2010 North Amercian Brass Band Championships - retrospective


4BR was in North Carolina for the North American Championships, where Fountain City claimed the title was a fourth consecutive year. Pat Herak and Tim Jameson report.

NABBAThe 2010 North American Brass Band Association Championships was held at the Meymandi Concert Hall of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, North Carolina.  

Classic box

A modern rendition of the classic box with a very high ceiling and relatively flat orchestra section, the hall was very spacious and comfortable for both the audience and the performers.  

18 bands competed in 5 sections: Championship (5-bands), 1st Section (6-bands), 2nd Section (3-bands), 3rd Section (2-bands), Open Section (2-bands), and Youth (no bands competing this year), with the chosen set works of Philip Sparke’s ‘Variations on an Enigma’ (Championship Section); Gilbert Vinter’s ‘Triumphant Rhapsody’ (First Section); Kenneth Hesketh’s  ‘Danceries’ (Second Section) and Philip Wilby’s ‘Postcards from Home’ (Third Section)

This years adjudicators were from the UK and USA and included Jamie Hood, Philip Sparke, Demondrae Thurman and William Himes.

The somewhat live acoustic blurred some fine details, but the musicians seemed to be well able to communicate on the stage.

Full results at: news/detail.asp

Championship Section

Fountain City BB
OwnChoice: Extreme Make-over (DeMeij)

The Fountain City Brass Bandtook the stage with the swagger of the champions.  

Audiences have come to elevate their level of expectation for this group, holding them perhaps to a higher standard.  Luckily, the judges do not know which band was which, so the bar was not unfairly raised.  

The opening of Enigma seemed to pour from the instruments with a fluid ease that had not been heard up to this point in the evening.  The band was making what is very difficult seem simple and effortless.  This was the harbinger of great things for the next 30 minutes.  

In the Sparke work each of the sections went about their work effectively when it was their turn to do the heavy lifting.  You could have wished for much more sound and bite from the trombones on their variation.  During the bari/euph variation the duet between the euph and the cornet was the most beautifully played of the evening.  

The band played the fugue section with a dynamic exuberance that was not matched on this night.  FCBB has a wonderful concept of the brass band sound from top to bottom, and they know how to produce it.  

Extreme Make-over is a tour-de-force for a band, and the perfect showpiece for this virtuoso ensemble.  Given the technical demands of the piece, I found the tempi astonishingly fast, yet the notes were played with great accuracy.  

Yet, the speed often diminished the drama that this piece is capable of producing.  Although gimmicky, the tuned bottle section can be more impressive if the tone of the bottles is more closely matched, and more accurately tuned.  That nit picked, FCBB brought down the house with the sheer quantity of notes accurately played.  

Although their performance was good enough to win by a comfortable margin, I felt the band chose to play it safe dynamically.  The performance was clean and accurate as what I have come to expect from them, but not up to their usual standard of musicality and excitement.  

But then again, I was not behind a screen, and perhaps held the bar differently for this impressive group of musicians.

James Madison University
Own Choice: Rococo Variations (Gregson)

The JMUBB shows that extra effort and attention to detail pay off. All the extramusical details of their performance---horn angles, posture, even how they took the stage--- had been not only planned carefully, but were also wonderfully executed.  

This is a polished band, and the level of effort they show in the “little things” certainly translates into impressive performance of the “big things”.  They not only know how to play the music, they know how to be a brass band.  In Enigma, their version of the flugel/tenor horn variation was easily the best of the night, and the two euphonium players demonstrated a perfectly matched sound on their variation.  

I wished for a bit more snarl from the trombones when they took center stage.  The sound from the basses was clean and accurate, aided by the fact that the percussion stayed out of the way after their brief vamp.  The piece came to a dynamic and convincing close.  

During the Gregson there was a great deal of very delicate and controlled playing, especially in the frighteningly exposed sections.  These young people play with a confidence well beyond their years.  Especially pleasing was a very unified cornet section sound, although more vibrato would be appropriate at times.  

