had intended".
The judges thought so too. "An excellent performance with good control and well organised sounds by the MD", wrote Steve, whilst Gary called it, "an excellent performance all round. Well balanced, rhythmic, detail and dynamic control aplenty. Well done all soloists and great control MD."
No doubts then on a fully deserved success from a band that benefitted greatly for the musical nous and insight of an MD of remarkable vintage.
John Berryman's insistence on building controlled vibrancy and lyrical phrasing on a foundation of solidly engineered basics evoked an era of early sleek lined jet-propelled acrobatics.
It was great stuff. You suspect there may be more to come when they return here in September.
"I really enjoy things with Helston," John later told 4BR. "The attitude and approach is about enjoying the music making. The band came down a section in the Covid-19 break but it has been a good thing really.
This was a great piece that they loved playing — and when you have that everything else is a bonus."
Joining them will be another band that took care with airborne considerations, as Gosport Solent Brass produced a cultured evocation under Richard Sharp to return to the National Finals for a fourth successive year.
It meant that Otterbourne missed out after producing a performance of confidence and considerable virtuosity that just lost its grip on a qualification place after Helston took to the skies as the last band of the contest.
The remaining top-six places went to neatly directed accounts from a breezy Shrewton Silver, a bravura Poole Borough (down on numbers but not endeavour) and an energised Weston Brass.
Elsewhere there was plenty to enjoy with Gary Davies congratulating the soloists, who the judges felt "did an excellent job".
And whilst he did remark on some of the early tempo choices that saw somewhat rushed starts and rhythmic inaccuracies, the duo felt the overall standard had been "very good"- especially the qualifiers.
No causes for complaints then from the rest of the field of well matched, and well led contenders, each providing performances of character and substance.
It's not often a band that eventually came thirteenth out of fourteen at an Area contest gets the loudest cheer of appreciation before the announcement of the results.
On this occasion the accolade came when compere Dave Hayward revealed that Swindon Brass had played with a front row cornet section with a combined age of 294 years. Not only that, their remarkable principal cornet Francis Cowley, made up nearly 95 of them on his own.
His colleagues were a sprightly 82, 68 and 50 respectively, whilst the appropriately named MD, John Heritage, his leg in a protective casing due to a medical condition, directed things a-la Alex Mortimer from a chair.
On a weekend of uplifting musical performances, it was the perfect example of what David had talked about in his introductory remarks at the beginning of each section. Nothing summed up the feeling of just how good it was to be back than that.
Redruth Town led with splendid authority by MD, David Nicholson was also delighted to return.
His gem of a winning performance of Gordon Langford's 'Facets of Glass' was such a well-balanced combination of ensemble, tonality, wit and lyricism, played with ensemble control and solo confidence.
"They gave me everything today," he said as he smiled (minus his equally splendid dicky-bow) with the winner's shield.
"They are a super band filled with great people and I'm loving it with them. It's a great piece that tests all sections and players, so there was always something of interest to work on in each rehearsal."
The judges were certainly impressed by the work put in. "A performance with many fine musical touches. The 3rd movement was lovely", wrote Steve Pritchard-Jones, whilst his colleagued Gary Davies called it, "...a very well-structured performance" that "brought detail and style".
Victory was hugely deserved in what proved to be a close battle for the title honours with Ocean Brass, who provided an equally cracking marker of brio and energy from the number 1 draw under MD Andy Wareham.
The top two were a margin ahead of their rivals. "We had a real debate over first and second,"
Steve said in his detailed pre-results address. "Either could have won it, but the winners for us just played the third movement just a bit better."
That then was the difference between two excellent renditions at the top, whilst there must have been small margins between the remaining top-six down in a well-matched field of 14 contenders.
Delight, despite missing out on another qualification though for third placed Nailsworth Silver. The 2021 Fourth Section National Champion showed that they had made the step up with all-round confidence under MD Anri Adachi, whilst there was also cheer for fellow promoted rival Wroughton Silver in fourth after their impressive rendition.
A neatly structured account from Lydney Town ended fifth with a bold portrayal from Porthleven in sixth.
Elsewhere bands emerged with credit as they sought to fuse the technicalities of the first movement with the tipsy celebratory feel of the second, the more serious reflections of the chapel inspired third and the romp for home to close.
The entry of 11 bands for the Fourth Section will have brought concern for the future of the crucial foundation level of Area competition.
The change in contest date allied to the lingering effects of Covid-19 played their part in reducing the field this year, although the heady days of 27 competitors at the turn of the Millennium has ebbed away for a while now: 21 in 2016, 17 in 2019, 14 in 2020.
The Regional Committee is looking at ways to encourage a sense of inclusion in future. They would certainly be helped greatly if more test-pieces such as Stephan Hodel's 'Argos' were picked.
Encouragement though, that at present, the quality had not been undermined.
As has been heard around the country, 'Argos' has been a gem; open, transparent, easy on the ear without becoming too 'cheesy', and posing enough challenges to keep players of all ages and abilities on their toes — from sop to kit.
That was shown in a cracking contest — won in splendid fashion by Bideford Town led by Mark Durham, who will be joined here for the National Finals by Tewkesbury Town.
It was their first Area success since 1960, and their first Finals appearance since 1995, so little wonder there were smiles of delight and disbelief after they were announced as champions — supporters, players and conductor alike.
Mark Durham has been the MD for the past eight years (coming down from the North East where he played with Shepherd Group Band), during which time they have made incremental progress (with the odd poor one-off) — turning regular top-six finishes into four podium finishes in their last seven competitive outings.
"We've been improving slowly but surely,"he told 4BR. "The players are so committed and now it's paying off. I'm so happy for them all. It's a wonderful band with wonderful people — they deserve this so much."
