Four bands displaying the type of essential contesting attributes that will place them as some of the favourites to head to the National Finals in Cheltenham in September claimed well deserved Butlins titles at Skegness.
Led by MDs with inherent understandings of the musical topography of test pieces of varying stylistic and technical character, the victories for Eccles Borough, Haydock, Hoover Bolton and Stamford were clear cut.
Each pocketed £2,000, but more importantly set a marker for rivals to both admire as well as fear at Blackpool and Bedworth in a few weeks time.
Eccles was outstanding in claiming the First Section honours against a field of 22 rivals (there was some confusion over the inclusion of East of England Band in the draw).
For a number of years the 2015 Second Section winner here has been an increasingly impressive contesting outfit; developing in confidence under Mareika Gray's focused leadership at every level from Fourth to the verge of the top flight.
Her players later spoke of their admiration for her approach and professionalism, and the sense of 'communal aspiration' that has now been ingrained into the band from just outside Manchester city centre.
It was no different in Reds on Saturday afternoon, as her intelligent direction moulded a performance of technical security and musical nuance that left an indelible mark on Martin Heartfield and Nicholas Garman in the box.
A number of good bands were left trailing — led by last year's trio of podium finishers who also made the most of the opportunity to shine on Peter Graham's deceptively transparent 'Renaissance' — a work that hid its traps (especially in terms of dynamic and ensemble balance) in plain sight.
The strong Yorkshire pairing of Stannington and defending champion Skelmanthorpe alongside the North West's Oldham (Lees) were certainly aided by the musical approach of their experienced MDs Derek Renshaw, Charles Fyffe and John Collins, whilst there was much to admire in the performances of Blackburn & Darwen and Sandhurst Silver who filled the remaining top-six places.
Behind them the standard did become increasingly, and somewhat surprisingly variable (although there was much to enjoy with a number of bands just failing to capture the judge's attention) as far too many mistakenly tried to emphasis dynamic and tempi variances on a piece perhaps some felt was a little too easy for those with Championship Section aspirations. It wasn't.
Even in the deadened acoustic of the Reds venue, overblowing was unnecessary and robbed the music of its character and ability to flow, whilst ratcheted tempi simply sounded frenetic.
Peter Graham's work may have been short and sweet in terms of length and character but it also caught out the clumsy and the over confident. Not so Eccles, whose 'Renaissance' under Mareika Gray continues to develop inexorably with every contesting appearance.
Even though the musical integrity of Vaughan Williams masterful 'Variations for Brass Band' emerged somewhat bruised after this Second Section contest, it certainly wasn't due to the lack of musical respect shown to it from the fifteen hard working competitors.
Despite its age, it was simply too difficult for even the best to perform with anything other than a level of engaged competency. On a weekend when other test-piece choices at Skegness did a splendid job, this one unfortunately missed the mark.
It wasn't the band's fault. It wouldn't have been out of place testing the Championship Section contenders.
That in itself was a huge credit to the MDs, all of who tried to bring out the ensemble warmth and balance, as well as the subtle shadings of style, tempi and texture that characterise the masterful score. However, nobody really got close.
It made for a curious contest; one that clearly showed the determination and intent as well as the defined contest characteristics of each band for the judges Paul Andrews and Alan Morrison in the box. But it also posed problems in making considered comparisons.
Eventually it was an vibrant, but artisan rendition from Haydock that topped the field, ahead of well led accounts from prize winners Milton Keynes Brass, Eagley and Horsham Borough.
All benefited greatly from the intelligent musical approaches of their MDs — with Mark Quinn in particular sympathetically allowing time and space for the music to find a natural flow with Haydock that was a beacon of common sense. His players responded admirably, and although not faultless by any means, it secured the title with a little something to spare.
They will head to the Winter Gardens next month as one of the favourites to claim a Cheltenham Finals berth.
