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Report & Result: 2023 British Open Championship

Foden's delivers an appropriately scorching account of Sand and Stars to win the 169th British Open title at a sun cooked Symphony Hall.

British Open
  The British Open has taken place at Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

There was a cruel meteorological as well as literary irony to the challenge faced by bands in their bid to claim the 169th British Open title.

With an unrelenting desert sun beating down outside Symphony Hall, inside the meniscus on the contest thermometer also rose to unprecedented levels of Saharan intensity as the 18 contenders thrillingly combined virtuosity and stamina in the most trying of performance conditions.

Deepest reserves

Victory could only be gained by drawing on the deepest reserves of communal resilience (much like Antoine du Saint Exupery, who inspired the work) to overcome the heat and humidity as well as the severest musical challenges of Thierry Deleruyelle's 'Sand and Stars'.

It was hard to think of a British Open played in such a literal test-piece atmosphere — and testament not only to the musical talents, but also the physical efforts of both conductors and players whose only recourse to keeping cool on stage was to remove their jackets.

Boiling point perfection

In the end though it was Foden's who paced their journey from take-off to salvation to boiling point perfection, although even Russell Gray's immediate reaction to the thunderous applause from the audience after their rendition was to tap his heart in thanks as well as medical certainty.

After the results were announced, and with his pulse rate back under metronomic red-line safety (he did make a quick dash from his hotel to join the celebrations), he spoke of how much he had enjoyed working on the piece, as well as with a band that has now won five out of six major contests under him since the return from Covid.

"I have waited a long time," he said as he held a tight grip on the famous Gold Shield trophy for the first time in his career.

"It was a piece that intrigued me from the word go to find the right answers — the type of enjoyable journey I like with music".

Just before being swamped by yet more congratulations he added: "This was a special performance, especially given the conditions. These players are very special too — nothing fazes them, and they just get better and better."

Better indeed. They are now arguably the best in the world. In 2025 they will represent England at the European Championships in Stavanger.

Fabulous performance

It was a performance worthy of its long-awaited triumph — not just from the number 15 draw, but also as their first Open win since 2012.

'A super show — great soloists — great band — great MD. Bravo!' — was the overall summing up of Dr Robert Childs in his written remarks.

'Just a fabulous performance', added Dr Stephen Cobb, whilst Stephen Roberts called it, 'A stunning performance of rich sonorities, breathtaking virtuosity and stylish soloists'.

Valaisia scorcher

Close in their sand dune footsteps came the Swiss of Valaisia led by Arsene Duc, after delivering a scorcher from the early number 4 draw that blazed with technical brilliance and detailing.

Dr Robert Childs wrote, 'Wow! What a performance', whilst Dr Stephen Cobb called it a 'wonderful interpretation'. Stephen Roberts completed the triptych of adjudication acclaim by describing it as 'a sensational performance!'

Their findings met with widespread agreement in the hall (and one suspects at home through the Wobplay live-broadcast), as the top two gave the judges superbly delivered contrasts to ponder.

Not by a mile

"They were definitely the best — but not by a mile from Valaisia," Dr Robert Childs told 4BR on the live-stream broadcast. "But the top-six were all very good performances."

When asked what the adjudicators were looking for after earlier speaking of consistency in style, execution, dynamics and pace in his pre-results analysis to the audience, he simply reiterated the point: "What's on the score. Read what's on the preface — it's in bold letters: the metronome marks are meticulous. It wasn't the be all and end all, but it did create a little shifting of positions."

Elegiac Foden's and Valaisia imagery

Foden's ensemble certainty was enhanced not only by Russell Gray's evocative interpretation (one of the very few MDs to take the final section in a swaggering 2 in a bar mode and with the flugel off stage), but also by wonderful individual contributions.

They were led by Richard Poole (who claimed the 'Best Soprano' accolade for an unprecedented third year in a row) and Gary Curtin, who won the overall 'Best Soloist' award for the first time. Others were not far behind.

It was a richly textured, subtly delineated performance that grew organically through the work's six novella sections rather than in episodic blocks of filmatic interest. It was a widescreen musical technicolour approach that drew you inexorably towards its triumphant conclusion.

So too Valaisia — although the imagery the Swiss created had a less elegiac air with its brilliantly coloured sections as bright as a high noon sun in burning intensity and heated excitement.

A little confusingly, the 'Best Euphonium' prize went Valaisia's Glenn Van Looy, although it was also equally well deserved — as was their second runner-up place to go with their 2017 victory, in just four appearances. How it would be great to welcome them back year on year.

Consistent Tredegar

Another past champion in Tredegar continued their consistent run of major championship form in coming third.

Ian Porthouse drew detail purposefulness from Antonie de Saint-Exupery's desert travails -described as 'full of drama' from a 'wonderful reading' (Dr Robert Childs), 'an excellent interpretation' (Dr Stephen Cobb) and 'a wonder of virtuosity and character' (Stephen Roberts) in their written remarks.

