On a weekend of occasionally surprising contest performances in Torquay, there was even a somewhat unfamiliar feel to the way Paul Holland led Flowers in retaining the Championship Section title.
Their captivating rendition of 'Seascapes' was described as 'a clear winner' by adjudicators Major David Barringer and Ludovic Neurohr.
However, the way in which the MD subtly tailored his reading to amplify the defined textural balances in the deadened acoustic of the Forum auditorium was far removed from some of the more imposing dynamic displays that had helped the partnership secure six previous Area titles together.
It was also an approach that the MD readily admitted was the only way to bring the abstract imagery and detailed structures of the complex score to life.
"It's such a difficult piece and a great challenge," he said. "I don't think we've worked as hard together on a piece in such a short space of time. The response of the players, especially after the disappointment of Butlins, was incredible. They deserved the result."
He added; "We know we have some way to go, but the foundations are in place — and this was a great test of the progress we've already made."
That was impressively self-evident as Flowers replaced dynamic heft with expressive craft; Paul Holland initiating a marked reduction in the band's default dynamic, allowing the rich colour palette and textural threads to merge and coalesce, especially in the central, languid Sarabande and the opening to the final section.
A noble close came with a final soprano flourish to round off a performance that although not with moments of unease was hallmarked with quality.
The display of delight when Flowers was announced as champion also hinted at some relief — an acknowledgement as Paul later admitted that he knew that they had been hard pressed by not one, but two excellent performances from runner-up Aldbourne and third-placed Filton Concert Brass.
David Thornton's lyrical interpretation wasn't a surprise to those who had witnessed him inspire Brighouse & Rastrick to the Yorkshire Area title. However, it certainly raised more than a few eyebrows here, as many neutral listeners tipped Aldbourne to claim the title for the first time since 1981. It was a fine performance.
There was also something of a musical revelation from Filton. Tom Davoren's poetic approach, dynamically light and delicately phrased impressed many (4BR included) — although crucially it just fell tantalisingly short of qualifying for the Albert Hall with the judges.
They admitted that although Flowers had been 'a stand out winner', second and third place had taxed them in being, '...very, very close together'.
David also highlighted the aspects he and Ludovic were listening out for; clarity in the opening, musical interest and flow in the central section, controlled technique in the finale. "That made the job relatively easy today," he admitted, whilst his Swiss compatriot added his compliments to the bands with a knowing nod of agreement to his colleague.
Earlier, the expected challenge from Woodfalls never quite materialised, as their pockmarked performance took the gloss of Dr Robert Childs' cogent reading of the score, whilst a robust account from Camborne ended fifth.
There was further signs that St Dennis in sixth continue to close the gap on the heavyweight contenders with another impressive display under MD Darren Hawken, whilst the overall standard fell away appreciably thereafter, especially for those ending in the lower reaches of the results table.
Although on this evidence there was a much more competitive feel to the battle for the Championship title, it was Flowers who once again reasserted their 'clear' dominance, although perhaps not in the way that we have come to expect.
Not for the first time, and certainly not the last in this year's qualifying series, Gilbert Vinter's 'Symphony of Marches' seemed to be written in a language that caused a form of musical dyslexia in far too many conductors.
Thankfully, two of the most experienced musical linguists of the banding movement showed that they had lost none of their ability to interpret scores of classic provenance as they led their bands to deserved qualification.
Melvin White and John Maines simply let the music speak for itself with Michelmersh and Bodmin — creating performances that resonated with characteristic Vinter hallmarks of transparency, musicality and wit in the process. The relative tempo choices were bang on the mark, the dynamics defined, the tonality cultured.
Neither was technically perfect, but they were impressively lucid, refined and authentic; 10-minute masterclasses of clearly thought out musical understanding.
It also saw Michelmersh gain their first Area title since 2003 whilst Bodmin, who won the Championship title here in 1999, took another significant step forward in an admirably determined rebuilding process. If the Kapitol Music Panel picks another 'classic' test for the Cheltenham, you wouldn't discount either of the doing rather well again.
Behind them came Glastonbury Brass (the former Yeovil Band) with a solid rendition off the number 1 draw — one that tellingly set the marker that all but the two Cheltenham qualifiers could beat.
