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Yeovil Entertainment Contest 2003 – Retrospective

It is often that 4BR leaves a brass band contest feeling disappointed, but the long journey home to South Wales from the Octogon Theatre in Yeovil on the weekend was such an occasion.

We’ll come out and say it straight away – the overall standard of playing that was on show at the 26th running of one of the best run contests in the calendar ranged from the very good to the downright awful. Many people would say that isn’t that the case with any banding competition, but Yeovil is an entertainment contest for bands with supposed genuine pretensions of competing at the highest level. On the evidence of Saturday, only two of the nine bands reached that standard, whilst the other seven performed to varying lowering degrees of mediocrity. It was a huge let down.

The Flowers Band were worthy winners, but even they have played better and lost, rather than won as they did here, whilst JAG Mount Charles showed glimpses of their talent, but couldn’t quite round off their programme in the same manner or quality in which they started. These two however were a veritable street – no, a veritable housing estate of streets ahead of the rest and it came as no surprise that David Read didn’t really have too much of a problem putting them first and second.

Our most experienced judge also made some very perceptive remarks at the end of the contest as well. Not only did he reveal that he felt for this type of contest that he was in favour of “Open” adjudication, but remarked clearly that regardless of the contest there were always certain basic requirements and criteria that every band should strive to meet. These he said were, balance, tunefulness and if the music was meant to be exciting or emotional, it should sound as such. His remarks were as always diplomatically presented and he did stress that he was in general a “closed” man, but for this contest he felt it would benefit if the judge could see as well as hear what was going on in the attempt to entertain.

It is also interesting to note that the bands themselves voted for closed adjudication at this years contest, so why on earth did they spend so much time with the visual aspects of their performances in detriment to the actual playing is beyond us. What Mr Read would have made of some of the antics we can only guess at.

We don’t know exactly how many of the competing MD’s were in the audience to hear David Read, but it is a fair bet you could have counted them on the fingers on a hand of a T. Rex. He stated a simple home truth about playing that encapsulated the evidence on the day that the majority of MD’s had either forgotten about or couldn’t have cared less about. Some of the stuff we had to endure (and that is the right word for it) was simply unacceptable at this level and the MD’s themselves should shoulder the blame. It seems presentation and not the standard of the playing was uppermost in the minds (and ears) of the MD’s in Yeovil, and it made for some pretty uncomfortable listening.

A couple of years ago after the Brass in Concert Contest at Spennymoor had started to experience the excessive presentations of “pantomime” programmes, Roy Newsome was brought in to steer bands back to more well thought out musically intelligent entertainment programmes. It has worked to a great extent and the last few years have seen bands balance their offerings with new music, top class soloists and less frenetic visuals, whilst the actual standard of playing has been maintained and even improved. It seems the message has yet to filter its way down to the bands on show at Yeovil this year, and it wouldn’t have come as a shock to have had Cannon and Ball tap dancing at the front of the stage to some of the offerings put on in the name of entertainment from many of the bands.

Not one band on the day made a genuine effort to include a quiet piece in their programmes – all had a go at some form of jazz, funk, Latin American, but not one really trusted themselves to entertain with a display of restrained, balanced, rounded traditional brass band playing. The evidence suggested that none of them could really do it, so perhaps the bands were playing to their strengths, but it is a very sad state of affairs that none really bothered to even try.

It is also a pity for the organisers as well. Yeovil has been going strong for 26 years and is without doubt one of the best run contests you will ever go to. The bar and the cafeteria are well stocked, the middle of town is just a stone throw away and the staff and volunteers make every effort to ensure both the audience and especially the bands are well looked after. Bands are given a pre draw, each has a volunteer to “look after” them when they arrive, a rehearsal facility is provided, the percussion is unloaded from the bus onto a van and taken to the back of the hall, reloaded back after the performance and nothing is too much trouble to ensure they are treated well. Christine Buckley and her fellow members of the Yeovil Town Band should be given medals for what they do, so it is a little sad to report that only nine bands made it to the starting rostrum this year, although they are more than confident that the field will be increased next year to around 12 bands at least. They deserve the support from quality bands as well, as the top prize is a very nice £1500 and they do run things very well.

