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2003 Regional Qualifying Championships

Test Piece Reviews

Prague - Judith Bingham

Passacaglia on a Theme of Brahms - Arthur Butterworth

Celestial Prospect - Wilfred Heaton

Northern Landscapes - Peter Graham

Lydian Pictures - Simon Dobson

There has been so much spoken and written about one of the set works for the Regional Championships this year, that we tend to forget that there are another four pieces that bands have had to work hard at to bring up to scratch.

We may as well though get the big one out of the way first.

As you are aware, 4BR has been critical of the process which has been used for the selection of all the set works for the Regional Championships. We feel there has been very little explanation to how the process of selection is set up and how the decisions to choose the test pieces are actually made. If the organisers set up an official Music Panel then they should make the workings of that Panel subject to some sort of scrutiny. This has not been the case and so we have been left with a situation that is far from acceptable. No one knows what test pieces were considered, how many times the Panel actually met to discuss them or how the decision on the selection was reached. We neither know who voted for what, or when.

The Government allows the public to find out who voted for what when it comes to such important decisions as interest rate changes, so why can’t we make things a bit more open over the choice of test pieces. It is so amateurish.

Still – what about the music then?

Despite all our reservations on how it was selected, 4BR thinks “Prague” is in fact a pretty good test piece. Not great, not outstanding, but pretty good none the less. As a contemporary work for brass it is certainly not in the league of “Maunsell Forts” – another piece we really liked, or for that matter does it come close to “Montreux Wind Dances” – another piece we thought was top notch, but it is certainly on a par with last year’s European set work, “Chain”, which itself was a pretty good test for quality bands.

We can hear the gnashing of teeth as we type and the steam rising from more than a few pairs of ears, but in reality Judith Bingham’s work is fairly mainstream in both it’s construction and it’s musical language. There is an argument to suggest that it may be academically clever in terms of its musical structure at the expense of traditional brass band values, but most bands will find that it is neither too taxing to work out nor too inhibiting to perform. It is vivid in colour and has an acute sense of its subject matter, but it isn’t too avant-garde to make it difficult to listen to or understand.

Many will disagree, but the number of conductors and players alike we have spoken to have been somewhat won over by the work the more they have played it. The question whether the audience will like it is another matter, but if they have taken the opportunity to purchase the Regional CD or go to a band practice and hear the piece they may find themselves a little surprised and wonder what the furore has been about.

We would of course like to scold the publishers and organisers for the farce that was the errata fiasco, and it is simply laughable that it wasn’t sorted out before now. The bands of course are the ones who suffer the consequences, although we would like to think that a harsh lesson has been learnt here and that a system is put in place before next year to ensure that each of the works are thoroughly checked. It hasn’t helped has it?

Take the opportunity to approach the work with an open mind, and listen carefully to the way in which the composer has set out her stall, and you will find “Prague” quite fascinating. The 1st and 4th movements can sound just a hell for leather blow, but the devil is certainly in the detail and only bands that have taken their time about breaking down the complex rhythmic structures will do well. There will certainly be many a “bum” entry.

The two middle movements though are for us the fulcrum of the piece. The second has an almost surreal quality about it, whilst the 3rd really does invoke the images of an historic cityscape clouded in fog and mystery. It is not only clever, but very atmospheric.

“Prague” may leave a lot of people very cold indeed, and to be honest, there could have been many better choices for the Regionals in 2003. Why for instance was Eric Ball overlooked for the Areas, or Berlioz, whose 200th anniversary of his birth it is this year? “Prague” it is though, and as we have said, even though it isn’t a piece that will be fondly remembered it is a work that will test all the bands and will, if the adjudicators are up to speed and know the score, a work that should ensure that quality will shine through.

And when you consider that is primarily the fundamental purpose of a test piece, you may begin to wonder what all the fuss has been about.

Not many people have complained too much about the First Section work, Arthur Butterworth’s fine “Passacaglia on a Theme of Brahms” and we think that is because it is a work that the vast majority of bands would have enjoyed rehearsing, whilst audiences will enjoy hearing be played. Technically it has it’s moments (sop players will be twitching in places) but overall it will call for quality in ensemble rather than individuals if a band is to do well.

It is a very detailed work – layers of lines making the overall band sound deep and resonant, whilst the simple theme itself is explored in a variety of guises – mostly inverted and extended. Butterworth himself wrote a somewhat introverted letter to explain what he would hope conductors would look for in his composition (as well as the adjudicators), but when it comes to contesting, you get the feeling that playing the right notes in the right places will always take precedent over the composers wishes for the performers to “enjoy expressing your own artistry”.

Still it is a fine bit of work and a good test. Plenty of the bands will give bravura performances, but there will be a need for subtlety and lightness of touch, whilst a quality old-fashioned brass band sound will be a premium asset. It’s a good test then.

The same can also be said of the Second Section work – Wilfred Heaton’s “Celestial Prospect” which is a super work from one of the most gifted composers the banding world has ever produced. Based on the Salvationist song, “Come, Comrades Dear” it is basically a set of variations treated in symphonic rather than “air varie” manner. It also has a lovely lightness of touch and feel and the composer has brought all his skills to bear to produce a variety of different hues and colours to illuminated the outer variations. The core however is a deeply moving elegy, which reflects the composer’s personal thoughts about loss and remembrance. If bands are to do well on this piece then they will have to ensure that they meet the musical demands of this section of beautiful writing. If it comes off then you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, if not, then it may sound maudling and tawdry. MD’s will have to beware of thinking they can see something in the score that isn’t there. Heaton’s musical thoughts are very apparent and don’t need fiddling with to make sound any better.

The Third Section bands would we think have enjoyed “Northern Landscapes” by Peter Graham, which although in essence isn’t a true full brass band composition (it comes from a quintet composition for the Ulster Orchestera Brass) it is a piece that in it’s revised form still has plenty to offer both the bands and the audience. The four movements conjure musical pictures of the “North” that are very clear and precise. Each has technical aspects to test individual players and ensemble (flugel and euph players will be earning their money) and once more, only the better prepared bands will make the piece work. The differences between the sections are marked, so MD’s will have to ensure that the styles are captured to the full. The last movement in particular will be a tester.

Finally the Fourth Section and Simon Dobson’s delightful “Lydian Pictures”. This is a super work from a super young composer. Three movements that will really test the bands at this level to the full, but will reward all their efforts. It is of curse based on the “Lydian” mode – a scale where the 4th is augmented, but even if that sounds a bit too technical the result isn’t. The music flows throughout and we did detect sly nods and winks to other composers (especially Satie), so there is something very familiar about the music, without it ever sounding as a pastiche. We are also very sure the bands and MD’s liked the work and we think it will prove a winner with the audiences as well.

So that’s our thoughts on this years test pieces. Even though the process of choosing the works is in desperate need of revision and amendment, the works themselves are for us good choices. “Prague” has been the one piece that has grabbed the headlines (for the right and wrong reasons) but the whole championships have been pretty well served by the choices made. Whether this has been through luck or judgement is another matter though.


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