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4BR Talking Point
Future tests of character

Sandy Smith puts forward his opinion that this year's test-piece selections have highlighted a serious erosion in playing abilities at all levels — and comes up with some musical choices that he believes may benefit us all.

Sandy Smith
Talking Points: Sandy Smith adjudicated at this year's Regional Championship events

As the round of Area contests is now over, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the test-piece choices that were used.

The Kapitol Music Panel are to be applauded for the selections in all five sections: They were pieces which have provided competitors ample opportunity to make music while focussing on the fundamentals of good brass playing. 

They have also highlighted the problems that these competitors have displayed in the execution of these fundamentals; particularly the continued erosion of many players’ abilities to control their instruments at softer dynamic levels and in passages where the scoring thins out - even at Championship level.

For all the naive comments on social media, some from rather surprising sources, that ‘Pageantry’ is no longer a ‘top section’ test- piece, it was fairly obvious that it more than exposed frailties in playing technique which don't sit well with bands of supposedly elite level status.

Pointless excess

It also provided a welcome contrast to the pointless excesses in some modern test-piece writing, where it can be easier to hide your individual and collective shortcomings behind a barrage of semiquavers, cross- rhythms, excessive percussion and loud dynamics. 

That said, there have also been problems with a lack of understanding from conductors in how to approach some of these ‘classic works’Sandy Smith

That said, there have also been problems with a lack of understanding from conductors in how to approach some of these ‘classic works’.

Excessive tempos are never going to impress if the detail and clarity is lost, and in an age where it is easier than ever to do research on pieces, it seems either rash, foolish or perhaps arrogant, to fail to at least consider the best of what can be gleaned from some sort of musical investigation into performance provenance.

Howelss
Pageantry by Herbert Howells found too many elite levels bands and conductors wanting

Innate appreciation

The five composers featured this year all had an innate appreciation of how to write effectively for a brass band; providing well structured works with a skilful understanding of scoring. The fact that many conductors did not take full advantage of this is not the fault of the men who wrote the music. 

It is my belief that we must continue to strive to provide music of the highest compositional standard for the Areas and National Finals which will, in the long term, see an improvement in overall standards of playing at all levels. 

If conductors appreciate the challenge they face then for the vast majority this will mean focussing on improvement let alone perceived mastery.Sandy Smith

If conductors appreciate the challenge they face then for the vast majority this will mean focussing on improvement let alone perceived mastery.

A committed search for and encouragement to composers with a real understanding of how to write effectively and sympathetically for band is therefore of vital importance: Those who focus on giving us music which is idiomatic for each instrument and gives the players a chance to express themselves musically, rather than attempting to trip them up with cheap tricks.

Musical suggestions

It is with this in mind that I submit the following list of suggestions for consideration by the Kapitol Music Panel for future use at both the Areas and National Finals - although I also add a caveat to the list in as much as it does not, by its very nature, address the crucial need for newly composed music. 

I would still like to see Area and Finals test-pieces being chosen on some kind of rotation – eg; an established ‘classic’ followed by a ‘modern’ work etc. All I would ask is that any ‘new’ piece being considered displays the same high standard of compositional craft and skill in scoring as the suggestions on this list.

The lists for the lower sections are a little shorter as historically the compositions which still stand the test of time tend to originally be from the higher sections. Perhaps there is an extra opportunity here to encourage more new compositions?

I have marked with an (A) or an (F) any pieces with I think would be more suitable as Areas or Finals choices. This may be due to either difficulty or, in the odd instance, just the performance time. I have also added a few notes to explain what may at first seem any unusual choices.

The list is not exhaustive but hopefully will stimulate some discussion and debate.

Sandy Smith

Championship Section:

Partita (Philip Sparke)
Cloudcatcher Fells (John McCabe)
Contest Music (Wilfred Heaton)
The Year of the Dragon (Philip Sparke)
Blitz (Derek Bourgeois)
Of Men and Mountains (F) (Edward Gregson)
Variations on a Ninth* (Gilbert Vinter)
* Can cornets & horns still triple tongue? On the recent evidence of Pageantry the cadenzas would still sort the soloists out.

Diversions for Brass Band (A) (Derek Bourgeois)
A Kensington Concerto (A) (Eric Ball)
Vistas (A) (Martin Ellerby)
Cantata (F) (Andrew Duncan)
Gallery (F) (Howard Snell)
Raveling Unraveling (F) (Philip Sparke )
A Symphony of Colours (F) (Simon Dobson)
Montage (Peter Graham)
Revelation (F) (Philip Wilby)

First Section:

Spectrum (Gilbert Vinter)
The Essence of Time (Peter Graham)
Four Dances from ‘Checkmate’ (Bliss arr. Eric Ball)
Connotations (F) (Edward Gregson)
High Peak (Eric Ball)
Variations for Brass Band (Ralph Vaughan Williams)
John O'Gaunt (Gilbert Vinter)
A Caledonian Suite (Buxton Orr)
A Downland Suite (F) (John Ireland)
Fire In The Sky (Peter Meechan)
Symphonic Music (    Paul Huber)
Endeavour (Philip Sparke)
Fireworks (F) (Elgar Howarth)
Pantheon (F) (Jacob Vilhelm Larsen)
Tombstone Arizona     (Gareth Wood)
Introduction, Elegy & Caprice (Morley Calvert)    
Tournament for Brass (F) (Eric Ball)

Second Section:

Sinfonietta (Gordon Langford)
Dimensions (Peter Graham)
Three Impressions for Brass (Arthur Butterworth)
Triptych (Philip Sparke)
Culloden Moor (Gareth Wood)
Rococo Variations (Allan Street)
The Saga of Tyrfing (Jacob Vilhelm Larsen)
Tam O'Shanter's Ride (Denis Wright)
The Pilgrim's Progress (F) (Rodney Newton)
The Ages of Anxiety (F) (Roger Payne)
Penlee (A) (Simon Dobson)

Third Section:

Three Haworth Impressions (Gordon Langford)
Divertimento (Bryan Kelly)
Sinfonietta (Joseph Horovitz)
 Variations on a Theme by Handel* (Gordon Langford)
* The composer's instructions on the score would allow a version of c. 12/13 minutes to be performed if required. A neglected gem by a master craftsman.

A Leadsman, a Lady and a Lord (David Stanhope)
Four Spanish Impressions (Rodney Newton)
Music for a Festival (Philip Sparke)
The Graces of Love (A) (Oliver Waespi)

Fourth Section:

Glasshouse Sketches (A) (Barrie Gott)
A Malvern Suite (Philip Sparke) 
Three Inventions (Pi Scheffer)
Aspirations (Derek Bourgeois)
A Saddleworth Festival Overture (Goff Richards)
Edinburgh Dances (F) (Bryan Kelly)
1st Suite in Eb (Gustav Holst arr. Sydney Herbert)



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Alan Fernie

DRSAM, Dip.NCOS
Arranger, composer, adjudicator, conductor