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2004 West of Enlgand Regional Championships - Retrospective

The Championship Section:
Sunday 28th March

Adjudicator: William Relton
Test Piece: Tristan Encounters - Martin Ellerby

When Howard Wilkinson was the manager of the Sunderland Football Club in the Premiership, he once memorably, but unfortunately for him, uncomprehendingly described the fact that his team hadn’t won a game in living memory as, “We are trying to rid ourselves of the monkey on our backs.”

JAG Mount Charles were beginning to know what he meant, for coming into the 2004 West of England Championships they must have felt like Charlton Heston in “Planet of the Apes”. For all their undoubted talent, quality MD’s and confidence built of playing well against some of the best bands in the country, they didn’t have a single victory here to call their own. They were being weighed down by a bleeding musical Orang-utan.

Cometh the hour though, cometh the man, and in this case it was Dr. Nicholas Childs - and after directing a performance of rare quality of “Tristan Encounters” there was little doubt that the Cornish band had finally rid themselves of their Simian bogeyman. This was a performance out of the very top drawer.

Band Chairman, Derek Thomas was obviously delighted when we spoke to him after the results and he had just got off the phone with the Welshman. “We knew this was going to be an important contest for the band”, he said. “Nick Childs brought a real sense of determination and self belief to the band, and I think we responded in kind. This has been too long overdue and we have finally shown that we have a band here that can be strong contenders at the Finals. We can’t wait.”

The Black Dyke MD had just informed Derek that he too was delighted for the band, and thanked them for the effort they had put in. He was disappointed that he couldn’t stay to celebrate with them all, but he perhaps knew that he may not have been in a fit state to make it home on Monday morning. The celebrations were in full swing before the doors of the Riviera Centre in Torquay had even closed.

The contest itself, for 4BR, was something of a Curates egg, and we were more than a little surprised at the comments made by the genial adjudicator William Relton prior to the results. He said that he was “…so encouraged and elevated by the standard of playing here. “Tristan Encounters” was “…one of the most difficult test pieces of the last 20 or 30 years, but I was so encouraged by the standard of playing here. The high marks reflected the high standard of performances, and I salute the performers and their partners for all their hard work and sacrifices.”

High marks indeed; but perhaps Bill is getting sentimental, or just plain crafty. Torquay can be a very nice place at this time of year and perhaps he would like to come back in twelve months time. Points in themselves are meaningless, but they can also be used as relevant measures, so giving a fine winning performance 198 points is one thing – giving the top seven bands 190 points or more is something else.

The West of England Championship Section was a decent contest – nothing more, nothing less. The winners and runners up gave two very fine performances, whilst one other gave a rendition that was worthy of a qualification place – after that it was pretty much run of the mill with a bottom four that varied from the unlucky to the sub standard. It made it no better or no worse than just about any other Area contest this year – perhaps Bill Relton knew it, but was too much of a gentleman to say so.

JAG Mount Charles took to the stage as the second band on. Lydmet Lydney had opened proceedings with a performance under the direction of Steve Sykes that to be honest about it was not up to Championship Section standard. It would be wrong to blame the players – they all tried their hearts out, but you can put a bit of blame at the MD’s door on this occasion. Perhaps Steve Sykes knew he was up against it, but gave the band no chance at all with tempos that were beyond them in the quicker transfigurations and no flexibility in the slower ones to encourage some confidence building when the chance arose. Lydney found it a very tough experience this year.

That led to JAG Mount Charles, and right from the detailed and controlled opening section you felt this was going to be a good ‘un. It carried all the way through and the performance was enhanced greatly by the best percussion section of the day – used by the MD to enhance the colour as well as produce the effects required. The soloists at Transfiguration 12 all had decent days, with Shaun Thomas on euph the pick, whilst the flow in the slower sections had a real musicality. The quicker stuff was quite excellent before a super build to the finish. Our only quibble was the last note – a ludicrous minim length after they had played the last but one bar in the quick manner the composer intended. It was a minor quibble to a quite outstanding rendition.

After that marker came a series of decent enough performances from Bodmin, City of Bristol, Yeovil and St Austell that all had their moments but never set the pulse racing.

Bodmin were very poor – and all that confidence that they had won back after the Yeovil contest was dissipated after a muddled opening which lacked clarity. Ben Godfrey of YBS fame appeared on soprano cornet, and gave a fine account as the musical tide of mediocrity engulfed the band. He was the only soprano player on the day to play the opening cadenza of Transfiguration 12 correctly and with style (the standard of soprano playing wasn’t too grand all day – nearly all of them blasted away on the loud stuff and came croppers when asked to play quietly and sweetly) and he even doubled the solo cornet entry as well. John Berryman gave the music time and space, but the fragility of too many of the soloists finally unravelled the ensemble playing. William Relton was very harsh and gave them last place – we had them 8th.

City of Bristol played well above themselves though. A competent showing under the direction of Andrew Jones that was based on a “no frills” approach that served them well. Nothing too exciting, nothing too much wrong – it never touched the musical nerves, but the approach was never meant to do that. It was a performance that emphasised their strengths and at times neatly hid the obvious weaknesses. Others should have taken note. 7th from Bill – 6th for us.