Top-six

A recent concert tour to the sand and sea resorts of the UK certainly aided Grimethorpe as led by Michael Bach they gave an evocative, if occasionally fragile account of dramatic impulse to end fourth, whilst Black Dyke's more deliberately structed reading of solid certainties of progress under Prof Nicholas Childs was fifth.

The final top-six place went to Cory as Philip Harper's colourful take on the score that was just niggled by an itchy gain or two of sand in more exposed places in some solo lines and ensemble.

Performance levels

Understandably, the heat did cause intonation problems — invariably between the tuned percussion and muted elements, whilst it was also notable that a number of principal cornet players were aided by their soprano and front row colleagues (rather obviously as Dr Childs said in his remarks) during and at the end of their demanding central cadenza.

That said, the level of performances on what was a hugely enjoyable, but exceptionally difficult test-piece, was nothing short of remarkable.

The sheer physical effort expended by players (especially on the low brass) could literally be seen on their brows on stage (as well as wrung out of their shirts after they had played).

Hammonds, Flowers and Brighouse

How the soloists played so well under such pressure was hugely impressive — right from band number 1 as Hammonds continued their impressive resurgence with a performance notable for its individual contributions, to end ninth.

Some nine hours later and Flowers rounded off the contest with an equally impressive account that just found itself overcooking a little dynamically in the lingering heat of the hall to have perhaps pushed its way into the top-six.

No successful title defence for Brighouse & Rastrick. Unlike the literary protagonists of 'Sand and Stars' they must have known that the long odds of triumphing off an early number 2 draw were stacked against them after an absorbing, if at times curiously structured rendition under Prof David King.

Result's table

With so much to play for at both ends of the final result's table, WFEL Fairey gave a solid rendition under Phil Chalk to come tenth, whilst Whitburn and Aldbourne managed to do the same to end up just behind them.

The Grand Shield relegation quicksand swallowed up Deford though after 18 consecutive Open appearances, despite Allan Withington driving them purposefully towards what was eventually to become a mirage of safety in 13th place. Rothwell Temperance will also return to Blackpool after not being able to do quite enough to extricate themselves from peril.

Sandwiched between them came colourful if inconsistent accounts from the cooperation band and Hepworth, although it was good to see two hugely talented young conductors in David Morton and Ryan Watkins make impressive debuts.

They will know though that a midfield finish next year cannot guarantee survival in a field of quality rivals, and alongside Leyland and Northop they will be hoping that the contesting heat will be on others rather than themselves come this time next year.

Awards

Before the announcement of the results time was taken to present the Iles Medal to composer Gavin Higgins and the Mortimer Medal to John Boax.

With close to 2000 tickets sold this year and an ever growing worldwide audience enjoying the live stream broadcast the prestige of playing at the British Open remains as strong as it has perhaps ever been.

However, Martin and Karyn Mortimer told 4BR that they are determined to enhance the levels of excellence in all areas further — something that was noted by the stern choice of works for the Spring Festival in 2024.

One thing they hope not to enhance though will surely be the temperature on the contest day next September.

Iwan Fox

'A super show — great soloists — great band — great MD. Bravo!' — was the overall summing up of Dr Robert Childs in his written remarks4BR

Results:


Saturday 9th September
Test Piece: 'Sand and Stars' (Thierry Deleruyelle)
Adjudicators: Dr Robert Childs, Dr Stephen Cobb, Stephen Roberts

1. Foden's (Russell Gray)*
2. Valaisia Brass (Arsene Duc)
3. Tredegar (Ian Porthouse)
4. Grimethorpe Colliery (Michael Bach)
5. Black Dyke (Prof Nicholas J. Childs)
6. Cory (Philip Harper)
7. Brighouse & Rastrick (Prof David King)
8. Flowers (Paul Holland)
9. Hammonds (Morgan Griffiths)
10. WFEL Fairey (Philip Chalk)
11. Whitburn (Luc Vertommen)
12. Aldbourne (Ivan Meylemans)
13. Desford Colliery (Allan Withington)**
14. the cooperation band (David Morton)
15. Hepworth (Ryan Watkins)
16. Rothwell Temperance (David Roberts)**
17. Leyland (Thomas Wyss)
18. Northop Silver (Gareth Brindle)

Stanley Wainwright Memorial Trophy: Gary Curtin (Foden's)
Brian Evans Memorial Trophy for Best Soprano: Richard Poole (Foden's)
The Geoffrey Whitham Memorial Trophy for Best Euphonium: Glenn van Looy (Valaisia)

* Receives invitation to represent England at 2025 European Championships in Stavanger
**Relegated to Grand Shield (TBC)

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