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The Regionals 2002 Test Pieces

We take a look at all five of the set works for this years Regionals

The last few years have seen some excellent choices for the bands taking part in the Regional Championships, none more so than the choices made by the Music Panel for the lower sections, and this year is no exception.

The Panel, which this year comprised of James Scott, Peter Parkes, Paul Hindmarsh, Lynda Nicholson, Duncan Beckley and Chris Houlding have chosen well and given the bands a series of pieces that may not be technically the most demanding ever played, but are certainly some of the most musical.

Championship Section:

Whitsun Wakes - Michael Ball

Whitsun Wakes was commissioned by the BBC and first performed by the Black Dyke Mills Band conducted by James Watson at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester in May 1997 and it was subsequently chosen as the test piece for the British Open of 1997 which was initially postponed due to the death of Princess Diana and actually took place in the January of the following year.

It has been chosen this year as the set work for the Regional Championships and by cruel irony coincides with the death of yet another princess - this time Margaret, the Queens errant and colourful sister.

The composer writes that the work is a tribute to the Lancastrian towns of his youth who would celebrate the Whitsun weekend, by either observing and taking part in the traditional Whitsun Walks or decamp to the seaside to enjoy themselves. Thus there is a strong element of the processional march and hymns of the non conformist churches and a sense of excited revelry as he workers enjoy the rides and pubs of a forever sunny Blackpool pleasure beach.

Finally there is an element of reflective sadness in the music as the composer returns in musical thought to the Belle Vue Championships of yesteryear and the memories he had of his grandfather who was a lover of bands and their music and who was a devotee of the Sandbach based Fodens band, a band that in his youth was nigh on unbeatable.

Ball himself is a very clever and thoughtful composer for bands and his works have clear musical lines of progress whilst still leaving the conductors space to add their own expressions through musical thought and flexibility. Whitsun Wakes is a fine piece and a fine test.

As ever the music starts as it means to go along and the scoring at the start is full and broad and requires ensembles within the band to create large rounded well balanced sounds - hallmarks of the great bands of the bygone past. The first of the echoes starts on the solo cornet before the build up to an exciting passage at Figure 4 marked Fast and Vigorous crotchet = 168. This is technically difficult, but well within the capabilities of the very best bands and there will be a need for the paying to remain neat and clean as well as down right fast.

After a quick bit of a breather at Figure 6 it's up and at 'em again at Figure 7 and although there doesn't seem time to find and explore the detail there are very precise markings on nearly every bar of notes that bring a sense of style and pulse to the music. It's not crash bang wallop music in any sense and it is a very cultured speed - a bit like an Aston Martin at full revs.

Some of the trickiest playing comes in the intervals and jumps in the main lines through 8 - 10 and only bands with the players with iron cast technique will make this sound brilliant. It could be split city very easily.

Figure 13 starts a fugue of sorts as the playful theme is passed from euph to cornet to bass to flugel before things hot up to a sprint to the first of the small interludes at Figure 16. Here the timpanist holds the key whilst the composer tests the dynamic control of the band in a series of alternating loud and soft chords and the music returns to those echoes as the cornet, sop and most importantly the rep and horn have the opportunity to show off their class.

The flugel in particular ends things with a cadenza libero of immense difficulty that sails to a top C and back and set the tone for what follows.

Figure 20 onwards is a loving look back o those old test pieces that took their inspiration from the orchestral and operatic selections that were the staple diet of the competing bands at the turn of the 20th century and the trombone and solo cornet set out their stalls, before they are joined by the euph who with the solo cornet develops an extensive romantic duet that is not only musically but also technically taxing.

Figure 22 sees a very difficult passage of technical playing that starts with the third cornet and ends on the baritone before another short interlude and the hymn tune section of the Whitsun Walks and the move through the gears to imitate the Whitsun March through a small Lancashire town.

