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2003 Scottish Open Championship

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Sunday 30th November

4BR Retrospective
We have alook back at the good points, some of the lesser points of the first Scottish Open.

Audio Interviews [mp3 files]

audio icon Judges: Childs, Brownbill, Roberts [2.25mb]
audio icon Winning conductor: Russell Gray [487kb]

The adjective parsimonious can be used to describe virtues as well as shortcomings – especially it seems, when it comes to the 2003 Scottish Open Brass Band Championships – for both aspects were readily on display in Glasgow on the weekend.

Given that the Scottish Brass Band Association had certainly not been parsimonious with their investment in the inaugural contest (rumoured to be around the £25,000+ mark for the event as a whole) you would have thought the brass band loving public of Scotland would have repaid them handsomely for their foresight and ambition. Not a bleeding hope of it!

It is of course unfair to describe financial prudence as a racial stereotype, (Gordon Brown gets his fair share of knocks for that) but come Sunday at the superb Royal Glasgow Concert Hall, the support for the Championship contest from the Scottish public, both general and banding, was nothing short of pathetic. Billy Connolly no less, once described how the invention of copper wire was due to a fight between two Glaswegians over an old penny, and come 9.30am Sunday morning you had the sense that there must have been one hell of a scrap going on over loose change outside the hall. When Besses o’ th’ Barn took to the stage as band number one, we counted a total audience figure of 44 people in an auditorium that by all accounts can sit close on 1500. Given that the bank machines in the two main shopping streets nearby were not giving out any money, and that at the draw the band representatives were welcomed with the news that their usual complimentary programmes would in fact cost them £3.00, it didn’t add up to the greatest of starts.

How come such a well-organised, thoroughly well run and produced event brought so little response and support from the Scottish banding public then?

Some may argue that holding the contest on a Sunday didn’t help, whilst holding the three vibrantly popular Youth Contests away from the main venue certainly didn’t and deprived the main contest of a ready made captive audience. The pre draw, although popular with the bands for organisational reasons also means that the vast majority of players have no reason to come to listen to rivals. Whatever the truth of the matter, the tremendous hard work and professional approach of the SBBA was repaid with apathy from the Scottish public that may not bode well for next year’s European Championships. If people can’t be bothered to pay a few quid to support eight of their own bands against high class challengers from the rest of the country, what hope is there when the vast majority of the contest field will be made up of foreign bands? It was a huge let down on a day when SBBA set out their stall in such a first class manner. The bands were superbly catered for, whilst the prospective audience had fine on site facilities, a great hall to sit in and listen to some equally good music. What more do they want? The organisers will have to make some changes – getting the Youth Contests integrated into the day better, dropping the pre draw and possibly holding the contest on a Saturday will help, but they deserved so much better from their own supporters.

Scottish Co-op under Russell Gray on the other hand made parsimony a veritable virtue. Their deserved winning performance was set out in such a tight fisted error free manner that even Ebenezer Scrooge would have been proud. Right from the start it was compact and detailed with Russell Gray’s hallmarks of inviting his players to display their musicality right to the fore. The trombone playing of Paul Kiernan and his section was a real highlight throughout and the rest of the solo players from Alexandra Kerwin down were as pristine as a Bank of Scotland five pound note.

2003 has seen a real renaissance in the once all conquering band, and there is real evidence that they are now an outfit that has a core foundation of regular playing strength that can rival any band, anywhere in the UK. On Sunday they were mightily impressive, with a huge sound (perhaps a tad too big in the quieter sections for some) and with a balance and precision that was missing from nearly all their rivals on the day. Russell Gray took home with him the Commemorative Quaich and once more showed why he is now firmly ensconced in the very top tier of contest conductors – he gave his players the opportunity to shine, and shine they did. He will be in demand on the contest stage in 2004 for sure, whilst Co-op will be strong contenders when they come back here in May next year – this is now a very good band indeed and the £3000 top prize, the fine trophy, commemorative banner and glass keep sake were won in emphatic fashion.

