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Report & Result: 2018 National Championships of Great Britain

A near faultless Foden's and Russell Gray produce a memorable National title winning success in as well as outside the Royal Albert Hall.

Russell Gray
  It's been anything but a Gray day for Foden's and MD Russell Gray in rainy London as they deliver a stunning Handel in the Band by Kenneth Downie to take the National title.

A winner's picture taken by a taxi-rank outside the Albert Hall may not be the most memorable way for Russell Gray and Foden's to recall their 2018 National victory together, but by providing an 'almost flawless' musical balance between the more ostentatious and ornate challenges of their nearest rivals, the way in which they claimed the title certainly was.

Laced throughout with a sense of refined elegance, it saw the North West champion's rendition of 'Handel in the Band' repel the late draw audience favourites of Cory and Brighouse & Rastrick and return the famous trophy to Sandbach for the first time since 2012.

The band will now represent England at the 2020 European Championships in Palanga.

Far too long

And whilst the order of the podium finishers was greeted by ignorant booing from a small section of the audience, the vast majority who sat transfixed throughout an engrossing contest day warm-heartedly showed their appreciation, especially, you felt, for the popular Scotsman.

Thirteen years after his only other National success, one of the most frustratingly unfulfilled major championship winning conductors reminded everyone of his innate musical talents. It has been far too long in coming.

So too his opportunity to have enjoyed Foden's immediate celebrations.

However, the timing problems of a dead mobile phone and the vain search for a family meal that stopped him getting back into the Albert Hall were soon forgotten, as thanks to the skill of the bus driver in finding an opportune spot to park, he, his wife Mareika and young son Angus finally linked up with his overjoyed band.

What a performance

Amid the renewed hugs, cheering and tears of joy, he told 4BR, "I'm still staggered — but what a performance they gave.

I thought we were coming back in time for the results, but all of a sudden we had people coming up to me and offering congratulations. Then it was just a question of trying to find the band!"

Thankfully, with the help of 4BR photographer Ian Clowes he did, and whilst Foden's had to quickly re-board the bus for the journey home as the newly crowned National Champion, Russell and his family could finally enjoy the deserved celebrations.

"I had a great feeling about today," Mareika confided. "It just seemed to click as soon as Russell picked up the baton at the first rehearsal, and on stage they did everything he asked of them. Russell has always been determined that he would not be remembered for just one National victory. He's got two now, and I know he wants more."

Whether that comes with Foden's is another matter, as if it wasn't for a regional registration infringement found against Reg Vardy, he may not have been conducting them at the contest at all.

No doubts

That though (including the post-contest search for his band) is perhaps Russell's Gray contesting life in a nutshell; at times chaotically random, but always musically engrossing. Hopefully now, it will gain the rewards it so richly deserves.

There were certainly no doubts in the minds of the three judges.

"There were three quite stunning performances at the top end of the results," adjudicator Paul Holland (joined by Alan Morrison and Luc Vertommen) revealed in his excellent pre-results analysis. "We agreed on the decision after considerable deliberation between first and second, and then, second and third."

He added: "The winner was near flawless, the second placed band scintillating; third also knocked your socks off: Then came five bands that each gave excellent performances but just didn't have the same clarity and security."

Paul also richly praised the standard of solo playing (even the BBb tubas with tongue in cheek), saying that the 'Best Instrumentalist' winner (later revealed as Cory's solo trombone Chris Thomas) had given a display of "amazing virtuosity and sublime playing". No-one disagreed.

Clear indication

Speaking to 4BR after the results, Paul and Luc (Alan Morrison dashed off to catch a train) also gave a clear indication to why Russell Gray's approach found favour ahead of Philip Harper's more obvious ostentatious daring with Cory (which came in at a remarkable 16 and half minutes in length) and David King's ornate splendour (with antiphonal cornet formation) with defending champion Brighouse.

Paul added: "It felt and sounded near faultless. We could hear all the clarity and amazing attention to detail. The subtle balance we appreciated and it was a beautiful reading as well; so musical."

As for Luc: "Sometimes you can overdo things... but it doesn't work on this piece. If you just stick to the score and do it as musical as you can then it works. You can't over-do things, the little rits and the small accelerandos; then it doesn't make sense. The band that sticks to the score and made the music alive got a great result."

Paul concluded: "There was a lot of discussion in the box — it was very tight. That (Foden's) felt slightly more complete.

The written remarks also confirmed the judge's appreciation of Russell Gray's approach and the level of outstanding playing on show from Foden's off the number 8 draw (the earliest victory since 2009).

"A near faultless performance of stature" Paul wrote in his remarks. "What an exciting — absolutely world class performance. Ticking all boxes for me today. Bravo MD and every member of this excellent team," added Luc Vertommen.

