Nationals Championship of Great Britain 2003
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
“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
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
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
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
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 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
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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