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First Amongst Equals: Retrospective look at the British Open Contest 2001 - where was it won and lost?

And now there is no doubt: the Yorkshire Building Society Band and David King stand head and shoulders above all others in the brass band contesting field. Their third victory in five years at the 149th British Open confirmed what many have known for some time – that within the parameters of producing contest winning performances from some of the banding worlds most difficult test piece repertoire, they are without equal.

It is difficult to know how far ahead of the field they were on Saturday, as no points were awarded, but the content of the three adjudicator’s remarks highlighted the fact that theirs was a very special performance indeed. James Scott remarked from the stage (a most welcome occurrence) that the judges had little difficulty in choosing not only the winners, but the top 6 prize winners so it must be felt that it was at least a clear two length victory at least.

The day started however with a reminder that there are more important things in life and the Hall observed a two minute silence for the victims of the terrorist attacks in the USA. Thoughts were very much elsewhere as the Birmingham Citadel Salvation Army Band played the American National Anthem.

The contest started with other reminders as well as Travelsphere Holidays and Frank Renton, followed by Williams Fairey and Howard Snell found themselves occupying the first two slots of the day – a repeat of the recent All England Masters.

Whereas Cambridge in May saw two disappointing shows from these real contenders, Saturday saw two real performances of note. Frank Renton gave us a reading full of elegant lines and understated detail that benefited from a stormer of a Sop exhibition from Alan Morrison – what a talented chap he is! It was a performance that should have deserved better than it’s eventual 10th place and Frank Renton was sanguine about his bands playing when we spoke to him later in the day. They will be a band worth putting a few quid on at the Nationals on this form (and with a better draw).

Williams Fairey also knew they were going to be up against it off the dreaded number 2 draw, but they literally thought “Sod it” and gave a great show. Howard Snell gave time for his players to extract the music out of the piece and there were some particularly fine moments throughout. Only some tuning problems and few too many slips were the real faults, but 6th place was something of an achievement after playing so early in the day.

Now then…….Fodens. We are dumbfounded. Given it was an early draw and they did have a few tuning problems at the very start we are still perplexed at them coming 7th for this was musicianship from both players and conductor of immense quality. It was a very orchestral performance from an orchestral reading in its scope and breadth and we thought it to be outstanding. The quality of the interpretation allied to the overall standard of the playing marked this one out as the performance to beat. All we can hope is that after a second year of immense disappointment, Bram Tovey is not lost to the contesting scene – he has opened our eyes (if not the judges ears) to a level of musicianship that is rarely if ever encountered on a contesting stage. We spoke to him later that evening and although he was clearly a disappointed man, he didn’t let it show and was fulsome in his tribute to his bands playing and attitude – this man oozes class.

We should also add that Fodens seemed to have been the victims of some possible unsporting behaviour and alleged that the timpani were possibly “tampered” with before they played. Although we were seated behind the bands when they played we did not see the alleged incident, but we did see Ray Payne, who was responsible for the percussion on stage, having to completely retune three timps which took a considerable amount of time for he himself to be satisfied things were back to normal. We can only hope it was done by accident and not design.

So three gone and plenty to talk about that’s for sure and CWS (Glasgow) next up!

Oh what a disappointment they were, and with Tredegar and Brighouse they were the three bands that will remember this as an Open of considerable underachievement. They started well and were moving along nicely until things went up a gear or three in the tempo department and it went all pear shaped. It could have been so much better but the speed left the soloists with little time to shine and it ended in something of a scrappy frenzy and 15th place.

Leyland up on stage next and a performance of solidity that got them 9th place and further conformation that they are moving back towards the top of the banding tree. It didn’t have the flamboyance of a Richard Evans performance, but it also didn’t have the mistakes either and overall they must be satisfied. Brian Grant made a favourable impression with the stick and the soloists all had good days at the office so that they will go to London in a month with high hopes of coming in the prizes.

Carlton Main and Glossop Old were 6 and 7 and for the most part suffered in comparison to what had already been heard, and their performances although solid enough lacked sparkle and contained far too many blips and blobs. Perhaps they were a little unfortunate to come 17th and 20th but at this level it’s not just enough to merely “get through” a test piece. Both will be around next year though and should continue to improve.

Brighouse and the Open are not the most compatible of bedfellows and 2001 was another year when it just didn’t click for the boys in purple. They are capable of producing a huge sound, and at times it seems to be too much in a “Go For It” type of performance that just didn’t quite come off. Allan Withington’s reading was nicely put together but with the slips adding up as it went along, it wasn’t going to be their day, and we think by the end they knew it too. 8th place – one day surely they’ll get it right.

Well done Whitburn! Just when they must have thought the world and its mates were ganged up against them they gave a delightful performance that was full of resolve and good musicianship. Great sop playing throughout and a straightforward reading of the score from Mr McCann that many others should have done well to copy. At times it was a bit forced, but it was a high-class performance from start to finish and even at the end of the day their name was mentioned by many as prizewinners, so it wasn’t a shock when they came 5th.

With some good performances already tucked away, the judges may have thought it was time for a quiet spell, but when YBS took the stage and started to play, it was the quietness of the dynamics at the opening that was simply amazing.

David King put his neck on the line and made the cornets play with “bucket mutes” from the start to very nearly four or five bars before figure A and the “big tune” and a peddling Bb bass to add extra depth to the sound. Although not marked, it was a brilliant effect and gave colour to the opening as well as a marked contrast to the dynamics, that too many bands choose to ignore. By the time the piece was in full swing, YBS were ahead of the game and racking up the points. Peter Roberts was simply awesome and even though there were some dodgy moments in places it didn’t detract from the overall picture. By two thirds through it was obvious this was a stormer of a show and the standard of playing and direction had no slack in it at all. For us it was the only performance that equalled Fodens (although they were two totally different musical animals) and the comparative lack of slips and tuning problems gave it for us, the edge.

