26 April-4 May 2003
Retrospective - The Championship
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
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.