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2004 London and the Southern Counties Regional Championships - Retrospective

First Section
Saturday 20th March

Test Piece: Coventry Variations – Bramwell Tovey
Roy Roe

At the outset of this retrospective look at the London & Southern Counties First Section, apologies to those bands whose performances were missed - Stonesfield Silver and Fairlop Brass.

Having sat through the whole of the Second Section, a combination of the less than ideal seating and the rising temperature necessitated taking a couple of breaks, taken as the need arose. It should also be said that, without a score (why were there no study scores available?) it was a difficult task describing the performances accurately.

Seventeen bands competed for the First Section trophy, but not before it had been discovered that the staging - barely adequate for the Second Section bands, would not safely accommodate the additional percussion required for "Coventry Variations".

With the help of volunteers from the audience, the staging was moved and the proceedings commenced 15 minutes late. Whatever the audience and adjudicator felt about the delay, there seemed to be no adverse effect on the opening band, Clacton-on-Sea Co-operative. Although there was a little untidiness in the back row cornets, the band soon got into their stride, with a clear soprano and some sensitive playing by the flugel. As the performance proceeded things got even better, although it did feel as if one of the cornet players slightly anticipated the final chord. 3rd place was their reward.

Egham's opening seemed well shaped and balanced, and the ostinato figures and bass lines came across with clarity. There were some slips from the soloists, but some impressive chording from the basses and a positive finish. The adjudicator's verdict of 17th and last place was very surprising to this listener.

The opening trio for Wantage Silver suffered balance problems, as did many of the performances, with some notes just disappearing. In the tuttis however, the sound was full and clear, with good work by the back row. At times the sound became a little muddied, and the trombones could have been more prominent. There were slight tuning discrepancies between soloist and band on occasion, and the sop did not have the best of days. All in all though, it was a fair performance for a mid-range 8th place.

Haverhill Silver (7th place) also had their moments, with a good opening, but poor intonation at times and a rather half-hearted whip not really having the intended effect.

They were followed on stage by Broseley Brass, who again suffered a little at the start. A generally good performance was marked at times by some over-prominent vibrato, and some missed notes from the trombone. They ended positively, with some fine soprano playing topping things off, to gain 6th position.

Unfortunately Stonesfield Silver's 4th-prize-winning performance was not heard.

Chichester City picked up after a dodgy opening, with some good work from the flugel and horns. The whip, and the percussion in general, came across well, as did the trombones. Poor intonation, especially in the quieter sections, may have counted against them as they were placed 13th.

City of Cambridge, playing 8th, started a little uncertainly, and their performance lacked clarity at times. They were playing with only two percussion and the missing parts were very apparent, having heard the other performances. The answering phrases across the band did not quite gel together, and 9th place seemed about right.

The students of Zone One Brass produced the best opening trio yet, but then the tuning slipped somewhat. Their rather straight sound seemed to suit the writing, and the horns and basses were impressive, as were the percussion section. They also attempted the first real pianissimo playing of the day. With some good work as well from the trombones, they could possibly have bettered their 5th place if they had managed more than four rehearsals on the test-piece!

Tilbury's performance seemed a little disjointed, with some harsh sounds at times from the trombones and untidiness when the whole band cut off at the end of phrases. With a few slips from the soloists 14th place was the outcome.

Alder Valley produced an unusual seating plan, with all the saxhorns in three rows on the audience's left, cornets to the right and the trombones in the centre. The full band sound was quite good after a shaky start, but the layout did not seem to help the trombones - playing into their stands, they struggled to be heard. Insecure notes and intonation in the more thinly scored sections did not help, and the result was 12th place.

Hatfield of Colchester produced some good sounds, particularly from the horns and baritones. The trombones and basses also produced some good work, although the latter could have been quieter at times. Their percussion was occasionally out of sync, with both xylophone and timps seeming adrift. Their young principal cornet deserves a mention for a good effort as they secured 10th place.

Northfleet Brass had the three soloists at the opening standing together with their backs to the audience. It did seem to help them play with the necessary confidence and they got off to a good start. The basses were a little heavy in the tuttis, but the horns sounded well, and there was some tidy playing from the cornet section. Overall, the band sound was very full, and there was a uniformity of style that had been missing in many other performances. Despite some rather tentative playing by cornet and euphonium they finished strongly for a well-earned 2nd.

Fairlop Brass, the other band not heard, were placed 11th. Epping Forest, after a tentative trio opening, took the tutti section at a very steady pace, which seemed symptomatic of a rather disjointed rendition, with lack of confidence and notes being snatched at. The tone of the players was thin when playing at quiet dynamics and the intonation in general left much to be desired. 16th place it was.

Denham Hendon took the brave (some would even say foolhardy!) decision to compete, even though they could only muster 16 brass and two percussionists. It is to their credit that they made such a good effort, with some sterling work from the two bass players and the trombone section in particular. With the help of one of the cornets filling in the odd glock passage, most of the percussion was there. Clearly, though, there were times when the textures were thin, and the intonation suffered, particularly in the cornets, as they tried to make up for absent friends. 15th place then, but one they had worked hard for!

Occasionally the last performance at a contest can be a bit of an anticlimax, but from the first tutti entry from Staines Brass it was clear that this was going to be something special. They produced a bright, full sound, with good work from the horns and a clear, precise attack from the cornet section. Here was a band that sounded comfortable, and produced a uniformity in the unison lines that surpassed anything that had gone before. The soloists all played their part, with some lovely sounds from the flugel in particular, and the percussion blended in well, never over-prominent but always there. The band seemed to be playing well within their limits, with no sense of strain, and they were able to produce a burst of extra volume and intensity towards the end just when it was needed. Few in the hall disagreed with Roy Roe when he pronounced them winners by two points.

In his summarising remarks, Roy Roe described "Coventry Variations" - somewhat to the surprise of many in the hall - as not being really technically difficult, but high in musical content. He felt that three performances had been consistent, whereas the other bands had struggled badly. He stressed the importance of playing together, as shown both in the opening trio and in Var 2, where clarity was needed to ensure all the sections were heard. In Var 5 & 6 he felt many players had been guessing at the placement of the notes, rather than playing them precisely, whilst some of the slow sections had been so slow that there was no musical flow. He also highlighted the need for control and observing the marks, pinpointing the bass solo, which is not accented, whereas the bass trombone at the same point is. Finally he stressed the need for the main tune to be sustained, with the moving parts being treated as subsidiary, if the musical sense is to be preserved.

All that remains is for the three successful bands to build on their success in Harrogate when September comes, and demonstrate that banding is indeed alive and kicking south of Watford Gap!

Peter Bale

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