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Nationals Championship of Great Britain 2003

Retrospective

We cast our eye back over the "Enigma" contest - it lived up to its name didn't it?


The American tennis player Brad Gilbert had a name for it – “Winning Ugly”. It was his affectionate moniker to describe what he felt was the essential difference between the truly great players of the game and those who only occasionally touched the ultimate heights. It described the ability that only a handful of the true superstars have of being able to win against the odds, to drag themselves to victory when their form is fluctuating, their serve misfires and their ground strokes no longer hit the tram lines with unnerving accuracy. It was the difference, that when he was coach to Andre Agassi, turned the flamboyant showman from a great entertainer into one of the finest all court tennis players of all time.

“Winning Ugly” applies to any competitive sport, because “Winning Ugly” marks out the good from the great, and the great from the true Champions. Tim Henman and Damon Hill are examples of the good, Pat Eddery and Jimmy White the great – Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher the true Champions. They are all winners; some win more often than others; but only the likes of the last two win when it matters, and when they are not playing to their ultimate form.

It can also said that it also applied to Fairey FP (Music) bands win at this year’s National Finals at the Royal Albert Hall. Fairey are in anyone’s terms, a great band, a Champion band. On Saturday they proved that they also have that hidden element – the “winning ugly” gene that marks them out as one of the handful of brass bands in the world that can win the biggest competitions when they are not firing on all 12 of their cylinders. Brad Gilbert did it for Andre Agassi – Allan Withington is now doing it for Fairey’s.

Fairey FP (Music) won because even when they had the slips, the clips and the little errors that proved terminally costly for many of their rivals, their character, fortitude and ability to re group and still strive for the ultimate in their performance saw them through to victory. It was very close though and reminded us of the moment in the film “North by North West” when Cary Grant is holding on by his fingertips on the edge of Mount Rushmore with Martin Landis stamping on his hands trying to make him fall to his death. Just one more slip and it would have been the end. But even when the grasp seemed lost, somehow they escape and triumph. This is what Fairey’s did on the weekend, and that is what marked them out in the ears of the judges to enable them to retain their crown. It wasn’t their most memorable winning performance, certainly not the most technically perfect, but it was a winning performance none the less, and as we have said, only a very small handful of bands have the capability to do it and Fairey’s showed that they are certainly one of them.

Before the cliffhanger of band number 19 though, the day panned out very much like the Alfred Hitchcock film, as a quiet opening credit was followed by the first set piece showdown as Alliance Brass drew number 1 to be followed by two of the big stars of the day – Fodens Richardson and Black Dyke.

Alliance Brass under John Clark gave a decent opening account of “Enigma” that never quite came to life and sounded almost too academic in approach. The cornet, trombone and bass section were good, but the middle of the band lacked depth and warmth and so the overall impression was rather colourless. First impressions of Eric Ball’s arrangement also tended to confirm what many thought before hand – that this was not the great man’s finest piece of work and that pitch rather than timbre seemed to dominate his transcription from the original.

This was confirmed immediately with Foden’s performance under Thomas Wyss. It opened with some superb technical playing – stylish and detailed, but still the music lacked any sense of warmth, colour or contrast. This wasn’t the band’s fault at all – it was just that the arrangement was sounding so monochrome to the ear. Shades of black and white all right, but try as Fodens did, there was no musical colour button for them to press. It was an excellent performance – symphonic in approach, just marred with too many little costly slips for them to be winners perhaps, but you wondered after hearing their fine effort who could possibly make it sound other than uninflected and soporific. It was certainly Elgar – but not as we knew it.

Black Dyke tried their damnedest though as well. This was a traditional brass band approach to the work under Nicholas Childs that for many on the day (including the 4BR team in their box) was worthy of the ultimate prize. The MD certainly took risks – “Nimrod” possibly sounded too much of a cornet solo at the opening with the use of mutes, and the percussion was at times overpowering, but it was a performance that never relaxed its grip on you. Everything seemed set up for victory – even from number 3 (it would have been only the second time in 34 years) - but those risks – and a last few bars that were perhaps too stretched (especially on the side drum) possibly left the door open for them to be beaten in the judges opinion. And so it proved.

Flowers followed on with high expectations of doing well (and the misfortune of a vote of confidence from 4BR in our pre match prediction), but this was one performance they would want to forget. They never seemed comfortable from the start, and with an ever-increasing series of slips and rather idiosyncratic interpretation from Philip Harper, they fell away to a very disappointing 16th place. They are certainly a better band than this – but not on Saturday they weren’t.

Leyland and Garry Cutt were another of the bands we at 4BR felt would do well at the contest – but once more our prediction seemed to be the kiss of death on them. Even with a slightly odd formation with the troms at a 45 degree angle to the rest of the band they still produced a solid no nonsense performance that we felt more than deserved to come in the top 10. The judges disagreed though and placed Leyland a very lowly 17th – very harsh for us as they seemed not to do too much wrong in musical or technical terms and had the best opening to the Finale all day from the horn section. They were one of the bands on the day who could count themselves more than a little unlucky.