How a 55 year old score with such clear technical and descriptive orientation caused so many problems was something discreetly alluded to by both David Barringer and Nick Grace, who must have spent a frustrating few hours in the tent on Saturday afternoon.
First to speak, Nick was generously tempered. "There was some really fine playing. There were no disasters, all good quality but some better than others. The clarity and attention to detail is all there on the score. All the relationships are there. It was a question of how it was delivered."
Moments later, Major Barringer was equally diplomatic. "I was expecting to hear some top-notch playing. We didn't hear one, but we did hear quality strength in depth. All top three bands had their moments. It's not an easy piece."
They had done an admirable job in stringent circumstances.
It was rather summed up by Brunel Brass in fourth. Technically the best band by a considerable margin, their young MD Daniel Hall led then in an interpretation that was different to say the least — to the point where it was seemingly rewritten.
The MD is a genuine 24 carat talent, but this was fool's gold stuff; bright, shiny and ultimately deceptive. It will hopefully be a lesson learnt for one of the most exciting musicians in the banding movement.
SW Comms and Andover Town filled the remaining top-six places with solidly portrayed performances of more neutral character in a contest that increasingly became a familiar tale of good intentions and poor execution. The likes of Roche Brass, Soundhouse Brass and Helston left for home rueing sloppy errors.
For two 'veteran' conductors however, further evidence that age hasn't wearied their desire, determination and inherent talent to interpret a musical language that is fast becoming something of a lost art form.
In contrast to the troubles caused by 'Symphony of Marches', Darrol Barry's 'Rise of the Phoenix' has proved to be an accessible and understandable delight for competitors and listeners alike
Its transparent challenges; written in a clearly commercial musical language familiar to anyone who has ever seen a James Bond film, has enabled bands to give exciting, colourful performances. The best here pulsated with energy and drama as well as lyrical musicality.
That was certainly the case with Sidmouth Town, as Adrian Harvey led the Devonian ensemble to a clear cut victory with an outstanding performance; packed with super ensemble cohesion and cultured soloists. It was excellent in every respect.
On this form they will return to Cheltenham for the first time since 2016 with every chance of coming in the top-six once again.
Joining them will be Weston Brass. They gave a more robust, but equally thrilling account immediately before their rivals to send MD Carl Whiteoak and his band to the National Final for the first time since 1989. It was also richly deserved.
Alan Bourne and Brian Rostron later revealed to 4BR that although they had enjoyed themselves in the box, they had also been frustrated. Too many bands had allowed the obvious excitement and energy of the music to get the better of what should have been more considered musical intentions.
Alan spoke of "some very mixed performances" in his pre-results address, with the duo listening out for one major defining issue in their process — that of "overall control" in balances, dynamics, rhythms and tuning.
Amid the "fine solo playing" and "excellent percussion", that was the defining factor in their decision making. It was an explanation much appreciated by those waiting for the results.
With Sidmouth and Weston bagging the qualification places, fine first half accounts from third placed St Pinnock, Wotton under Edge, Bream Silver and Hatherleigh just missed out. All brought out the sense of tension and drama from the score (and the perc playing was excellent), balancing it with secure, lyrical solo leads on the flugel and cornet.
Behind them came a host of performances of merit and interest — all the way down to the bottom of the results table in a contest that showed that at this level (as in the Third and Fourth) the region continues to produce bands of quality; none more so though than the newly crowned champion.
Despite the terrible portents of being installed as a pre-contest favourite by 4BR, as well as picking out Kelly's Eye from the draw bag, Gosport Solent Brass produced a super performance under MD Colin Garner to claim the Area title.
It was a richly deserved victory — right from the first phrase of Holst's 'First Suite in Eb' that flowed effortlessly from their lower brass just a few minutes after 9.00am on Saturday morning.
Thereafter they completely banished any doom laden thoughts with a rendition rich in character, style and solid execution — led by their soprano Kelvin Howard who added a classy touch of quality on what was an immensely difficult part.
It also set the imposing high bar for judges Nick Grace and Alan Bourne in the box. Despite a number of excellent efforts from the 16 rivals that followed, none could dislodge them from the top step of the podium — one they have become familiar to in the past couple of years in securing their second successive Area title (they won the Fourth Section in 2018).
