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 2003 European Championships

 26 April-4 May 2003

Retrospective - The Championship Contest

The 26th European Brass Band Championships were without doubt a fantastic success. Be it the standard of playing from the bands, the hospitality and friendliness of the Norwegian people or above all, the sheer professional way in which the whole Festival (and it is now right to call it that) was organised and run, Bergen 2003 was an experience that will live long in the memory banks for all the right reasons.

Congratulations must be given not only to Markus Bach and the European Brass Band Association for choosing Bergen for the third time, but also to the Norwegian Music Federation who showed us how large scale brass band events should be run, not only now, but in the future. To nick a line from the Carlsberg lager advert –“If only the Norwegians ran brass band contests…...”

Nothing of course is ever 100% perfect and there are still one or two areas that cause concern – notably the First Section contest which needs radical overhaul, and the need to tighten up some of the loophole rules that saw one player perform on two separate instruments and some bands “import” players for the contest. These are minor quibbles though when laid against the huge strides the contest has taken in recent years and the way in which it is now led from the top in EBBA by people with a strong vision and commitment to brass banding as an integrated European experience. 4BR was sceptical about the very future of the European before Bergen, but post contest we have the zeal of new converts to the cause – only if the lessons and experiences of 2003 can be taken on and further developed in Glasgow, Amsterdam and Belfast in the next three years at least.

What about the performances though?

Bergen also gave us a standard of playing from all the competing bands that was perhaps the best ever. There was no weak performance from any of the bands either on the set work or on their “Own Choice” selection, whilst the performances of both Yorkshire Building Society and Buy As You View Cory were exceptional. Willebroek were not too far behind either.

The main event started on the Friday night (a decision that was proven to be perfectly well thought out as it not only gave the bands time to recover, but also meant that the contest did not degenerate into a one day musical marathon). The test piece was “Aubade – Dawn Songs of the Fabulous Birds” by the Norwegian composer Torstein Aagaard – Nilsen (which is, contrary to reports elsewhere, the correct title for the composition – we asked the composer and he told us!) and which proved an inspired choice. The composer also gave a detailed 20 minute talk to the members of the audience in the main foyer prior to the contest in which he explained his inspiration and something about the approach he felt was required to make the music literally “sing”. A large crowd took the opportunity to listen, and possibly explained why the music was so well received.

There has simply been nothing quite like this written for brass band before. It has no general form or structure, whilst it places huge technical and musical demands on both players and Musical Directors that required intelligence and more importantly, imagination, for the piece to come to life. It is bird song for brass – musical portraits of miniatures of ornithological fantasy. It may be something of a flight of fancy, but what a flight it was. Playful, witty, light and delicate it created a world of the imaginary and fabulous for the bands and MD’s to explore and enjoy. One or two came over with a fear like Tippi Hendren in Hitchcock’s film, but most brought creativity to the challenge that made it a joy to listen to. It made “Prague” sound like a walk in the park.

Brighouse had the honour of giving the work its premiere, but to be honest they made a turkey of it. Speaking to members of the band afterwards, they felt that they needed perhaps another week on the work to really get to grips with it, and as they had so short a space of time to prepare to come to Bergen it would be unfair to unduly criticise their effort. It wasn’t Briggus on top form though and 6th place was par for the course.

In fact, such was the disparity between the readings of the bands, it was very difficult to predict who out of the first six would set the marker for the day. Willebroek gave a very accurate and detailed account, whilst Krohnengen’s was more robust and even a touch wild. (Ray Farr’s birds were certainly not caged in). Lyngby Taarbaek gave a very competent account of the work as did Brass Band Normandie who brought a touch of gallic flair and joie de vivre to the piece.

Groningen’s was perhaps the most fanciful reading of the lot – space and time for the effects to be heard, but a performance that had a minus factor in that the star euph player performed the opening cadenza on a baritone and then reverted back to his chosen instrument (something repeated the next day) to complete the rest of the performance. He was very good, but it just took the gloss off what was a very fine account.