Ever Ready and Desford followed and the contrast between these two bands was as marked as it was between Fodens and YBS. Ever Ready set out poorly but recovered to give a spirited performance that owed much to Ray Farr’s sensible pragmatic approach, whilst Desford are just a shadow of their former selves and dispirited disjointed rendition that not even Peter Parkes could inspire. Ever Ready had real good moments and recovered each time there were the splits and mistakes, but Desford collapsed from a good opening as confidence evaporated. 12th for the lads and lasses from the North East was a deserved result, but Desford and 19th means they will have to wait to see what their ultimate fate is.

Grimethorpe and Black Dyke – two great bands and two great and contrasting performances.

Grimey up first and a brass band performance of “Les Preludes” that had echoes of George Thompson and his Grimethorpe Colliery bands of yesteryear. Garry Cutt gave a superb reading and Grimey were on form with Sandy Smith on horn outstanding. It was a “No frills” “It does what it says on the tin” type of show that had so much to merit it’s 4th place and reconfirmed both band and conductors reputations as top class musicians.

Dyke were certainly “Up for it” and gave a performance of real class that benefited from superb soloists (Michelle Ibbotson on sop and John Doyle on flugel especially) and a top class reading from Nicholas Childs. Nothing was out of musical place and the balance between the sections of the band was spot on – nothing overblown or strident. Perhaps it was a bit too deliberate in places and didn’t have the overall excitement of YBS or Fodens, but as a performance it was the one that had least mistakes and would have been a worthy winner on another day. Three 2nds in a row now – London on this form could very well see them take a 1st.

Flowers had the problem of following on Dyke and somehow you could sense they were beaten as they walked on stage to be confronted by a hall that was rapidly emptying. The playing was nervous and just the start gave way to small clips that detracted from the overall picture. There was some good playing in places (especially flugel) but by the end it was a very disappointing performance from a band that can and has played so much better. 21st place and a return to the Grand Shield seems harsh, but they will surely return.

DUT Yorkshire Imperial were another band that had performed admirably at the Masters but were undone at the Open and 14th place was an accurate reflection of a performance that never really built on a good confident start. Again some good moments, but they were undone too often in other areas to really mount what could have been a strong challenge.

Band 17 were Tredegar and like Brighouse and CWS the 2001 Open is one that promised so much but delivered little. Theirs was a performance that sounded as if it was more suited to the Albert Hall and lacked a lot of the usual confidence and dynamic contrasts that have seen them do so well in the past. Slips in the horn and sop were costly and 13th place a fair reflection of a band having a bit of an off day.

So four to go, and most in the audience felt it could only be the reigning champions at number 20 who could possible dispose one of YBS, Fodens, Dyke and Grimethorpe from winning. Opinions were fairly equally divided on who would win, but fairly unanimous that it was between these four heavyweights for the title. Could anyone upset their predictions?

Todmorden Old at 18 gave a very workmanlike performance that confirmed that they are more than comfortable amongst top class company. It heralded yet another step up the ladder of improvement for the band and was a constructed performance that had the hallmarks of well-spent rehearsal time and hard work imprinted on it. Not spectacular but memorable enough to fill 11th place without too much of a problem.

Kirkintilloch came as Grand Shield winners and for the most part played well enough to suggest that they can look forward to a long stay at the contest. It was solid and unpretentious stuff and was most impressive when they didn’t try and blow too loud – when they did the quality suffered and we think they would have been penalised. Allan Ramsey gave a well-directed reading to his band and in return they performed with a committed and robust performance that took 16th place. They will be disappointed for sure, but next year should see them do better.

And so to the reigning champions – BAYV Cory. Last year they played last but one and took the top prize and a repeat this year was certainly not beyond them. It was a top class performance from them, and they recovered from a somewhat hesitant start to give a substantive account of the test piece that owed much to a fine reading from Bob Childs and some delightful work around the stand from his soloists, especially Steve Barnsley on soprano cornet. If the piece was two minutes longer they surely would have done enough to possibly retain their title as the further the piece progressed the higher the standard of playing became.

However, the opening was their Achilles heel (much like their own choice at the European) and it was enough especially against the level of performances elsewhere from their rivals to put them in 3rd place. It was however, a heroic title defence.

As Marple took the stand at number 21, the prizes were decided and the title was due to return to Yorkshire. Marple put on a brave show that owed much to character and inner resolve in trying to maintain their position in the Open. 18th place may not be enough to save them form relegation to the Grand Shield, but Duncan Beckley should take a lot of credit for his efforts on the day and the players should also take great heart from a performance that showed that there a still a very good band at Marple – if they can stick together. Lets hope they do.

So it came to the results. James Scott gave a model address (and stated he was pleased to comment off the stage – this must continue, it makes the decision much more transparent and understandable when you get to know what the men in the box were looking out for), and the prizes were dished out to the bands in front of a well satisfied audience.

The test piece worked well and was a very tough test of all the bands and the award of the soloist prize to John Doyle of Black Dyke was well received and merited. Many though it should have gone to a sop player on the day – but it wouldn’t be a band contest without some controversy would it?

So with prizewinners 4, 5 and 6 announces, someone was going to miss out. YBS, Dyke, Cory? No. It was Fodens again.YBS were the worthy winners, ahead of two super shows from Black Dyke and BAYV Cory bands. Fodens deserved to be up there with them, but they are getting used to it now. It doesn’t make it any easier though.

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