Yeovil and Ian McElligott once again nearly pulled off the shock result here. Twelve months ago they came third and they repeated the feat this time again – although for us we had them in 7th place. The MD though knows how to tickle the fancy of the man in the box ; it was a clean and neatly packaged performance that for us just lacked expression and was a touch regimental in tempos – it lacked flow in places. However, there wasn’t anything really wrong in technical terms and the solo horn and 2nd euph played their cadenzas in superb fashion. It didn’t do it for us, but it certainly did it for Bill (and that’s what counts) and he gave them 195 points and yet another podium place.

We enjoyed St. Austell’s performance under the baton of David Loukes, but it could have benefited from a more sympathetic approach from the MD to the tempos. The fast stuff was perhaps too fast whilst the slow stuff was perhaps too fast too. It was exciting to start, but it became scrappy as it went along and whilst the young team of soloists did OK, they would have surely benefited if they had been given a bit more time in which to express themselves. The slips mounted up and although they had a fine close those tempos may just have cost them a higher place. 5th from Bill and 4th for us.

To Camborne then. Frank Renton and his charges were certainly determined to retain their title (and become the first band here to do so since 1996), and it was perhaps that determination which at times became aggression that cost them. It was an excellent musical reading from the MD – broad sweeping lines and maximum use of the percussive effects, whilst their Transfiguration 12 was the only one on the day that sounded as if it really did have rubato – perhaps even libero. The soloists ranged from the OK to the superb (the solo horn was something else), whilst a special mention must go the rep player whose little interjections throughout the piece were moments of refined class. It became a bit frenetic towards the end and the aggression became hard sounding, but it had a true composers finish. There is a really good band here if their can tame their testosterone levels, and even though they didn’t do enough to retain their title, a fourth consecutive Finals appearance was well deserved.

That really just left Flowers and SWT Woodfalls – and Flowers just left themselves with too much to do. The week before the contest was a band secretary’s nightmare – three basses lost in almost Lady Bracknell comedic fashion and then the horrendously unlucky loss of perhaps their best player on flugel on the Friday night before the contest. Julia Telling’s back problem was so acute she was unable to play (we all wish her well and a speedy recovery), so the band’s rep player bravely stepped into the breach.

You could almost imagine the scene – any volunteer please step forward – cue eight other cornet players taking one step back.

You sensed all was not right as the MD took to the stage with a score (a rare sight indeed for Philip Harper), and from the word go it was a performance that lacked cohesive confidence – a usual hallmark of the band. The first major flugel entry was subbed out to the solo horn and from then on it was all hands to the pumps. The ship didn’t sink – and there were still plenty of fine moments and sections, but all along it had that uncomfortable feeling of potential disaster. That it didn’t was a credit to the players (and the brave man on the flugel) and the MD who drove them to the end, but it was the poorest performance we have heard from the band here for many a year. No complaints from them as they were announced in 6th place – we had the 5th. They will recover though.

SWT Woodfalls could count themselves a little unlucky not to have come in the top three at least and possibly have nicked a qualification place if they had played to the top of their form. Steve Bastable really turned on the musical taps and the piece had a lovely sense of flow. The weaknesses lay in some of the more prominent solo lines though, and time and time again expensive blips and blobs just scratched and dented the musical picture. Perhaps what cost them was an unconvincing Transfiguration 12 – only half of the soloists did themselves real justice, and so by the time a quite excellent finish had rounded things off you knew those little errors were docking points. We had them 3rd, Bill Relton had them 4th.

That left Hyde and Test Valley to round off the contest and both did enough to suggest that although they were never going to challenge for the prizes they more than held their own against the opposition. Both performances were of Championship standard, but both felt a little desperate and unconvincing in too many places.

Hyde started well, but the opening section was littered with little blips and blobs. Peter Wise chose careful tempi that at times sounded a little pedantic, but he made sure his strengths were seen and heard and the weaknesses in the ensemble covered as best they could. It never quite captured the vibrancy required but the soloists put in brave efforts and it all came together at the end with a big bold finish. 10th for us – 9th from the man in the box.

Finally, Test Valley Brass under Ian Holmes, and another performance that met the standard but gave us nothing more or less. It started well enough, but the pick ups in the solo lines were played as semi quavers and not triplets throughout (they were not the only culprits on the day though). The tempi were well chosen and the playing was commendably clear of slips for the first half of the piece. It all got a little too tired towards the end, but the soloists performed admirably and it was a decent showing on their debut. 9th for us but 8th for Bill Relton – they will be stronger band next year though for sure.

So that was that then for the West, and for the 2004 Regional Championships of Great Britain. Bill Relton was witty and generous – perhaps over generous with the praise and the marks, but he did round off a fine weekend of contesting here. The event is very well managed and run, the facilities are good (best food at a contest venue in the UK) and there is a sense that the region is producing some fine bands. JAG Mount Chalres and Camborne will make the trip to London, and on this form (although it will be interesting to see what conductors they team up with at the Finals) they should do well at the Albert Hall.

“God Damn You – you finally done it” cried old Chuck Heston at the end of the Ape epic, and perhaps many of the JAG Mount Charles players cried something of the same (in a slightly different accent and with a few more choice expletives perhaps) - but for the right reasons this time at the end of the 2004 Championship Section contest. JAG Mount Charles it seems have finally rid themselves of their contesting chimpanzee syndrome.

Iwan Fox.
© 4BarsRest

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