So with six bands gone you had the feeling that it was going to be very difficult to judge who had given the definitive performance of the work. That however changed with YBS.

David King took a lot of liberties with his interpretation for sure – but they were liberties of the musical imagination, so the lines were allowed just like snippets of birdsong to develop by their own accord. Some bars seemed to be lengthened whilst the percussion team were allowed free rein to explore just about every sound they could conjure up. It made for a performance that was spell binding and owed much to the way in which the soloists (especially Bob Blackburn on baritone) treated their cadenza lines with a sense of exploratory risk.

The Swiss band Fribourg followed YBS on and gave a very neat account of the work themselves, before BAYV Cory took the stage.

This was as different to YBS as you could imagine. The detail was immense – each part could be heard at any time whilst the solo lines were brilliantly executed. David Childs was simply awesome in the way in which he made his instrument’s tone and timbre change from one part to the next, with two mini upward glissandi in his main cadenza, simply playing from another planet. By the end of the piece it perhaps became a touch heavy for us, but the MD was certainly delighted as we thought he let cry “Yesssss!” a perfect crotchet beat after the final note.

It rather perplexed the audience as well and the applause for a tremendous performance was a touch muted to start as many wondered what had just happened. Perhaps it was a player – it certainly came from the stage, and the MD did deny that he was the culprit, but the effect possibly took away the immediate impression of brilliance at the performance as a whole. The judges informed us afterwards that they had indeed heard the cry but didn’t take it into account, whilst there were a few cruel jibes about secret signals and the like from a couple of quarters. Was it the brass band equivalent of the “Millionaire” moment perhaps? We think not, but it will go down in legend in years to come.

The hall was a buzz now – these were two exceptional readings and performances, and whilst many just opted for YBS, the composer told 4BR that he had thought himself that BAYV Cory’s performance was as close to what he imagined the piece should have sounded like to him. It was too close to call though.

Kirkintilloch put in a splendid effort under Frank Renton that just had a few too many little blips and blobs to challenge higher than their eventual 8th place, whilst Manger delighted the capacity audience with a thrilling performance under the direction of Allan Withington, resplendent in Buden (Norwegian national costume) that just was a touch wild and uncontrolled in places. It was a super reading of the piece though.

At the end of the day, we retired back to our Press Room and argued long and hard over our order of merit. In the end we got our order right – YBS, BAVY Cory and Willebroek, but to be honest any order between the three wouldn’t have caused arguments.

Saturday saw things start early with the First Section (which we will review elsewhere) before the main event began once more in the superb Greig Hall.

Brighouse drew number 1 again – rotten luck for their splendid efforts in flying the English standard here, but this time they played with a do or die attitude borne of the knowledge that they had under performed the previous day, and they gave “Masquerade” the type of whipping a S&M Dominatrix would have been proud of.

This was a great performance – exciting and vibrant, full of character and edge your pants stuff from the word go and set the marker for what was to follow. They knew it wasn’t going to be enough to win, but by heck did they give it a go.

YBS followed next and very much followed suit. Gone are the days of conservatism at this contest – the top bands go for it big time over two performances and if they come a cropper so be it. YBS sailed at times perilously close to the edge with this one, right from the up tempo start that nearly caught the band napping, and overall it wasn’t quite a performance to match with Brussels 2002. Very nearly unbeatable, but beatable none the less, although the playing of Gavin Saynor on Eb tuba was quite something else – and we mean something else. He picked up £2,200 for his efforts and he was worth every last penny of it. His playing was the highlight of a weekend when there were many great highlights to choose from and perhaps did enough for YBS to retain their title.

The others followed and the standard was excellent from the likes of Lyngby Taarbaek and “Montage”, Krohnengen and a Ray Farr masterclass in conducting on “Revelation” and Kirkintilloch and “Jazz”, which featured some of the best visual displays of soprano playing from Steve Stuart you could imagine. He hopped about liked a prawn on a barbecue, but played like a dream. Mad, not bad and great company in the hotel bar at three in the morning - as we found out ourselves.