Special recognition should also go to the percussion section, which was very musical and well-integrated into the ensemble.  When JMUBB takes a swing at a tutti fortissimo, they seldom miss.  

The same is true of the other end of the dynamic spectrum.  They never sacrifice style, tone, intonation or blend to reach the dynamic extremes.

Brass of the Potomac
Own Choice: The Torchbearer (Graham)

After only a few seconds of playing it was clear that the Brass of the Potomac has top-notch players in every seat.  The band played with technical brilliance, and the only thing that betrayed their newness as a group was the occasional phrase-end inconsistency.  

The variation of Enigma where the basses are on the hot seat was noteworthy in its accuracy, although the percussion was a bit on the heavy side.  I would have been happy with a bit more bite in the fortissimo cornet sound.  

The Torchbearer allowed the band to show off their excellent sense of musical line and shape, as well as some very intense and impressive piano and pianissimo playing where Graham called for it.  This piece is a virtual minefield for the corner players, which was navigated impressively.  

As a whole, more vibrato throughout would be appropriate, particularly in the cornet tutti, where it would add extra shimmer to what is already a fine sound.  

This impressive group is certainly one to be watched, and will make their mark as time progresses.

Chicago Brass Band
Own Choice: …all the flowers of the Mountain… (M. Ball)

Chicago BB grabbed the audience’s attention with a very aggressive style from the beginning.  

Especially impressive was the playing by the back row cornets, who made their presence known in a very energetic yet appropriate way.  In Enigma, the flugel/tenor horn variation was musically played, although a bit disjointed at times.  

I wished for a bit more energy from the trombones when the stage was theirs.  The beautiful pianissimo playing during the bari/euph variation was breathtaking in its control.  

During the fugue the individual lines lost some of their energy and clarity, but the energy was certainly regained by the band for an impressive finish to the piece.  

The Ball, being often exposed and ethereal, sometimes showed moments of lost concentration by the ensemble, leading to some inconsistencies of style and line.  Pitch also drifted during the slow section.  

Chicago BB has an excellent tutti sound at the forte and fortissimo levels, with just the right amount of brilliance to be exciting without being strident.

Atlantic Brass Band
Own Choice: Cloudcatcher Fells (McCabe)

It was obvious that Atlantic BB was putting much energy into their performance, and had into their preparation.   

Music this difficult often puts even professional players at the edge of their capabilities, and at times this band seemed to be overmatched by the technical demands.  

Enigma was played with quite a few individual and ensemble inconsistencies, although the overall musical whole was satisfying.  At fortissimo the band sometimes loses its control of pitch, blend and tone, yet one never questions the level of effort the band is putting into their performance.  

The piece finished strong and with a flourish, demonstrating that Atlantic BB takes great pride in their ability to not only perform at a high level, but to entertain.  

Cloudcatcher Fells is extremely difficult from a technical perspective to be sure, but even more so from the mental and concentration demands it puts on the musicians.  

Add to that the fact that Altantic took the stage performance after 9:00PM and the challenge was intensified.  Yet the band performed the piece with admirable style and accuracy, taking care to find and project the subtle nuances that are not easily executed.

Occasionally the band lost their balance on long crescendos and diminuendos, but this is a minor quibble.  

I would also like to hear more vibrato in the sustained cornet sound.

First Section

In recent years the First (formerly Honors) Section has been one of the most closely contested in NABBA.  This year was no exception, with the top bands clustered very closely.  

They had to suffice with two of the three judges in attendance, since Frank Renton was stranded in the UK, a prisoner of the volcanic ash.

Central Ohio
Own Choice: Cambridge Variations (Sparke)

The Central Ohio BB began the defense of their 2009 title with an energetic and dynamic approach that would carry them again to the top of the podium.  

While there were a few moments of unrefined playing and their bright tempi in the Vinter occasionally bordered on the frantic, together the approach lent an air of excitement that was well received.  

Excellent playing by the corner players let the audience know that Central Ohio would once again be a group with which to be reckoned.  Their ambitious choice piece was musically and sensitively played, despite a few moments of lost concentration late.  