With a quarter of the contest gone then, it was Black Dyke from Fodens, with the rest a fair way behind, and whilst the next five bands did their best, none could really challenge the opinion that Black Dyke’s grasp on the trophy was getting stronger by the performance.

Desford and Major Peter Parkes gave their best performance at the Albert Hall since they came 3rd in 1995, and at times showed moments of very high class playing indeed. It started well and then improved as they went along, and even though they tired towards the end it was a very commendable account and one that should have been around the fringes of the top six come results time. 10th was their final reward, but it was a real glimpse of the Desford of yesteryear.

Immediately following them on were Haydock under the baton of Ian Brownbill – a young band with a young MD, and even though they were certainly nervous the choice of sensible tempos and safety first approach to the quieter dynamics meant that the overall musical picture had much to commend it. They may have lacked the depth of sound of many of their competitors, but it was a performance that was not out of place here at all and the MD’s intelligent approach was one that impressed. 20th place was about right, but they will be boosted immeasurably by the experience.

The Scottish duo of Scottish Co-op and James Scott and Kirkintilloch and Frank Renton were the next bands to take the stage – two conducting campaigners of the old school, but two bands who in the past year or so have found renewed vigour and contesting life.

Scottish Co-op were excellent for us (we had them down for a top six place) with James Scott drawing a most persuasive musical picture from the limited score at his disposal. It was safe dynamically, but had a broad sweep and style in each of the movements and built to a commendable end. It had its fair share of blips and blobs for sure, but it also contained a sense of class that many on the day patently lacked. Even nearly 40 years after his debut, James Scott proved that he still has that something else about him that others cannot and will not ever muster, whilst Co-op seem a band with a very bright future ahead of them on this form. 9th was three or four places too low for us.

Kirky meanwhile continue to prosper in this company and much of the credit has to go to Frank Renton and his almost pig headed belief in making music first and possibly prize winning performances second. It means that his readings are always interesting to listen to - his approach almost concert rather than contest inspired - but that is his joy and possibly his downfall. When the two combine with a band on top form the effect is spell binding, but when they are just out of synch (as were Kirky on the day) it means a performance pleasing to the ear but maybe not to the points table. This was one of those days – a near miss of a show, great style and interpretation, just marred by costly errors that robbed them of too many points. Their time will come though, and 8th place was a fine return.

That left Stocksbridge as the final band of the first half of the contest and the last band on before the break for the judges to stretch their legs. The walk to the toilets would have been enough to exercise a Labrador though – as would the distance the box was from the stage. Once more the judges box was too far back in the auditorium, whilst the ever falling blue curtain that covered the front of the box was a cause for concern for some. The whole structure didn’t look too secure a bit of DIY work.

Stocksbridge under Derek Renshaw played well, and although they never set the stage on musical fire it certainly didn’t lack warmth and some fine playing. They tired towards the end, but overall it was a performance that deserved their 13th place and should once and for all shut up the carpers who thought they should have been here in the first place after “Prague” in Bradford. This was a Championship Section band playing a hard championship section test piece to a high championship section level of performance.

Break time then and a chance to discuss and debate whom the audience felt was leading the field. Black Dyke, Fodens and Scottish Co-op by a margin, with Dyke as the leaders by a good length seemed to be the verdict. Only ten bands between them and the title it seemed.

Only one in reality. Tredegar have a fine record at the Albert Hall over the past ten years, and once more they showed that on their day they can more than hold their own against the more fancied bands. This was a performance based on a subtle interpretation from the MD, Steve Bastable – light and dextrous in character with fine solo lines backed with a balanced rounded band sound. Right from the start the audience were drawn in and as it progressed to an outstanding “Nimrod” it was clear this was a performance that was going to feature very highly in the prize list. It just faltered at the very end perhaps, but the applause from the auditorium said it all – this was going to be a potential winner. We at 4BR had them a very close second to Black Dyke and very few people were surprised when the judges had them runners up as well.

BAYV Cory up next and the stakes were pushed even higher with a performance from Robert Childs that drew every ounce of musicianship from his band. The start was perhaps their Achilles heel as some noticeable vibrato spoilt a super opening, but as it progressed it became better and better. Stephen Barnsley on soprano confirmed his position as one of the best in the country with a display of high class playing of the tremendously difficult sop part that left not one player unscathed on the day, and whilst “Nimrod” just suffered with perhaps too much emotion, the “Finale” was breathtaking in it’s execution and left you gasping. That start though maybe just cost them the title, but the difference between third place and first on this occasion was very, very close indeed.

The next three bands to take to the stage all gave solid accounts of themselves throughout the “Theme and Eight – make that Seven Variations” of the test piece. Why Variation 12 was omitted is a question only the organisers can answer – time constraints were a preoccupation, but it meant that the link between “Nimrod” and the Finale didn’t make sense at all and deprived the audience a chance to hear the one variation that was a real test for a solo instrument – euph players rested happy though.

EYMS under Gareth Pritchard gave a creditable performance, and one that gained them six places up the prize list from last year. There was a real attempt to challenge the dynamics and musical shape but the where the execution just lacked cleanliness the approach was commendable and 14th place was about right for us. They are a band on the up.