There were also some splendid playing from Groningen on “Tristan Encounters” that nearly came off big time if they had just held the infamous transfiguration 12 together a bit better, and Fribourg who put up a splendid effort on “Revelation”. Brass Band Normandie were the only band on the day that perhaps choose wrongly and opted for “Spectrum” which was given a fine performance, but left you with the feeling that they could have opted for something a bit more meaty – they were certainly good enough to do it and will come back hopefully next year with a better idea of their impressive capabilities.

That left three performances of note during the contest that really hit the mark.

Manger have been performing “Harmony Music” more times than you can care to think of over the years but on this form you could see why it was such a favourite with them. Allan Withington once more gave a splendid reading to the score – full of nuance and time and his players didn’t let him down. There was top notch solo playing and the ensemble was excellent. Just when you thought they were going to top even the very best on the day though they blew a gasket and it rocked badly once or twice to rob them of the magic that was being brewed up. It was mighty impressive though and 4th place was well deserved.

Willebroek opted like YBS for a return to Brussels and went for “Dove Descending”. This was brilliant playing right from the start and the fanfare was tremendously effective and set the tone for a performance of the highest class. The cleanliness of the playing was tremendous to hear, whilst the balance and sense of musicality in the “Nativity” section was as good as we have heard on this piece. The only minus for us was the euphonium solo which although superbly executed was perhaps too perfect – the open tones were not played as they should and so the it didn’t quite sound as intended – a minor point and we thought they were just the narrowest margin behind YBS. Some band though.

That leaves BAYV Cory who were drawn number 5 and followed Krohnengen on with the same test piece choice, “Revelation.”

It was the start of the piece for us, which possibly cost them that one extra point that would have given them the title. Prior to the band just starting to play a security guard entered the stage and took his seat – Bob Childs was primed to go and perhaps that little moment uneased the bass section. It meant another 10 second delay just when things were ready. Whatever, the opening bass notes were inaudible to where we were sat – right by the adjudicators tent, and it took some 20 seconds or so before you could hear the foundation put in place. Then the piece just blossomed into something very special indeed.

Again, BAYV Cory took no prisoners and there were one or two tiny blips, but the overall picture created lacked nothing in terms of technique or musicality with the euphonium duet containing playing of immense artistic license. By the end the band were pumping it out like a steam engine and it brought the house down. Sometime afterwards we spoke to two of the adjudicators who thought it an immense performance and one which had one close to tears – it did have that effect on many.

With the contest over there was the long wait before the results were announced – again it was at the end of the Gala Concert, which wasn’t too much of an imposition this year due to the structure of the day. 4BR thought long and hard before we made our minds up – in the end we got the first three right, but in truth the decision could have gone either way with justification. The judges we understand in the own choice section had to reconvene in a bid to separate the two top performances from each other as they were so hard to split. BAYV Cory got the nod, but not that one extra point which would have given them victory – that start may have been all it took – all because a security guard decided to make an untimely entrance. These were as we said, two titanic bands playing to the very best of their form and the difference between victory and defeat was minuscule.

Willebroek were a well deserved third a touch behind but a good length or two ahead of the others, whilst Brighouse were left to reflect back on a terrible draw and the need for a bit more preparation time which was lost due to the shenanigans of the non appearance of Fairey’s. Manger were good value for 5th place as were Fribourg 6th. Outside the top placings it was a close run thing between the rest, but all did themselves and their countries proud. There were no “also rans” in Bergen 2003.

And so YBS created history, David King put himself in the record books as the most successful conductor in the history of the contest and a cosmopolitan audience was left with the feeling that brass band contesting had finally come of age in the 21st Century. Congratulations to the winners, but most of all, congratulations to EBBA and Norway for showing us how a brass band contest could be run. Let’s hope everyone else follows suit.


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