Joining them in Cheltenham for the first time in a decade will be Poole Borough, who also gave a neatly considered early draw performance under Lloyd Bartlett aided by an extra baritone to supplement the trio of tubas.
South Molton Town also secured their first Finals place in 30 years as they appeared late on the rails under Gil Taylor to snatch the final qualification spot ahead of a trio of solid top-six finishers in Swindon Brass, New Forest Brass and Ocean Brass.
It was a contest with much to admire as well as enjoy, with the contest organisers also emerging with great credit. They brought forward the mid-point break to enable Gillingham Imperial Silver to take to the stage after their bus had broken down on the way to the venue (they eventually came an admirable 13th).
The judges gave clear indications of what they were looking for and had found in the box; Nick admitting with "brutal honesty" that a number of bands had struggled with the "fundamentals", especially in regard to breath control and tonal quality.
Meanwhile, Alan said he was "a little disappointed" as every performance showed the need for "the basics to be worked on" — although he admitted that the top two bands "were clear".
Given that Holst's work has been a huge challenge around the country this year, the competitors should take comfort that they have not been alone, whilst all will have benefitted from having to work on music that lays bare the basic requirements of good quality brass band playing (conductors especially).
It was all summed up by 92 year old Francis Cowley, who played solo cornet with Swindon Brass. "I'll never retire," he told 4BR before he went on stage. "Why should I? I'm enjoying it too much."
It was a sentiment that everyone would have agreed with — especially Gosport Solent Brass who overcame a kiss of death and Kelly's Eye to triumph in fine style.
The foundations of West of England banding may have shrunk somewhat in recent years, but on the evidence of this contest they are still admirably robust, well directed and packed with youthful patches of encouraging development.
The Area will send a trio of fine bands to Cheltenham after a contest that saw Brian Rostron and Ludovic Neurohr given the difficult task of separating out a host of compact, colourful performances.
Brian gave a clear and concise analysis before the announcement of the results; emphasising the importance of "going back to the basics" to get things right. And although he highlighted tempo and tuning problems he also admitted that both he and Ludovic had "enjoyed some great playing from all the bands"
No such problems in picking a winner though, as he later told 4BR; Redruth Town giving a tremendous rendition of 'Stantonbury Festival' that bore the hallmarks of a champion right from the imposing trio of opening chords.
Led with musical authority by MD Andrew Craze it quickly developed into a high class rendition that secured the title — their first since 1998, in the most commanding fashion. On this form they will be a band to fear in Cheltenham.
Joining them there will be Wroughton Silver, as the delighted players celebrated their return to the Area contest for the first time since 2003 with a performance that MD Neil Webb engineered almost to perfection with just two horns and three tubas.
The final qualification place eventually went to another delighted ensemble. As the last band to play Nailsworth Silver gave a fine account of themselves under Steve Ruck to pip a bold Shaftesbury Town (who played number 1), whilst the remaining top-six places went to well directed accounts from Exeter Railway and Bideford Town.
The Arena auditorium may not the finest acoustic to hear brass bands perform, but as usual it did its job well — helped by the excellent attendance of a supportive audience sat close to the competing bands (the front row being just a yard from the knee of the solo cornet player!).
And with ample evidence that just about every band had a liberal sprinkling of talented youngsters in their ranks (Illogan Sparnon making their first Area appearance in 25 years, to Great Western Youth who had 21 players under the age of 18 and Chalford Academy who fielded a brace of brilliant young tuba players), there are encouraging signs that the quality here will hopefully be supplemented by increased quantity in the years to come.