Then comes the testers for the soprano (up to top C and down to low bottom G) and baritone (Top C start) before the build up to the end starts at Figure 32. It cranks up through the gears along here and it's all pretty exciting stuff before we come to a halt at Figure 37 and a reprise of sorts of the very beginning and a last test of lips and stamina. The end comes pretty quick with lots of loud and very high playing on the cornet section before a real declamatory chord and pause leads to a downward spiral of quavers and a last bash out of chords before the last (very big) chord.

A great test and one that should sort out the men from the boys. Lets hope the judges get it right.

First Section:

Royal Parks - George Lloyd

George Lloyd was born in Cornwall in 1930 and died in 1998, just a month before his composition; "Diversions on a Bass Theme" was used as the set work for the British Open Champiosnships.

His prodigious musical output was for many years ignored by the establishment and 10 symphonies and many other works gathered dust as he struggled to make an impression on musical tastes that were in the 1960's so much more avant garde.

Thankfully the quality of his work was recognised and after a performance by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra his work became more readily played and performed at the highest levels. His brass output, although in no way as prolific also benefited from a move back to more melodic tastes and he was commissioned to write "Royal Parks" in 1985 by the BBC for the European Championships in Copenhagen.

Written at a time when he lived in London overlooking Regent's Park, the first movement is a musical portrait of bird taking to wing and is entitled "Dawn Flight". It starts quietly, but soon explodes into life and the tempo of crotchet = 176 will have to be maintained for the music to retain it's vibrancy and brio, even when it drops down a peg to crotchet = 160. Technically it is not difficult to play, but it does have its moments and the devil of the writing is certainly in the detail with markings above, below and on the stave, above below and on the notes, so there is enough there to make a difference.

The soprano has some nasty work to overcome in places and much of the scoring is sparse at times, but there are hidden levels of interest to mine and bring to the surface; a movement in the baritone line or a gliss on the percussion for instance that colours the music. It ends in a subdued manner as if the composer had a premonition of the horrors of the 20th July 1982.

The second movement is entitled, "In Memoriam" and is a paean to those lost in an IRA bomb explosion at Regents Park near on twenty years ago. It remains one of the most powerful and moving pieces of brass writing ever, yet is a triumphal celebration of a memoriam rather than a sorrowful cry of despair at the loss of life.

The conductors will know that they could very well be drawn into trying to manipulate the music, yet there is no need as the composer has made it clear how the music is to be shaped and coloured. It is marked Grave crotchet = 56 so it is not a dirge and the music has pulse and flow even though there are four rits in the first 14 bars. Plenty will try and create something that is not there - all that is needed is to follow the composer's intentions for the music to speak clearly and with a powerful emotional voice.

Everything builds to the climax before Figure 50 before it subsides into repose and a reflective end.

The last movement is the one that many think lacks the power and technicality to challenge even bands in the First Section, but even though it is not the hardest of movements in the banding world, "Holidays" is a descriptive picture rather than a slap dash chuck it all over dash for the line. It has a carefree witty sense of style and has plenty of vitality that reflects the holiday spirit. This is not 18-30 rave stuff on Ibiza, more your slightly dirt weekend for two in a posh hotel in Bournemouth. It has its moments though and the sop part is tricky and needs a good player to make it come off.

It moves along with no real sense of edge of your seat stuff, and gain the markings and intentions of the composer are clear. We are sure there will be plenty of conductors who will crank up the pace to try and create what they feel is the excitement needed, but it will be a mistake and they should hopefully be punished.

It ends well and the piece as a whole is under rated, but for it to really come off the MD's may have to curb their 18 - 30 tendencies and opt for a more Saga holiday reading.

Second Section:

Symphony for Brass Band - Victor V. Ewald

Victor Valdimirovitch Ewald was born in St. Petersburg in 1860 and is credited as being the possible inventor of the brass quintet. He wasn't a professional musician and earned his living as a civil engineer, but he did go on to study trumpet, cello and piano and was a friend of Rimsky Korsakov. He wrote plenty of stuff in his time including three Symphonies for Brass and his work is said to be influenced most notably by Tchaikovsky as well as Mussorsky, Borodin, Balakirev and Cui.