The runners up spot was taken in thrilling fashion by Hepworth with a performance that was played with real brio and style. Right from the start it was detailed and tight, and although they didn’t quite have the depth of sound of some of the other prize winners on the day, they had a team of soloists that played to the top of their form, with Robert Westacott on Principal Cornet leading the way and with the excellent soprano, flugel, trombone and euph not far behind. It had its moments of unease and tiredness towards the end, but it was one heck of a good show and like the winners they displayed a healthy Yorkshire stinginess to the error count. MD, Mark Bentham was also quite excellent in his direction from the middle – he allowed the solo players the freedom to display their musicality whilst he keep a crystal clear beat for the ensemble to follow. He is someone to keep an eye on, whilst the band themselves could be star performers in 2004 if they keep this form up. They sounded a very fine band in the making on Sunday.

Third place went to another band on the up – Sellers International under Phillip McCann, who perhaps gave the safest account of “Paganini Variations” all day, but which just lacked the verve and excitement that marked out both Co-op and Hepworth. In Mark Bousie they had the best euphonium player on the day by some way – the extended solo and cadenza in the funebre section proved a severe test for all the players – and his lead with the famous theme set the tone for a performance of real merit. It just needed more dynamic contrast for us (every section was a perhaps too safe dynamically) but as befits a Scotsman, Mr McCann gave away nothing in the error stakes and even added a few bass peddles as a bonus from a section that included the legendary Derek Jackson. Sellers are back it seems to something approaching their best form and they too will be strong contenders at Bradford and the Grand Shield next year of they continue to play like this.

Fourth and fifth places went to the two bands that gave the most musical performances, but who also gave away the most points due to their error counts. Both Tredegar and Kirkintilloch lost points quicker than Partick Thistle could manage against Rangers a day earlier. Tredegar under Richard Evans started with a splash or three that off the number three draw opened the door for the more secure performances from the podium winning bands later in the day. The first third of the piece was their undoing and whilst the latter two thirds of the test piece were quite breathtaking in terms of sound and technique, they couldn’t recover the lost ground and had to be content with fourth place. Guest trombone player Nick Hudson was on exceptional form to take the 4BR Soloist trophy and the £100 prize with his presentation of Variation 3 that was simply in a different league – even against some super efforts from just about every solo trombone player on the day, whilst a special mention should go Tredegar’s flugel player who was also quite stunning. It was not to be though, and even these two excellent individual performances couldn’t gain them a higher placing. The Welsh on this occasion were not as frugal with the errors as they wished they could have been.

Kirkintilloch and Frank Renton also suffered the same fate – a propensity to make annoying little errors that just took the gloss off a superbly crafted reading. The music with Kirky shone through – the balance of the ensemble lines was excellent, but just when you thought it was going to be special it was hampered by those little glitches that seem to just make the listener wince. Stephen Stuart on soprano was his usual brilliantly bonkers self, but not even he was error free and in the end it cost what was the most complete musical picture for us. The judges thought it was the intonation that robbed them it seems, but for us it was the rather over generous give away of valuable points due to technical rather than musical imperfections. Fifth place was harsh but perhaps fair given what all three judges told 4BR was the small differences between the top six bands on the day.

Finally, sixth place went to Fishburn, who under Graham O’Connor delivered a powerful account of the set work that perhaps suffered from a few too many technical errors but which had much to commend. The judges felt it just lacked the finesse of the bands that came above them in the prize list, but it was a workmanlike performance that as always reflected the good direction, and certainly the preparation that the MD puts in. On a day when more fancied bands came a cropper, Fishburn showed evidence of a band that is certainly moving in the right direction.