It was also a performance that had all the Hellenic ingredients the judges were looking for; an overall package that had a rich, joyful characterisation, backed by solid basics topped by classy soloists.
"The overall standard was very good,"adjudicator David Ashworth said in his pre-results remarks. "The difference between the winners and the rest was very small. There was no obvious winner and no obvious last place."
As he and colleague Alan Widdop left the stage they managed to congratulate the MD themselves — telling him how much they had enjoyed the performance. It put the icing on the cake for what was sure to be a long overdue and hugely enjoyable celebration.
Joining Bideford in September will be Tewkesbury (they only had to wait 12 months) as they delivered a mature account that owed much to MD Aidan Howgate's approach which offered an upbeat feel without becoming frenetic or harsh.
Just missing out was an 'Argos' packed with energy and warmth from St Stythians, whilst the top-six was completed by Saltash Town (featuring some great little nippers), the talented youngsters (plus a few older heads) of Brunel Brass Academy and an upbeat Wincanton Silver.
All though — right down to the tasty effort of Cornish band Illogan Sparnon emerged from their Greek adventure with huge credit.
Talking of which as did the West of England Regional Committee led by Sue Oldfield.
They thoughtfully not only provided the judges with a tent which was a cross between the Kaaba in Mecca and a prop for a magician to make an elephant disappear, but also took the opportunity to show their gratitude to stalwart supporters and volunteers Leonard Adams and Mike and Lesley Knapton.
It was a lovely touch on a fine weekend to round off the Regional series for 2022.
Deftly led by Glyn Williams over the treacherous hurdles of 'Contest Music', it was the Wiltshire band's first top-flight Area victory since their sole success in 1981, although it was by no means a lucky outside bet come good4BR
Test-piece: Contest Music (Wilfred Heaton)
Adjudicators: Dr Robert Childs and Alan Morrison
1. Aldbourne (Glyn Williams)*
2. Flowers (Paul Holland)*
3. Camborne Town (David Hirst)
4. Verwood Concert Brass (Kevin Smith)
5. St Dennis (Darren R Hawken)
6. Filton Concert Brass (Erik Van De Kolk)
7. Brunel Brass (Daniel Hall)
8. Woodfalls (Garry Cutt)
9. Michelmersh Silver (Melvin White)
10. Lydbrook (Steve Sykes)
11. SW Comms (Stephen Sykes)
12. Roche Brass (David Hamilton)
*Invite to National Final
Test-piece: Spectrum (Gilbert Vinter)
Adjudicators: Dr Robert Childs and Alan Morrison
1. Bodmin Town (John Maines)*
2. Hyde (Nigel Seaman)*
3. A W Parker (Drybrook) (Joshua Ruck)
4. Andover Town (Scott Stewart)
5. Bournemouth Concert Brass (Matthew Brown)
6. City of Bristol Brass (Craig Roberts)
7. Lanner & District Silver (Aaron Harvey)
8. Sherborne Town (Jonathan Lush-Camps)
9. Chalford (Steve Tubb)
10. Glastonbury Brass (Kevin Smith)
11. Sidmouth Town (Adrian Harvey)
12. St Austell Town (Stuart Chappell)
13. Forest of Dean Brass (Thomas Dunne)
14. Camborne Junior Contesting (Alan Pope BEM)
15. Wotton Under-Edge & District (David Boorer)
*Invite to National Final
Test-piece: The Aeronauts (Goff Richards)
Adjudicators: Gary Davies and Steve Pritchard-Jones
1. Helston Town (John Berryman)*
2. Gosport Solent Brass (Richard Sharp)*
3. Otterbourne Brass (Mark Gibson)
4. Shrewton Silver (Mike Dunford)
5. Poole Borough (Lloyd Bartlett)
6. Weston Brass (Lewis Wilkinson)
7. Cinderford (Chris Howley)
8. Mount Charles (Jeremy Taylor)
9. Downton (Paul Williams)
10. Bream Silver (Hugh Bamford)
11. New Forest Brass (Ian Luxford)
*Invite to National Final
Test-piece: Facets of Glass (Gordon Langford)
Adjudicators: Gary Davies and Steve Pritchard-Jones
1. Redruth Town (David Nicholson)*
2. Ocean Brass (Andy Wareham)*
3. Nailsworth Silver (Anri Adachi)
4. Wroughton Silver (Neil Webb)
5. Lydney Town (Thomas Dunne)
6. Porthleven Town (Tom Bassett)
7. Bratton Silver (Simon Carr)
8. Verwood Town (Kevin Smith)
9. City of Bath Brass (Geraint Barnes)
10. Cheltenham Silver (Ian Holmes)
11. Pendennis Brass (Ben Elliott)
12. Weymouth Concert Brass (Helen Brind)
13. Swindon Brass (John Heritage)
14. Exeter Railway (Gareth Davies)
*Invite to National Final
Test-piece: Argos (Stephan Hodel)
Adjudicators: David Ashworth and Alan Widdop
1. Bideford Town Band (Mark Durham)*
2. Tewkesbury Town (Aidan Howgate)*
3. St Sythians (James Burns)
4. Saltash Town (Robert Julian)
5. Brunel Brass Academy (Daniel Hall)
6. Wincanton Silver (James White)
7. Shaftesbury Town Silver (Martin Hill)
8. Shanklin Town Brass (IoW) (Malcolm Lewis)
9. Pillowell Silver (Ian Whitburn)
10. Test Valley Brass (Kevin Steward)
11. Illogan Sparnon Silver (Shaun Marsden)
*Invite to National Final