They admitted that although Flowers had been 'a stand out winner', second and third place had taxed them in being, '...very, very close together'4BR
Test Piece: Seascapes (Ray Steadman-Allen)
Adjudicators: Major David Barringer MBE & Ludovic Neurohr
1. Flowers (Paul Holland)*
2. Aldbourne (Dr David Thornton)*
3. Filton Concert Brass (Tom Davoren)
4. Woodfalls (Dr Robert Childs)
5. Camborne Town (Kevin Mackenzie)
6. St Dennis (Darren R Hawken)
7. Verwood Concert Brass (Kevin Smith)
8. Lydbrook (Glyn Williams)
9. St Austell Town (Iain McKnight)
10. Lanner & District Silver (David Hamilton)
11. Chalford (Steve Tubb)
12. Bournemouth Concert Brass (Dr Howard Evans)
13. Hyde (Garry Cutt)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Test Piece:Symphony of Marches (Gilbert Vinter)
Adjudicators: Major David Barringer MBE & Dr Nick Grace OBE
1. Michlemersh Silver (Melvin White)*
2. Bodmin Town (John Maines)*
3. Glastonbury Brass (Daniel Shave)
4. Brunel Brass (Daniel Hall)
5. SW Comms (Chris Spreadbury)
6. Andover Town (Steve Large)
7. Roche Brass (David Johnson)
8. Soundhouse Brass Plymouth (Lee Clayson)
9. Helston Town (John Berryman)
10. City of Bristol Brass (Christopher Bond)
11. A W Parker (Drybrook) (Joshua Ruck)
12. Otterbourne Brass (Phillip Littlemore)
13. St Keverne (Gareth Churcher)
14. Forest of Dean Brass (Bryn James)
15. Sherborne Town (Gary Greenstock)
16. Mount Charles (Colin Toghill)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Test Piece: Rise of the Phoenix (Darrol Barry)
Adjudicators: Alan Bourne & Brian Rostron
1. Sidmouth Town (Adrian Harvey)*
2. Weston Brass (Carl Whiteoak)*
3. St Pinnock (Colin Hudson)
4. Wotton-Under-Edge & District (Ian Dickinson)
5. Bream Silver (Hugh Bamford)
6. Hatherleigh Silver (Matt Green)
7. Camborne Junior Contesting (Alan Pope BEM)
8. Midsomer Norton & Radstock Silver (Jo Sykes)
9. Phoenix Brass (Crewkerne) (David Boorer)
10. Shrewton Silver (Peter Bede)
11. Downton (Paul Williams)
12. Lydney Town (Kevin Ford)
13. Cinderford (Chris Howley)
14. Denmead Brass (Estelle Flood)
15. Cheltenham Silver (Nigel Galliott)
16. Corsham (John Heritage)
*Top two bands qualify for the National Final
Test Piece: Little Suite in Eb (Gustav Holst)
Adjudicators: Dr Nick Grace & Alan Bourne
1. Gosport Solent Brass (Colin Garner)*
2. Poole Borough (Lloyd Bartlett)*
3. South Molton Town (Gil Taylor)*
4. Swindon Brass (Tim Crouter)
5. New Forest Brass (Ian Luxford)
6. Ocean Brass (Martin Humphries)
7. Pendeen Silver (Leonard Adams)
8. Porthleven Town (Tom Bassett)
9. Bath Spa (Martin Perry)
10. Bugle Silver (Steve Osborne)
11. Pillowell Silver (Ian Whitburn)
12. St Stythians (James Burns)
13. Gillingham Imperial Silver (James Bennett)
14. Bratton Silver (Simon Carr)
15. Verwood Town (Emma Button)
16. Swindon Pegasus (Danny Dullforce)
17. Indian Queens (Mark Arnold)
*Top three bands qualify for National Final
Withdrawn: Weymouth Concert Brass (Helen Brind)
Test Piece: Stantonbury Festival (Ray Steadman-Allen)
Adjudicators: Ludovic Neurohr & Brian Rostron
1. Redruth Town (Andrew Craze)*
2. Wroughton Silver (Neil Webb)*
3. Nailsworth Silver (Steve Ruck)*
4. Shaftesbury Town Silver (Martin Hill)
5. Exeter Railway (Graham Eaton)
6. Bideford Town (Mark Durham)
7. Saltash Town (Ross Farr-Semmens)
8. Tewkesbury Town (Nigel Morgan)
9. Okehampton Excelsior Silver (Robert Julian)
10. Great Western Youth (Ben Halstead)
11. Chalford Academy (Steve Tubb)
12. Tiverton Town (John Fitton)
13. Test Valley Brass (John Heritage)
14. Shanklin Town Brass (IoW) (Malcolm Lewis)
15. Illogan Sparnon Silver (Shaun Marsden)
16. Torbay Brass (Joe Lowlands)
17. Launceston Town (Alan Iles)
*Three bands qualify for National Final