The day started off with SWT Woodfalls not on the best of form under Jonathan Camps and although they came third it will tell you more about the standard of the other bands rather then themselves that they picked up a rostrum place and £600.

They opened untidily with a jazzed “Stars and Stripes” that featured some neat and nonchalant sop playing before their featured horn soloist was swamped by the band in the finale from the Mendelssohn horn concerto. Given that it was difficult to hear the playing it was even more odd to see the soloist seemingly having an on/off natter to a member of the audience in the front row throughout the piece! A mono dynamic rendition of “Preludium” followed before we got the first of the pantomime acts of the day, when the MD reprised his Noel Coward “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” impersonation. Re runs don’t work as well a second time and so it proved here as most of the audience had seen and heard it when Mr Camps did it with Bodmin in 2000, so it fell a little flat. “Shine as the Light” finished things off scrappily to an overall performance that was well below par for a more than capable band. It set the tone for most that was to follow.

Redbridge and Melvin White up next (although he was absent for the opening number entitled “The Chicken”). This is another very solid and capable band who decided to throw out all their quality that had seen them come 11th at the National and replace it with harsh, brash and frankly untuneful playing throughout their performance. The opener was awful – a neat enough arrangement, but played with a rigidity of style that was totally at odds with the music and with choreography that saw the players “dancing” if that is the right word as if they had a broom stick stuck up their shirts. The cameo jazz features off the sop, cornet and trom were limp (ever seen a jazz trumpet player with a lyre and music?) and it set the tone for the rest of a pretty uninspired programme.

A messy march “True North” followed before the ubiquitous Harry Potter and “Hedwig’s Theme” which lacked precision and style and had little or no atmosphere. The cornet soloist put in a brave effort with “Lairg Muir” from Hymn of the Highlands, before they finished off with a very average rendition of the Highlands Finale, “Dundonnell”. Fourth place was their reward, but this was a band that didn’t do themselves justice at all.

Much had been expected of JAG Mount Charles and Richard Evans and they started off in super fashion with a rendition of “Imperial Echoes” that had balance and dynamic control, but had a few moments of unease in the sop line and a rit come rall come allargando before the final restrain that may have just upset an old guardsman like David Read in the box. It was certainly showy though.

That was followed by Shaun Thomas giving a worthy winning soloist performance of Howard Snell’s arrangement of “Gypsy Airs” – a very different type of solo that made others on the day sound very dated. Not quite vintage Thomas but still more than good enough to stamp his class, whilst the band once more had a few little moments of unease. More panto next and “A Hunting Scene” that was slickly done and presented, even if again the playing wasn’t 100%. The audience loved it though and for once the visual effects didn’t spoil things – just.

“Here’s that Rainy Day” was short and sweet and neatly done before the band gave a somewhat frenetic account of the finale from Hymn of the Highlands. Better than Redbridge for sure, but it lacked finesse and became a bit of a brash blow to end. Still, they were well ahead of the field, even if they hadn’t really performed to the very best of their ability.

BTM we felt a bit sorry for. They came 8th but we had them down for 4th, so it was most probably down to their programme rather than their playing that cost them. A slightly untidy antiphonal opener in the form of “Intrada” was followed by a fine display of old fashioned euph paying from Mark Hutcherson on “Endearing Young Charms”. Here is a player who can perform this in his sleep but on this occasion it just lacked a bit of oomph and tempo. It was good, but we’ve heard this player really wow an audience.

Then things got a bit odd. Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb” with lots of choreography was slick but never really had the testosterone levels peaking dangerously (especially in an audience were the average age of the women was a touch towards the Saga Holiday bracket) and they followed this with “Mr Bojangles” which was in the same musical style and mood. As a result neither piece made the impression that it could have.

