A wonderful late surge of musical excellence saw Skelmersdale Prize deservedly claim the opening National title race at Cheltenham.
Last out of the starting gates in the 17 band field, MD Benjamin Coulsen kept the coolest of heads in the control of pacing and dynamic balance on Joseph Horovitz's demanding 'Sinfonietta' set-work to win by a clearly defined margin over rivals Jayess Newbiggin, with Formby in third.
It was an outstanding performance based on a mature appreciation of an elegant score; the opening movement played with spacious precision, the central section tenderly flowing, the finale pitch perfect with its sense of energised brio.
The band's solo horn, Gemma Rowlands claimed the 'Best Instrumentalist' award, with her "classy" contribution, part of an ensemble of collective excellence.
Hard to find fault
"A performance which truly captures Joe Horovitz's music. Lots of wonderful individual contributions. It's hard to find fault in this. Fabulous corner players and a real team effort", was the written verdict of adjudicator Sandy Smith who was part of the Kapitol Music Panel who chose the work.
"A magnificent performance from all concerned. Bravo MD — outstanding stuff."
His colleagues were no less impressed. "This whole show has been an absolute pleasure to adjudicate," wrote Brian Rostron, whilst John Maines said that after "a great ending" that overall, it was, "...a super performance. Well done band and MD".
You do not win a national title in much more emphatic fashion than that, so little wonder the MD told 4BR that he was "incredibly proud" of his band.
"It's been a brilliant effort," Ben said. "There has been a terrific enthusiasm in the lead up to Cheltenham with everyone wanting to do well. 'Sinfonietta' is a great piece to work on and was challenging for every player.
Now we look forward to the Second Section knowing we can play the type of works that ask a great deal of us both technically and musically."
He added: "I'm incredibly proud of the players and everyone who supports us in so many ways. We've already ordered the Area test-piece, so the hard work continues after we have enjoyed a well-deserved celebration."
There is little doubt that the talented MD has a band more than capable of making a mark at the higher level. Since taking over in 2018 they have built steadily — winning the Fourth Section at the Brass at the Guild contest in 2019 and qualifying for Cheltenham in 2020 where they came runner-up in the Fourth Section.
Since the return from the Covid-19 break and their promotion, they claimed the Third Section Area title in Blackpool, before securing the title here this weekend. They are a band very much on an upward curve of solid progress.
The same could also be said of the podium finishers of Jayess Newbiggin and Formby — both led by MDs who used their considerable musical experience to excellent effect.
Duncan Beckley's prize winning lineage can be traced back to 1982 at the National Finals when he led Warren Band to Fourth Section success, and he ensured Jayess Newbiggin were very much in the hunt 40 years later with a performance hallmarked by his inherent understanding of contesting principles.
It was focused in pacing and dynamic contrast — nothing overdone and with some lovely touches of eloquent expression.
Louise Hough has also enjoyed Fourth Section success here with Formby in 2007, and they provided the judges with the early marker of consistency and stylistic understanding. It was confident playing topped and tailed by quality contributions rounded off with a sparkling finale.
Dapper and meticulous
John Maines gave an indication to what the judges had been looking for in his pre-results dress, as he neatly drew comparison to the "dapper, meticulous" personal attributes of the composer which were so obviously reflected his music — particularly he added, in terms of tempo and style.
"The way the music is written is exciting in itself", he added, saying that a number of bands had made the mistake of trying to "blow themselves into the box"to make an impression.
Those who certainly didn't do that for them were the top-six finishers of Ellington Colliery, Lofthouse 2000 and Ratby Co-operative Mid.
Each had their strengths and weaknesses, but overall they provided the judges with performances that sought out the stylistic character (including the dry wit) of each movement.
Ellington's was a 'nearly one' that sought out the elegance of the writing, whilst Lofthouse also sought the Horovitzian musical intentions. Ratby caught the ear with its persuasive tyle — although not quite as much in the box as they may have hoped.
Elsewhere the refined, sophistication of 'Sinfonietta' posed an intriguing conundrum for conductors, especially in capturing the spacious precision of the opening 'Allegro' which many found difficulty in maintaining at a consistent 106 pulse.
Flow was also an issue with the middle movement marked Lento moderato, crotchet = 60, which allowed for tasteful meandering but certainly not glacial momentum, whilst the finale had to be played with lightness of touch semi quaver touch for it to come to life.
It is the type of music that demands a very different type of discipline and understanding to that of many modern works bands play contests and concerts, but which are essential in developing a substantive appreciation of musical style.
Lots to enjoy
That was shown with several the midfield finishers, who had the right musical intentions but couldn't quite match it with consistent execution over all three movements, whilst a couple of bands may have been left scratching their heads after finding that that they didn't quite manage to impress the judges as they did others.
Lots though to enjoy from Cwmtawe in seventh all the way down to Chichester City — all providing something to engage the listener, whilst it was also encouraging to see 'full bands' too, especially in the low brass.
The percussion teams (lots containing youngsters taking the lead) all added essential texture and colour with an intelligent appreciation of the auditorium's acoustic.
All though (especially conductors) would have benefitted greatly from working on a piece that provided the most elegant of litmus tests of musical understanding.
A magnificent performance from all concerned. Bravo MD — outstanding stuffadjudicator Sandy Smith on Skelmersdale's winning performance
Result: Third Section
Adjudicators: John Maines, Brian Rostron, Sandy Smith
Set work: Sinfonietta for Brass Band (Joseph Horovitz)
1. Skelmersdale (Benjamin Coulson)
2. Jayess Newbiggin (Duncan Beckley)
3. Formby (Louise Hough MBE)
4. Ellington Colliery (Calum Hartwell)
5. Lofthouse 2000 (Lee Whitworth)
6. Ratby Co-operative Mid (Gary Perrin)
7. Cwmtawe (Wayne Pedrick)
8. Dysart Colliery (Kenneth Letham)
9. Redruth Town (David Nicholson)
10. Ocean Brass (Andy Wareham)
11. Bradwell Silver (Brian Keech)
12. Huddersfield & Ripponden (Adam Bell)
13. Kilmarnock Concert (Scott Walker)
14. City of Birmingham (Saphran Ali)
15. Olney Brass (Philip Devine)
16. Crwbin (Alex McGee)
17. Chichester City (Alfie Hughes)
Best Instrumentalist: Gemma Rowlands (Solo horn) — Skelmersdale