So too Milton Keynes Brass, who produced a stylish marker under Jonathan Mott to deservedly finish runner-up, whilst newly promoted Eagley were also aided by the insight of MD Chris Wormald as they claimed third.
Horsham boosted their contesting confidence ahead of Stevenage in coming fourth, whilst the remaining top-six places went to sensibly shaped accounts from Whitworth Vale & Healey and Besses Boys.
Behind them it became increasingly variable for the judges, who later confirmed to 4BR that they felt that the test piece was a level or two above its positioning on the weekend, but who also praised the conductors of all the bands for trying to mould performances of musical sense and consideration. They were not alone.
There was a plenty of bold purpose on show in the Third Section as fifteen keenly matched bands were inspired by the Lancastrian verve of 'Henry the Fifth' in search of Agincourt/Skegness glory.
The battlefield on this occasion was eventually conquered by Hoover Bolton led by Craig Mann, who produced a cultured performance of a stylistically tricky test piece to capture the well deserved Butlins honours and secure their first victory since the 2011 North West Area. Little wonder they enjoyed their celebrations long into the night.
Well thought out
Behind them came a brace of early markers of well thought out merit from Dodworth Colliery MW and Crystal Palace, both of who almost provided the same coherent level of consistency throughout the contrasting movements under the intelligent direction of MDs Eliot Darwin and Michael Gray as the winners.
There was also much to admire about the vibrant, '…Once more into the breach' approach of Emley Brass in fourth which snatched the final prize winning sport from solid top-six finishers Epping Forest and Dronfield Genquip.
Style and substance
Considerations of style as well as substance were certainly remarked upon by judges Kevin Wadsworth and Anne Crookston after the contenders found the thematic material of the English and French folk songs a testing linguistic musical conundrum to overcome — notably the dynamic instructions that for some seemed to be literally written in a foreign language.
The best did it very well, showing control of balance, dynamic and tempi that will surely stand them in good stead for the colourful Gallic Alpine challenges that lie ahead with music inspired by another man of conquest at the Areas in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte.
For the present though these particular French adversaries were vanquished in Skegness by a fine battalion of North West musical troops led by a commander in chief who was a chip off the old Henry the Fifth block.
Wonderful music of delicacy, beauty and wit brought the best out of the eleven Fourth Section contenders, as they provided an engaging aperitif to the meaty main course of Championship battle on Saturday morning.
The early 9.30am start caught a few listeners out, which was a pity as there was much to enjoy as they tackled Holst's 'Second Suite in F' with considerable style and sensibility.
Three month best
The best came from Stamford Brass, as the former 2015 Third Section winner added the Fourth Section title to their Butlins CV, thanks to an expertly controlled and textured rendition under conductor Julian Bright — who only took up the role in the last three months.
However, there was no hint of unfamiliarity about either his or his player's musical approach as they produced a cracking performance that captured the breezy joy of the opening 'March', the lyrical beauty of the 'Song without Words' and the pointed hammer of the 'Song of the Blacksmith' before ending with a light footed fantasy dance to close.
Not far behind them came fine efforts from Sale Brass, Banovallum Brass (Horncastle) to claim deserved podium slots, whilst Great Yarmouth Brass, Deepcar Brass and Maltby Miners all gave Mark Walters and Allan Holdsworth plenty to ponder in the box.
And whilst it was the age old contesting problems of consistency that plagued the efforts of the bands outside the top-six for the judges, it was noticeable that each MD gave notable consideration to tempi and dynamics to try and bring the character of the music to life — the result of which were performances that had engaging musical interest that will hold them all in good stead for the challenges of the Area test piece to come.
If they all play as well as they did here the judges at Bedworth, Stevenage, Huddersfield, and Blackpool could be in for a treat every bit as good the two in the box enjoyed here.