Alan Morrison summed up his thoughts by writing: "So much musicality here and a fantastic array of soloist and technique. Some minor moments of unease, but a performance that lit the place up."

Interpretive disparity

For them, the differences between the top three may have been slight in technical appraisal, but the interpretations offered by Maestros Gray, Harper and King offered clearer disparity.

Russell's Gray's take — with a liquidity of warm tonality tempered by nuanced ebb and flow, captured the light wit as well as melancholic emotion of Kenneth Downie's finely structured, if rather episodic work, in a manner that resonated most.

In contrast, Philip Harper's daring (the MD later confirmed to 4BR that he took risks) elongation of the slower elemental features perhaps bordered tantalisingly close to static longuers of interest, whilst David King's spotlighted flourishes (also later confirming his desire to bring out something a little different) gave his account a brilliance of tonality that possibly edged towards fragmented brittleness with the antiphonal sound occasionally bouncing around the Albert Hall.

All though were supremely inventive, intuitive personal takes on a score that demanded a sense of musical audacity to stand out in the cavernous acoustic of the hall. Harper and King succeeded for many in the hall, but only came tantalisingly close for the men in the box.

Adage about class

With the top three clearly ahead of the rest of the field, it was the 'unfancied' Black Dyke that confirmed their return to form in claiming the final pre-qualification spot in fourth. Although Prof Nicholas Childs had to occasionally wrestle the ensemble under control, it was a timely reminder of the competitive adage about class.

The final top-six places were filled by an impressive early-draw marker from Fairey, vibrantly led by Garry Cutt, and Grimethorpe — showing that increasingly solid major contest foundations are now in place under Allan Withington.

Behind them came the last of the five 'excellent performances' the judges earlier spoke about; with a delighted Flowers in seventh and Tredegar in eighth (many people's pick for a top-six finish or better).

Solid send off

Further back the midfield finishers were headed by a misfiring Whitburn in ninth and a happy Woodfalls in tenth, whilst Friary Guidford continued their incremental climb up the Albert Hall results table in 11th, ahead of a much more cohesive Co-operative Funeralcare than that on show at Symphony Hall.

Virtuosi GUS gave departing MD Adam Cooke a solid send off in 13th, whilst NASUWT Riverside will have noted the scalps taken in beating Desford Colliery (who drew number 1) and a disappointing Leyland, who failed to display the impressive solidity that hallmarked their fine top-six finish at the British Open.

The bottom four may have been outclassed on the day, but each will have taken encouragement from their displays.

Engaging and tuneful

So too for Kapitol Promotions; the filming by a television production crew for Sky Arts showcasing a contest that held the interest of the listeners (numbers maybe just up on last year) thanks to a test-piece that revealed itself as an engaging, tuneful challenge.

The splash of King's Division fanfare pomp that followed an entertaining presentation by the RAF Squadronaires and the richly deserved awards of the Iles and Mortimer Medals to Trevor Caffull and Gwyn Evans respectively, also added to the occasion.

It was though, one topped by a victory for a fine band and a conductor in Russell Gray that has waited far too long to gain a second National reward deserving of his talents.

Iwan Fox

Thirteen years after his only other National success, one of the most frustratingly unfulfilled major championship winning conductors reminded everyone of his innate musical talents. It has been far too long in coming4BR

Result:

Test Piece: Handel in the Band (Dr Kenneth Downie)
Adjudicators: Paul Holland, Alan Morrison, Luc Vertommen

1. Foden's (Russell Gray)**
2. Cory (Philip Harper)*
3. Brighouse & Rastrick (Prof David King)*
4. Black Dyke (Prof Nicholas Childs)*
5. Fairey (Garry Cutt)
6. Grimethorpe Colliery (Allan Withington)
7. Flowers (Steve Sykes)
8. Tredegar (Ian Porthouse)
9. Whitburn (Florent Didier)
10. Woodfalls (Dr Robert Childs)
11. Friary Guildford (Chris King)
12. Co-operative Funeralcare (Frans Violet)
13. Virtuosi Gus (Adam Cooke)
14. NASUWT Riverside (David Roberts)
15. Desford Colliery (Michael Fowles)
16. Leyland (Thomas Wyss)
17. Thundersley (Nigel Taken)
18. City of Cardiff (Mellingriffith) (Nigel Seaman)
19. Tongwynlais Temperance (Andreas Kratz)
20. RMT Fishburn (David Hirst)

Best Instrumentalist: Chris Thomas (trombone) — Cory

* Top 4 pre-qualified for 2019 National Final
** Denotes Qualification for 2020 European Brass Band Championships as highest placed English representative

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Arranger, composer, adjudicator, conductor