This transcription by Michael Hopkinson reveals a powerful stream of musical thought, not particularly inventive or original, but none the less serious and detailed and with a very "Russian" identity. There are lots of appreciative nods of musical gratitude to his friends and mentors, but this isn't a bad thing and the music is enjoyable enough. Ewald's music went out of fashion for many decades but a revival of sorts has now occurred and it makes for a welcome return.

It is a three-movement work (although the movements follow on from each other rather than are played separately) and each explores the original thematic material in differing ways. The music opens quietly on the euph and Bb bass and the small fragment is passed through to the horn, flugel, solo cornet and back to Eb bass.

Figure A is marked piu mosso crotchet =124 and there is plenty of detailed work required from the trombones and lower end before the build up reaches a climax at B with the sop ringing out a top G above the band. The music seems to consist of little sections of colour and style and this is evident throughout this movement with small interludes of tranquil moments interspersed with louder more robust passages.

Thus, you get some lovely work for the horn, flugel and solo cornet at C and D before things hot up again at E and before F and before G there is another lovely cameo solo for the solo cornet that leads the music into another short reflective section. It tends to be a bit like this all along though and at times there music seems to stutter rather than flow, but there is plenty of meaty stuff to get the teeth into towards the end of he movement before it dies away to a ppp finish.

There is no break as such to the next movement, which again starts quietly on the rep and flugel reiterating the thematic material this time in 5/4 marked Adagio crotchet = 56. There is both a poco rall and a rall in the first nine bars of this movement so again the music may have a propensity to stall rather than flow if care isn't taken.

Things hot up before K at Allegro Vivace crotchet = 144 and there is plenty of detail to test all the players in a repeated section in 5/8 time before yet another rall takes us down a peg or two and Tempo Primo and some neat filigree work for solo cornet and rep that under scores the theme this time in 5/4 and a leisurely ending (with yet another rall) and a flugel led ending to nothing.

The third movement is marked crotchet = 130 so again it's not as fast and furious as many would like to take it and the music takes time to build. There is plenty to get to grips with along here and the echoes of Mussorsky are clear, but at times the musical content is repetitive and there will be a need to stop trying to accent everything just to make musical shape of bar upon bar of crotchet work.

Again there is detail a plenty to go around the band, but it is not until Figure V that the time signature becomes 2/2 and the accel to the end can begin. It will need control and there will be a desire to whack it out, but even the ending is only marked fortissimo and so there will be a need to maintain a rounded balanced sound, rich in tone and with lots of depth for the music to sound alive and vibrant - otherwise it could sound a boring rant.

A piece that contains 12 ralls could be a piece that is a minefield of problems for conductors who take a rall to mean a chance to nearly stop rather than just reduce the flow and there could be many a performance that could come unstuck by a conductor who mistakes expression for gooey lethargy.

Third Section:

St. Austell Suite - Kenneth Downie

The music of Kenneth Downie is quite inspirational stuff to listen to. Beautifully crafted with musical thought and a lovely sense of style and meaning, we have yet to hear a poor piece from him. His music has been used before at the and after this you can see why, as this Suite follows in line with pieces such as "Purcell Variations" and "Music for the Common Man".

St. Austell Suite was commissioned by the band of the town and is a three movement work that has distinct characteristics of style. The first is entitled "A Jaunt around the Town", whilst the second is called "Holy Trinity Churchyard" and the finale a lovely homage to the band itself, "St. Austell Band".

There is a great deal of wit and invention on the first movement and we were reminded at times of the theme to "World of Sport" - the Saturday afternoon ITV programme featuring Dicky Davies and wrestling for Bradford Town Hall. It appears time and time again and we couldn't help having a wry smile on our faces - it's clever and witty and lends the music a lightness of touch.

The first movement is only marked crotchet = 126 so again its not the speed that will win the marks but the style and the markings are never heavy. It is thickly scored in places and there is a need for good tuneful basses, whilst around D there are time changes a plenty which need clarity and style and there are some lovely little cameo libero solo lines for the flugel, solo cornet and euph. It's a neat and tidy movement that will need attention to detail we think for it to come off - treat it like a wrestling throw and it won't work. Just remember those little planes carrying the banners on the show.

