Friary Guildford brought the curtain down on the 2017 Area Championships with a top section victory at Stevenage that substantially endorsed the provenance of their major title winning credentials.
A polished rendition of 'Pageantry' also reaffirmed their dominance of the London & Southern Counties Area, as they claimed a hat-trick of wins under MD Chris King to return to the Royal Albert Hall for a fifth consecutive year.
They will now head to the Senior Cup at the Spring Festival in Blackpool in a few weeks time as a short-priced favourite to take a step closer the British Open.
Also seeing their pre-contest Senior Cup odds drop will be Redbridge, as they returned to impressive Area form under Jeremy Wise to regain their Kensington Gore berth for the first time since 2011.
In a contest that gave judges David Hirst and Steve Sykes plenty to think about due to the varied, and at times, variable musical approaches to the Howells' score from the twelve competitors, a typically bravura account from Zone One Brass finished third, with the remaining top-six places going to a persuasive rendition from Haverhill Silver, and well managed performances from East London Brass and Aveley & Newham.
That broad spectrum of interpretation was certainly appreciated by the judges, as Steve Sykes revealed in his pre-results address.
The resoundingly positive response to his question of whether or not bands had 'enjoyed' the 'Pageantry' experience reinforced his opinion that both players and conductors would 'be all the better' for playing it. It was also noted that two of the individual awards went to performers from bands that did not feature in the prizes, but whose contributions certainly caught the ear.
However, both he and David also took time to emphasise the areas of concern where they felt bands overall didn't quite master the challenges of Howells' work — notably with tempos in the 'Cortege' and the need to show dynamic contrast and balanced detail in both the opening 'King's Herald' and 'Jousts' finale.
With that in mind as the excellent team of Regional organisers collated the results, the consensus feeling in the Gordon Craig Theatre from those 4BR spoke to, was that the Area title would head once again to Friary Guildford.
A confidently portrayed account, full of detail, ensemble balance, ensemble and solo security allied to the MDs expertly nuanced tempos and dynamics at the contest's midway point, saw them put clear water between themselves and their rivals.
And with principal cornet Richard Straker deservedly claiming the 'Best Cornet' award and the 'Best Trombones' accolade also heading in their direction, the announcement of the individual awards rather confirmed predictions.
"I'm delighted that the judges appreciated our performance," the delighted winning MD Chris King later told 4BR. "It was very important to me to create a measured and respectful performance on Pageantry but also one that had character and detail.
It is a difficult acoustic to play in here at Stevenage, but that suited the work I felt. You really had to concentrate on balance, blend and dynamics — so that is what we had worked on constantly since our appearance at Butlins."
Chris added: "It's another great win for the band and another positive move in the right direction. Our focus now is for a little bit of a celebration and then start work on our challenge for the Senior Cup."
It was not in fact until Redbridge, as the last band of the day, that Friary Guildford's dominance was challenged by an equally confident, richly characterised account. Jeremy Wise brought an intellectual vibrancy to his reading that was only tarnished by some noticeable minor errors.
Meanwhile, Richard Ward will know that even his talented troupe of individuals at Zone One Brass may have needed an extra rehearsal or two to have really have brought a more cohesive sense of ensemble balance and blend to bear on what was another engaging contest performance.
And although the bands towards the bottom end of the results table did find obvious difficulties with the challenges of the 80 year old score, there was certainly further evidence of the emerging top section strength in depth as the podium finishers were pushed by the likes of Haverhill's considered musical approach led by Mark Ager and the solidly portrayed accounts of East London Brass and Aveley & Newham.
None though could quite do enough to deny an increasingly impressive Friary Guildford from claiming their third consecutive Area title. On this form, many more bands could be faced with the same problem at major championship events over the coming months.
It was very important to me to create a measured and respectful performance on Pageantry but also one that had character and detailWinning MD, Chris King
Test Piece: 'Pageantry' (Herbert Howells)
Adjudicators: David Hirst and Steve Sykes
1. Friary Guildford (Chris King)*
2. Redbridge Brass (Jeremy Wise)*
3. Zone One Brass (Richard Ward)
4. Haverhill Silver (Mark Ager)
5. East London Brass (Jayne Murrill)
6. Aveley & Newham (Robert Nunnery)
7. Thundersley Brass (Nigel Taken)
8. Medway (Melvin White)
9. Wantage Silver (Craig Patterson)
10. Northfleet Brass (Melvin White)
11. Staines Brass (Dan Floyd)
12. East of England Co-operative (Nigel Cooper)
*Top two bands qualify for the National Final at the Royal Albert Hall
Best Trombones: Friary Guildford
Best Tenor Horn: Tim de Maeseneer (Medway)
Best Euphonium: Sam Wyne (Wantage Silver)
Best Cornet: Richard Straker (Friary Guildford)