Just outside the prizes came perhaps the only two other bands on the day that gave accounts of “Paganini Variations” that were of true championship standard. The judges confirmed to 4BR that they were disappointed with the standard of playing with the bands that filled the bottom half of the prize list, and on the evidence on show you couldn’t disagree with them. BTM had a pretty poor start and thereafter couldn’t quite catch up the lost ground, even though they did have sections of high class playing. They sounded a good band, but just like their fellow Welshmen Tredegar they were full of St. Andrew’s largesse too often, and the mistakes were too plentiful and therefore too costly. Whitburn meanwhile played like a band who knew it wasn’t going to be their day right from the word go. They took the stage with only three bass players, as one of their number seemed to have been bitten by the Glasgow version of the Tetsi fly and slept in way after the rest of the band had got to the hall changed, signed on and played. The band were suitably not impressed and sounded like it – parts had to be changed and the uneasy feeling was only matched if you had eaten too many deep fried Mars bars. It wasn’t Whitburn at their best, and it didn’t help matters that their percussion team decided to hit the living daylights out of the piece. Clyde shipyard riveters couldn’t have made much more noise. It was not a good day at the contest office.

The question of percussion will be pertinent for those bands who will come here in May for the Europeans, as the acoustics of this hall are not very forgiving to loud, hard playing. The percussion at times just obliterated too many of the detailed sections of the piece (Whitburn were not the only culprits) whilst trombonists who choose to either stand or point their bells towards the heavens for effect found that their sound rebounded around the hall like an errant nine iron off the tee at Carnoustie.

There should also be some debate over the test piece itself. “Paganini Variations” has been a very popular choice as a set work at Championship/First Section level for many years now, and perhaps its very popularity has been its Achilles heel. Too many organisers as well as bands think it is a piece that can be easily played – they are very, very wrong, and Sunday showed very, very much why. The technical and musical difficulties can only be overcome by top class bands, whilst the sections starting from the Funebre onwards take some playing by even the best solo players around. The piece has been too poorly played too often and it is about time it was put back to its rightful place. Contest organisers please take note – this is a piece that can only be overcome by very good bands. It is time it was treated with its rightful respect again.

The point was proved with the performances that filled the positions nine to fifteen.

Besses were also struck by the Tetsi fly – although this time it bit their bus driver and therefore meant they had to scrabble around trying to get ready on time to play off the number one raw at 9.30am. It totally unsettled them, and added to the fact there was nearly more of them on stage as there were in the audience it added up to a deflating performance. They are a good band and deserved better than this, especially from the driver (we bet he got some foreign coins and a coke can ring pull when he asked for the traditional tip on the way home). Freckleton who came 10th never quite got totally to grips with the piece from the start and only gave an average performance, whilst the bottom five places were taken up by the remainder of the Scottish bands on show.

Unison Kinneil, Newtongrange, Kingdom Brass, Bo’ness and Carriden and Broxburn on this evidence sounded bands out of their depth on this piece on this occasion. Perhaps some of them had off days, but to be truthful none of them sounded in command of either the technical or musical challenges of the work. Unison Kinneil have a pretty good track record of late, but even with David Thornton and Ben Rapp in their ranks from Black Dyke, this was a poor performance by their standards and 11th place was what they deserved on the day. Newtongrange just didn’t get going, whilst the bottom three produced performances that were not up to Championship Section level. It may sound harsh – but the test piece was simply too difficult for them. As we have said – “Paganini Variations” is a very hard test piece – however nice it may be to play.

The inaugural Scottish Open ended with the British Euphonium Ensemble wowing the audience (swelled to two thirds full as all the kids came in for the results of their Championships – just to emphasise as well how poorly the main contest had been attended), whilst there were some well merited presentations before the announcement of the results. The first intake of breath came with Kirkintilloch’s fifth place, and another after Tredegar were announced as fourth, but after that it was a top three that many had in their mind.

Well done to Sellers and Hepworth, and a very well done to Scottish Co-op and Russell Gray who not only turned the domestic tables on their rivals, but also showed that they are back to something approaching their best once more – and that means them regaining their top 10 ranking status. No quibbles with the results, but a few quibbles over a contest that we are sure will be ironed ut before next year. The SBBA have really worked their socks off with the Scottish Open, and it deserves to be a success. Hopefully they will be able to attract more top line bands next year to improve the overall standard of the contest even more, whilst we can only hope that the brass band public north of Hadrian’s Wall will see this as an opportunity to give Scottish banding a real boost. We would hate to have to look up another adjective such as parsimonious in the dictionary again in 2004.


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