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All England Masters 2002:

Hours with the Masters
Howard Snell looks back at his years at Cambridge

So many things are enjoyable about the Masters Contest that even a poor result cannot totally spoil the day. In an attractive place like Cambridge, with the clear acoustic and friendly ambiance of the Corn Exchange, the excellent mixture of places to eat and drink and things to see and do, the whole experience is usually topped off by fine Spring weather. The performer-friendly approach of the promoters doesn't do any harm either.

The 'Masters' has been particularly kind to me. In seven outings with Foden (temporarily burdened with its unfortunate name of Britannia) I collected four firsts, a second, a third and a fifth. My single start with Faireys yielded a decent place from number two, while a couple of outings with Wingates collected a second and a nothing.

Over the years all conductors build up their own personal record of a particular Contest, which rarely runs parallel with the judges' or the public's ideas of what went on! Strangely it's not the firsts at the Masters that register most in my memory, although they were all red-hot efforts, big on both poise and swagger. It's the seconds that I remember best: Hymn at Sunrise (96) with Fodens was as good as I could make it. The performance combined beauty of sound with shape and style. Perhaps it was too polished, a sin of which I have often been accused by noise junkies. It was also my last contest with the Band and was an effort on my part to finish my sixteen year musical directorship as well as possible.

But my big, best memory was of the other second, a real bricks-without-straw job. The next year (1997) I guested with Wingates, with due respect not the most glamorous name in recent years. Wilby's Jazz was the test, a style-and-organisation piece if ever I saw one. Apparently coming just a Rizla fag-paper behind the mighty Faireys at the death, Wingates' players performed out of their socks and every other item of clothing you can think of. With only one or two top-flight players in their line up, they had to go on heart alone. A week or so before the contest I told them they could get a top place, something I have never said to any band unless I meant it. I learnt later that they were very doubtful about my prediction!

Everyone who has contested knows about the conductor's pieces of manuscript, used to plug all those leaks that appear in the performance during the last days before the contest when the pressure starts to tell. It's not as if I gave the players a lot of them: in fact I deluged them with a veritable snowstorm of paper! Together with individual tutorials, and sectionals aimed at ensemble, tuning and every form of damage limitation known to man, rehearsals went on long past time on almost all occasions. The Band played up to, and then way past its everyday form. They were delighted with the result. I was disappointed not to snatch an 'impossible' first.

This year I won't be there, but I will look for the results with the usual interest. It's another Wilby testpiece, quite different to Jazz. The sun will shine ….. well, maybe ….. the bands will play and the audience will swop opinions. And no doubt there will be a good deal of further discussion at the Dog & Duck about the attempted Welsh border raid being repelled. (Do you think the English are at last waking up to the fact that the Scots and the Welsh are running their country?) But that's another story …. Sorry I mentioned it.

Have a great day!

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Howard Snell

Corn Exchange, Cambridge

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