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Report & Results: 2017 All England International Masters Championship

Milnrow becomes the 2017 Masters Torchbearer as they take the title in Kettering under MD, Mark Bentham.

Milnrow
  Milnrow and Mark Bentham are victorious in Kettering.

After coming runner-up in 2015 and fourth last year, Milnrow became the 2017 All England Masters International 'Torchbearer' champion at their third attempt under MD Mark Bentham.

Showing the type of solid ensemble and solo quality that will hold them in good stead for their British Open appearance at Symphony Hall in September, they secured the £2,000 top prize with 'a very good performance' of Peter Graham's demanding set-work, with 'lots to admire' according to judges Stan Lippeatt and Mark Wilkinson in their written remarks.

It enabled the North West band to repel the determined challenge of Brass Band Willebroek, as the Belgians, fresh from their fourth place finish at the recent European Championship, came runner-up for the second successive year, despite taking the prizes for both '4BR Best Soloist' and 'Best Trombone'.

Standing out

With the top two 'standing out' on 'The Torchbearer' according to the judges, third place went to a vibrant City of Bradford, with a rather misfiring defending champion Virtuosi GUS in fourth. A brace of enjoyable, if occasionally uneven accounts from Thundersley Brass and Haverhill completed the top-six.

"I'm thrilled for the band," MD Mark Bentham told 4BR as he held the gleaming Masters Trophy in one hand and his beaming young son Teddy in the other.

"I've not had the best of luck on the piece in the past, despite really enjoying it. It's very 'English' in many ways, so I felt it needed care and attention to style as well as detail. The band played with so much confidence, so the music was able to speak for itself without being forced."

He added: "We've been quietly going about our business in the past couple of years, building and improving with a close-knit batch of players. Now we've got the Open to come — and to go there as Masters Champion will take our performance levels up another notch or two."

Style and substance

It was also a question of style as well a substance for the adjudicators. "It was a somewhat uneven contest in terms of overall quality," Stan Lippeatt later admitted to 4BR.

"However, the top two stood out for us: The quality of the ensemble playing and the way in which they captured the musical style was excellent. There was little to choose between them, but the winners just had the extra security."

He added: "There was a gap to those behind them. Too many noticeable errors and tonal harshness robbed the music of security and character. It was a difficult test, but some bands struggled with basics in places."

What certainly stood out for Stan and Mark was the well-drilled execution of Milnrow — as Mark Bentham used his experience to mould a performance that maintained both emotion and excitement thanks to well-chosen tempos and a measured control over dynamic contrasts.

With the main solo challenges delivered with confident aplomb from soprano to tubas, they also had the stamina to build to a rousing conclusion — one that was only surpassed by the communal outpouring of joy when the players got their hands on the Masters Trophy.

Sportsmanship

Although there was disappointment for Brass Band Willebroek — who are yet to claim the Masters title in nine attempts, it said a great deal about their sportsmanship that their representative was the first to offer his congratulations to Milnrow.

"That's contesting," he said. "Well done to them. They played very well, and it was so good to see so many women and youngsters in the band. We will come back again to try and win. We made some little mistakes, but we are happy for our players Kevin Van Giel and Walter Hoeks who won the solo prizes."

Most neutral listeners, in what was a sparse audience at times in the Lighthouse Theatre in Kettering (although overall tickets sales were reportedly up) may well have thought that the Masters trophy was heading abroad for the very first time in its 29 year history, after Willebroek delivered a classy, if not error free account as the fifth contender in the 14 band field.

The quality of the ensemble playing was tempered by fine individual contributions from their award winning soloists, as Frans Violet gave a commanding, if slightly idiosyncratic reading of the score. However, some moments of fragility did catch the ear in the box, allowing Milnrow to snatch victory.

Minute's silence

Earlier, the contest opened with a minute's silence in response to the recent terrorist tragedy in Manchester, before Virtuosi GUS never settled into their stride off the number 1 draw, despite the refined intentions of MD Adam Cooke.

A damaging litany of unforced errors and a curious lack of confidence never saw the defending champion in with a realistic chance of claiming a Masters hat-trick.

In contrast, City of Bradford bubbled with confident musical intent under MD Lee Skipsey in what was a colourful, waspish take. Although occasionally blighted by smudges in what was certainly a bold interpretation, it certainly caught the ears of the men that mattered in the box, as the Yorkshire band continued in its rich (and rewarding) vein of 2017 form.

Encouragement

Two bands that will also have taken a great deal of top-flight contest encouragement will have been the London & Southern Counties challengers of Thundersley Brass and Haverhill in fifth and sixth respectively.

Thundersley recovered from a poor star to deliver a 'Torchbearer' of substance, thanks in no small part to the intelligent direction of MD John Ward (and their excellent solo cornet), whilst Haverhill, led by Mark Ager, delivered an enjoyable take that was certainly full of Eric Ball character — occasional warts and all.

Elsewhere, Wantage Silver may well count themselves unlucky that an elegant reading by David Hirst failed to resonate in the box, whilst Llwydcoed and Ratby Co-operative's more artisan delivery, and a high unforced error count from Roche Brass scuppered well laid out interpretations.

Third degree burns

Behind them, there could have been few complaints about eventual outcomes as 'The Torchbearer' inflicted more than its fair share of third degree burns on performances that never matched coherent execution to musical intent.

Although the Masters has yet to rekindle the former glory days of the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, the dogged determination of contest organisers Phillip Biggs and Richard Franklin is perhaps starting to see the contest find its mid-season niche in the calendar once more.

And although it will need a great deal of further support, co-operation and partnership building for it to again become a truly memorable event, the words of 91 year old Major George Whittingham, who received the Masters Dedicated Service Award, certainly rang true when he spoke of his delight at being able to come to a contest to enjoy music inspired by a 'Master' in every sense of the word.

It's very 'English' in many ways, so I felt it needed care and attention to style as well as detail. The band played with so much confidence, so the music was able to speak for itself without being forcedMilnrow MD, Mark Bentham

Result:

Test Piece: 'The Torchbearer (Peter Graham)
Adjudicators: Stan Lippeatt and Mark Wilkinson

1. Milnrow (Mark Bentham)
2. Brass Band Willebroek (Frans Violet)
3. City of Bradford (Lee Skipsey)
4. Virtuosi GUS (Adam Cooke)
5. Thundersley Brass (John Ward)
6. Haverhill (Mark Ager)
7. Roche Brass (Garry Cutt)
8. Llywdcoed (Chris Turner)
9. Wantage Silver (David Hirst)
10. Ratby Co-operative (Mareika Gray)
11. Bilton Silver (David Stowell)
12. Kidlington (Nigel Seaman)
13. Blidworth Welfare (Martin Heartfield)
14. Ware Brass (Phillip Littlemore)

4Barsrest Best Soloist Award: Kevin Van Giel (euphonium) — Brass Band Willebroek
Best Trombone: Walter Hoeks (Brass Band Willebroek)

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