The finale came from “Gettysburg” and suffered from over enthusiastic drummers at the front of the stage obliterating some very loud playing from the band. It was an end to a programme that promised much but needed possibly a bit more variety and that was its downfall. BTM have played better for sure, but they didn’t deserve 8th for us.

Bodmin were runners up here last year and started well enough with a repeat of their opener of a twelve month ago in the shape of “The Waltonian”. There was balance and style and things seemed to be looking good, before the wheels started to rock and finally came off as the programme went along.

The second horn player to perform the Mendelssohn put in a good effort, but it was a rushed and insecure performance from both soloist and band and never came off. The style was a bit too pecked and some off the ensemble work was way out in places. In addition he also had the lowest hung trousers we ever seen on a man (do blokes wear braces anymore we ask?) but they remained in place to the end. “A Country Scene” by Goff Richards followed, which was a piece that shouldn’t really have seen the light of day at this level. The performance was insipid and nervous to say the least and ended with the tuning more than slightly awry. It wasn’t a good bit of playing.

The same could be said of “Opus 1” which was played at breakneck speed and held together only by some good kit playing before they finished with a ropey performance of “The Little Russian”. Bodmin are clearly in the rebuilding process, but playing like this won’t have helped their confidence. To come 6th was an achievement.

With Aveley having dropped out (how they wish they could have turned up) there was a welcome break in proceedings before the next four bands took to the stage. We managed to speak to some banding personalities and all were disappointed at what they had heard so far and were astounded at the lack of basic ensemble quality. More was to follow though.

Kidlington played to their strengths and left any pretensions about fun and games to others. Catherine Underwood chose a sensible programme, but one that never really sparkled. “Amazonia” and “Rainforest” from “Windows of the World” opened things up in fair fashion, but the overall band sound was a little light and lacked depth, whilst the percussion in the latter movement seemed to be way out and gave it a real feel of uneasiness.

The bands two euphonium players performed “Brilliante” way below par next – a real struggle before a scrappy and unconvincing version of “Rhythm and Blues” which was saved by some very neat trombone playing. The overall standard of ensemble playing though was poor. “Autumn Leaves” gave the trom player another chance to shine, which he did, but the band once more lacked the sense of style to help things along. Finally “Gaelforce” and the bands best playing - although it became ever more scrappy and frenetic towards the end and finished an overall performance that wasn’t really up to the mark for this level. They are another band who are capable of playing so much better than this but 7th place will surely have put a smile on their faces.

Flowers took their time to set up, and it was well worth the wait given what had gone on before. A fine opener in the shape of “The Cossack” showed their class and woke up the audience from their boredom induced slumber.

“A Celtic Promise” from the pen of MD Philip Harper was next and featured a solo horn backed by the flugel and two other horns in a staggered formation. It just about worked, although the music meandered somewhat for us and the balance between the different lines wasn’t clear (although we suspect that may have been more to do with the standing arrangements on stage). It just lacked that touch of atmosphere that would possibly have come if the dynamic level from the band had been more sympathetic. Not quite quiet and tranquil enough possibly.

Next though, the stuff that Flowers do so well, and ripping arrangement of a Cuban “Salsa Parkosa” which was very upbeat and had the right style and feel. The soloists weren’t altogether convincing in places (and we could do without the band applauding their own efforts) but this was as slick as you like, very professionally choreographed and with excellent percussion. It was the highlight of the day playing wise and a class above anything else that we heard.

Then something a bit strange. Philip Harper’s arrangement of Rimsky Korsakov’s famous “Czar Sultan” was an excellent piece of work and brought out some really fine playing from soloists and ensemble, but was overshadowed by some simply ludicrous puppet animation that added absolutely nothing to the piece. We are talking the type of animation you see at the pantomime where people dressed in all black against a black backdrop hold up mannequins and cut outs and walk and dance across a stage – you know, a bit like “Fingerbobs” on the telly all those years ago. Great in a panto, but due to there being no narrative line to explain what and why they were there it was simply pointless and faintly embarrassing.