The Second Movement is a lovely piece of writing which opens with the tam tam at piano (get a bit of practice on this bit as it could sound like the start of an old RANK film otherwise) and the marking is expressivo. Lots of work for cornets and the lower end that will need tuning practice as there is a lot of moving unison work for the lads (and lasses) around figure J and beyond.

After J comes the first big sounds of the movement and the soprano player will have to pike it out to ride on top of the band here and K has a series of ascending quaver passages. The tam tam makes a reappearance after L and the euph has to negotiate a nasty few bars from bottom A to top C and the solo cornet has also got a few bars that will need a strong lip as well as nerve. It starts to get quieter towards the end and the soprano again leads the way, only this time at piano before a tight backside ending at pp.

The last movement is a great witty piece of writing in the style somewhat of an Eric Osterling march such as "Bandology". It's bubbly and spontaneous and therein lies the trap as it is only marked crotchet 132 as so isn't a "Waltonian" type of up and at 'em march. Lots of good finger work for the euphs and baritones before there are some nasty little traps at P and beyond.

The second and third cornets get a go at the tune before the build up to the finish starts to take hold, yet the tempo remains the same. Some moments that will require work before S and there is a need to have plenty of control and style as just after T the marking is Dolce - sweetly to you and me - and that's hard to do at the end of a test piece in anyone's book. Still on it goes in great style before a good rounded ending that brings to a close a fine bit of writing (and hopefully, playing) from Kenneth Downie.

Fourth Section:

Suite in Bb Flat for Brass Band - Gordon Jacob

Written in 1956, when the composer professor at the Royal College of Music, his Suite in Bb Flat comprises three movements, entitled March, Solemn Music and Finale.

It is straightforward good quality "English" music that is very much of its time and is therefore descriptive rather than abstract in musical thought. The first movement is a jaunty March marked crotchet = 108 so it is not fast and furious and relies on lightness and deft touches to bring the music to life. The euphs and baritones have a lot to do and the soprano at Figure A will have to be on form. The music is a little repetitive, and there is a big leap back to reprise the majority of the movement so you get a second chance to show what your bad can play like after the nerves have subsided.

There will be a need to look after the tuning in the bass line at Figure C, which props up the horn line and a solo baritone part that goes way up to top B, before Figure D sees a series of answering motifs from the top end and bass end. There is a potentially tricky few bars at E when there is some nasty syncopation before the band gets to open its lungs for some serious blowing at F.

The music moves nicely along with 16 bars of fortissimo answered by some piano sections that will show a bands ability to make a noticeable difference in their dynamic playing, before there is a nasty climbing quaver finish before the end. A good band could really make an impression on the judge if they take notice of the dynamic markings in this section.

The Solemn Music is just that. It starts a bit like the "Superman Theme" marked Adagio Maestoso crotchet = 56, so its not deadly slow and has a pulse and movement.

The tune comes in at A on the solo cornet and it's is a clear point that the markings are generally on the very quiet side, so bands taking a risk may get rewards, even though the music is thickly scored. A single forte is the highest marking for a while and the quiet playing is repeated at B and C, where there will be a need to keep an eye on the old tuning in the bass end in the moving quaver motifs. D sees a reprise with answered triplets on the cornets and the timpani has a tricky part to fit in right at the end of the movement, just before everyone has to clench the old bum muscles and play an in tune pp chord to end.

The third movement is marked Finale and is score like a little symphonic march in style and structure. Its marked Allegro molto vivace scherzando, yet only crotchet = 132 so it's the style that will give the music its pulse and not just speed. Again it starts only marked piano and attention will be needed on the alliteration markings as well as the dynamics. It's playful and a bit jaunty and quirky in style and the first fortissimo doesn't appear until just before C.

It goes along nicely with an important bass line for a foundation at B, whilst the euph and solo cornet will have plenty of work to do along from C and there is an important glock line as well. Plenty of sustained playing is evident before a rall into E will gain need an aware glock player. Then its back to the tune and a jaunty ride to the finish and a good bit of blowing to finally make a mark on the judge to end.

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