Each pocketed £2,000, but more importantly set a marker for rivals to both admire as well as fear at Blackpool and Bedworth in a few weeks time4BR
Test Piece: Rennaisance (Peter Graham)
Adjudicators: Martin Heartfield & Nicholas Garman
1. Eccles Borough (Mareika Gray)
2. Stannington (Derek Renshaw)
3. Skelmanthorpe (Charles Fyffe)
4. Oldham Band (Lees) (John Collins)
5. Blackburn & Darwen (Tariq Ahmed)
6. Sandhurst Silver (Andrew Porter)
7. Knottingley Silver (Kevin Belcher)
8. Bedford Town (Steve Phillips)
9. Strata Brass (Jonathan Bates)
10. Rushden Town (Adele Hudson)
11. Foresters Brass (John Davis)
12. Harborough (Brad Turnbull)
13. Enderby (Simon Gresswell)
14. Hebden Bridge (David Hamilton)
15. Shirebrook Miners Welfare (Colum O' Shea)
16. Ibstock Brick Brass (Simon Willis)
17. Old Silkstone (Owen Wedgewood)
18. Chalford (Steve Tubb)
19. Colchester Band (David Maddocks)
20. Gresley Colliery (Craig Stevens)
21. Cawston (Leigh Sharpe)
22. Alder Valley (Lee Woodward)
23. Dunston Silver (Aidan Hodgson)
Withdrew: East of Engand Co-operative (Nigel Cooper)
Highest Placed Mining Band: Strata Brass
Test Piece: Variations for Brass Band (Ralph Vaughan Williams)
Adjudicators: Paul Andrews & Alan Morrison
1. Haydock (Mark Quinn)
2. Milton Keynes Brass (Jonathan Mott)
3. Eagley (Chris Wormald)
4. Horsham Borough (Mark McLaughlin)
5. Whitworth Vale & Healey (John Binns)
6. Besses Boys (James Holt)
7. Waterbeach Brass (Andrew Kershaw)
8. Ifton Colliery (Scott Lloyd)
9. Pemberton Old Wigan DW 'B' (Mike Golding)
10. Horwich RMI (Matt Ryan)
11. Middleton (Martyn Evans)
12. Crofton Silver (Dean Jones)
13. Old Hall Brass (John North)
14. Greenfield (Tom Haslam)
15. City of Coventry Brass (Stephen Cooper)
Highest Placed Mining Band: Haydock
Test Piece: Henry V (Ralph Vaughan Williams)
Adjudicators: Anne Crookston & Kevin Wadsworth
1. Hoover (Bolton) (Craig Mann)
2. Dodworth Colliery MW (Eliot J. Darwin)
3. Crystal Palace (Michael Gray)
4. Emley Brass (Garry Hallas)
5. Epping Forest (Mark Ager)
6. Dronfield Genquip (Damien Wileman)
7. Stalybridge Old (David W Ashworth)
8. Shirland Welfare (Lyndon Cooper)
9. City of Norwich (Andrew Craze)
10. Amington (Malcolm Read)
11. Pleasley Colliery Welfare (Geof Benson)
12. Ellington Colliery (Clare Winter)
13. Dinnington Colliery (Lyndon Bolt)
14. Brighton & Hove City (Matthew Hackett)
15. East Coast Brass (Paul Speed)
Highest Placed Mining Band: Dodworth Colliery MW
Test Piece: Second Suite in F (Gustav Holst)
Adjudicators: Allan Holdsworth & Mark Walters
1. Stamford Brass (Julian Bright)
2. Sale Brass (John Anderson)
3. Banovallum Brass (Horncastle) (Steve Ingham)
4. Great Yarmouth Brass (Colin Swaep)
5. Deepcar Brass (Cathryn Rogers)
6. Maltby Miners Welfare (Terry Clifford)
7. Thurcroft Welfare (Matthew Wright)
8. Sherwood Forest Brass (Christine Lippeatt)
9. Whitwell Brass (Ryan Stacey)
10. Royston Town (Steve Earley)
11. Tingley Brass (John Belton)
Highest Placed Mining Band: Maltby Miners Welfare