The intro from the compere told us little so we were left with a bloke holding up a cut out of what looked like Peter Beardsley whilst being accosted by a swan. A bobbing ship which looked like Captain Pugwash’s Black Pig and something that resembled a jelly fish also made an appearance whilst the famous “Flight of the Bumble Bee” interlude was marked by the kit player messing about with a laser pen on the backdrop. It made your teeth curl.

Thankfully, the playing more than made up for the awful visuals with some excellent ensemble playing and solo work from sop, cornet and euph. Flowers sounded like the class band they are and it provided a fine playing finisher to a programme that had its moments of real high quality. With the MD taking the applause they struck up “The Muppets” which ended things off nicely and a bit differently. Flowers had gone through their whole gamut of visual tricks but thankfully for us (and the judge who was of course unaware of the choreography) their playing was in a different league. Winners deservedly, but we wish they would concentrate on the stuff they really do well. We wait with anticipation for their appearances at the Grand Shield and Regionals this year.

Bournemouth Concert put in a decent effort under Lt Col Chris Davis, that even though never quite had enough about it to suggest anything other than a midfield final placing, did have a lot to merit, especially in the programme choices.

“The Waltonian” was a touch pedestrian but this was followed by some fine flugel playing in “My Ain Folk”. Just the odd query for us about the sense of style (it sounded like triplet rhythms in places) and the band swamped a little as well, but it was neat and nicely performed. This led to an untidy “Russian Sailor’s Dance” before a real highlight of the day with “I Know Thou Art Mine” by Leonard Ballantine. A brave choice and well played, it didn’t quite capture the ears of the audience but it was very well done nonetheless.

We though then that Bournemouth could be pressing for a place in the top three, but blew their chances with a very poor run out of the finale from Shostokovich’s 5th Symphony which was overlong, overblown and sounded untidy and tired towards the end. It was a big blow, but the band wasn’t quite up to doing it justice and it fell away to a rather feeble ending. Some real fine sop playing therefore went unrewarded. Overall though, a band that played as well as it could on the day, with some brave choices of repertoire. 5th place was well deserved.

Finally, the Welsh band Parc and Dare and a return to the contest for the first time since 1995. They came last on the day, which again was a touch unlucky perhaps, but they could only have themselves to blame for a picking a programme that never really had enough substance (8 individual items is too much in a 25 minute programme).

They opened with “Liberty Fanfare” which was well handled before they let themselves down with a poor account of the JJ Richards march “Mechlanberg”. The tuba soloists played very well in “Tuba Tapestry” but the ensemble playing was inflexible and was ragged and too heavy. The two movements from Philip Wilby’s “A little Light Music” were awful. “The Lady of the Fountain” just didn’t sound comfortable at all and never went anywhere musically for us, whilst the triangle feature on “Cardiff Bay Ice Creams” was something of nothing – with plenty of the nothing. However well the lad on the triangle played, it was swamped by the band.

Finally, three movements from “Aspects of Adiemus” which were sleep inducing in their boredom. Nothing wrong with the playing – in fact this was the bands best pieces, but the arrangements do not suit a brass band at all as there is no colour to the music. Bands can’t do this type of music well at all, and so it proved with Parc and Dare as they finished off the contest in the way in which it began – untidily. It was a pity for the band as they have improved greatly over the past year or so, but this was a programme that didn’t suit them at all and last place was their reward.

So that was it then. You may totally disagree with what we have said about the standard of playing at the contest this year and you can let us know by writing to us, but we stick by our opinion. This was a contest that was hugely disappointing in playing terms. The good bands came out on top – just as they should, but they didn’t have to play too far above themselves to do so. The rest were on the day not up the mark and for what ever reason they will have to improve a great deal if they will have any chance of winning prizes on their travels during 2003.

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