The same could also be said of Burry Port from Wales who started very well, fell away in the middle sections and then showed superb character to give two high class movements to finish off their debut. This will be a band that will be back (Wales has four places at the Finals next year), but in twelve months time they will be even stronger. This was a very encouraging debut though.

That left Ever Ready to round off the third quarter of the contest and in recent months they have been playing very well indeed. This sounded as if it was going to be a real good one under Ray Farr, but just as they had the music under control something just went awry to spoil any one of the movements and a possible top 10 finish at least. It must have been frustrating for the MD and the band – how they wished they could have had another go.

That left just the five bands – Ransome, Brighouse and Rastrick, Camborne, Fairey FP (Music) and Redbridge, and in most peoples mind there were two potential winners and at least one top six prize winner to come. They were right – but perhaps not with their choices.

Ransome are a band that have gone through the mill of late, but the return to the contest stage under Russell Gray once more brought the best out of them. As usual he dabbled in the "Black Arts" – this time with yellow duster over the cornet bells at the opening and in “Nimrod” and it very nearly worked wonders. It was a most musical approach from the MD, but the error count was costly and some of the bass line and timp work was at times out of synch. Nevertheless a superb Finale rounded off a very satisfying musical portrait and 7th place was well deserved.

Brighouse certainly haven’t been through the mill for a very long time, but they started in very uncertain fashion and it took a while for them to really get into their stride. Once they did they were for us either exceptional or mediocre – some movements had moments that had the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, whilst others had moments which made you check if you had hairs growing on the palms of your hands. The Finale was fantastic – huge broad sounds, immense detail, but all through there were annoying slips that robbed them of their chance to repeat the successes of 1997 and 1998. 6th place from the judges – we had them 4th – one day they will play everyone off the stage here once more.

Camborne followed Brighouse on the stage and from the start you sensed they were determined not to produce a performance to repeat the 19th places of the previous two years. That meant a slightly safe and uninspired account of “Enigma”, but on the day it meant that they ended up 11th – a fine return. It was an OK performance as we said, but there was so much more they were capable of and we thought them slightly fortunate to come as high as they did. We had them the in the bottom quarter – but then we were not the judges were we?

And so to Fairey FP (Music). As we have said – we were not the judges. The three men who counted were sat in the box in the hall. For us, it was a rather scrappy opening third of the performance that we thought would have robbed them of their chances of retaining their title. Too many little slips seemed costly, but didn’t unsettle them, and looking back at our remarks which we gave at 5.15pm – just five minutes after they played we remarked that there was class throughout. The Finale was magnificent, but for us, those slips just put them out of the picture and out of the top six – how wrong we were.

As we said at the beginning of the retrospective – true Champions have the ability to “Win Ugly” – and although this was never an ugly performance musically or technically, it wasn’t Fairey at their very best. However, Allan Withington’s interpretation was masterful according to the judges – one that at least two of them described as “fantastic” when we spoke to them after the results. They also explained that it was the way in which the performance was “Elgarian” in execution – faithful to the composer’s intention to portray his friends in musical character that held more weight than the slips and blips that many (us included at 4BR) thought that may have cost them dearly. They were looking at the bigger picture, and it was a picture that found favour with them in the box – and that, as all true champions will attest to, is all that counts.

That left just the one band to play, and Redbridge under Melvin White gave a good account of themselves and the music in coming 15th. It started in rather sturdy fashion and intonation was a problem, but as it progressed it picked up. The Finale echoed the opening – sturdy and a little sticky but the band and MD were always just about in control of the music and although it sounded tired to close it was a performance that once more showed that the best London bands are not too far behind the top tier at this level.

So that was that. The music was a grave disappointment – colourless and too bland too often, whilst some of the movements sounded like an exercise from the Arban in the way in which they were arranged – and it must be said, played by some of the bands. This was not a great celebration of Eric Ball at his best – nor Elgar for that matter. Still, it had tested the bands – none came through unscathed, but as BackBeat filled in the long minutes before the announcement of the results many in the audience would have noted down their top six. For the record 4BR had a top six of Black Dyke, Tredegar, BAYV Cory, Brighouse and Rastrick, Scottish Co-op and Desford. Outside that we had Fodens, Fairey and Ransome with the rest much of a muchness down to 15th place.

In the end we were a fair bit out – Dyke were 4th, Tredegar deservedly took the runners up spot and BAYV Cory confirmed third place, whilst Brighouse were 6th, Co-op 9th and Desford 10th. After speaking to the adjudicators it was clear that it was the overall shape of the music that they were looking at – David Read in his welcome address to the auditorium made the point of capturing the essence of the composers musical intentions – something they certainly felt Fairey’s did to a tee.

So Fairey FP (Music) Band are the 2003 National Champions – the first time in their history that they have retained the title – something to be very proud of indeed. Come 2004 we are sure they will take a “Win Ugly” once more. History, as they say about the football results, records for posterity that you won, not how you did it – and that’s all that matters.

 

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