They showed off an excellent tutti cornet sound, although perhaps a bit on the bright side for some tastes.  Such a demanding program left the band somewhat spent at the end, which made the final moments of Cambridge a bit less rewarding than one might want.  

With this kind of consistency (three first place finishes in four years), Central Ohio will soon have a decision to make.

Georgia Brass Band
Own Choice: Salome (Maecenas)

It is likely that Georgia BB took the stage determined to improve their result from 2009, and their determination sometimes may have led to overplaying by some individuals.  

There were moments of a less than homogenous sound, both in sections and in tutti playing.  This also led to times of inconsistent style from player to player, as well as coarse sounds at the top end of the dynamic range.  

However, these are nits being picked, because Georgia’s performance of the test piece was accurate and quite musical.  Their performance of Salome was musically expressive, and demonstrated many moments of impressive individual excellence.  

Yet, these individuals did not always blend into a homogenous whole.  At times the cornet section was a bit front-row heavy.  

As with Central Ohio, Georgia’s demanding program took a toll late, and energy ran low at the end, leading to some dicey pitch moments.

Own Choice: Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Graham)

Last was certainly not least as the Massanutten BB came to the stage as the final contestant in 1st section.  

Their version of the Vinter seemed a bit untidy at times, with dynamics somewhat flattened.  The big emotional moments of the piece were played with beautiful expression, although better support from the middle and low voices would have transformed what was very good into breathtaking.  

This is a band that could take a few more chances and likely be the better for it.  In Journey there were moments of extreme beauty and sensitivity that showed what the band is capable of when lyricism is called for.  

Applying the same mental (and physical) energy to the aggressive and bombastic sections of the piece would have made the end as evocative as the middle was, and may have been enough to make up the two-tenths difference between third and second.

New England
Own Choice: Partita (Sparke)

It is quite clear that Music Director Stephen Bulla knows exactly what a brass band should sound like and has realized his vision in the NEBB.  

Their sound is lush and dark, with even balance throughout the dynamic range.  There were moments of rhythmic looseness early in the Vinter as well as moments where entrances lacked the necessary finesse.  

NEBB’s playing of the march section had the appropriate rhythmic lilt and was easily the best rendition of that portion of the day.

There were excellent performances by the corner players throughout.  Their reading of the Sparke showed good ensemble and tidy stylish playing.  Especially noteworthy was the soli section for trombones.  

Although their performance of both pieces was refined and well-rehearsed, it lacked the final degree of energy and enthusiasm that would have made it truly special.

Own Choice: West Side Story (arr. Crees)

The Princeton BB is to be congratulated because of their steady improvement.  They are a much more refined band than the last time I heard them perform.  

There were some delicate moments in their performance that demonstrated their growth as an ensemble. Their performance of the Vinter was relatively clean, but the really powerful emotional moments were somewhat unconvincing.  

There was some very effective and delicate playing during the scherzo section that showd the finesse with which this band can play.

Their choice piece was a refreshing break from the kind of pieces that have become the NABBA norm, and was entertaining, although preparing this kind of piece for competition is a conundrum, because the accuracy and tidyness necessary to please the judges is not always in keeping with genre’s style.  

On this day Princeton chose the tidyness, although it was clear that the band had the capability for letting loose.  

Sometimes the tidy approach was missing the individual panache and crispness of ensemble articulation that is called for in jazz.  

Own Choice: Laudate Dominum (Gregson)

The Triangle BB was impressive in their dynamic integrity.  Many bands will start a phrase marked at one end or the other of the dynamic spectrum, only to have the volume “creep” toward mezzo.  

Triangle was consistent and disciplined in their dynamic interpretations.  Their performance of the Vinter showed good style and clean articulation, although the back row cornets seemed tentative at times.  Their performance of the Gregson  was generally clean, well-tuned and balanced, with just a few end-of-phrase inconsistencies of ensemble.  

At times I felt myself wanting the last degree of impact and power necessary to make the performance even more affective.

Tim Jameson


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