The entertainer - Archie Rice aka Laurence Olivier...
There is something about Brass in Concert that reminds you of Archie Rice in the film ‘The Entertainer’.
Despite the wonderful new venue, the tweaks to the adjudication scoring and the relaxation of the registration rules, there is still an aura of the old music hall tradition that permeates the soul of this contest.
Times have changed in the past 35 years – but the basic premise on which the audiences are entertained seems to have been set in musical aspic.
It’s Archie Rice in brass band form: An entertainer stuck in time, playing to an audience that is the equivalent of the portrait of Dorian Gray.
On stage you see ever younger stand up performers. Look into the auditorium and you are met by a sea of ever aging faces.
A Picture of Dorian Gray...
Cul de sac
As a result Brass in Concert has become a contest won on prescription rather than innovation – a cul de sac of musical limitation that has been defined by an inherently conservative attitude to change from the competing bands, and to a degree, the organisers themselves.
Free thinking spirits are treated with a degree of suspicion, whilst true inventiveness is frowned upon with the most damming exhibition of collective distain – polite applause.
As a frustrated Archie Rice says with sarcastic resignation to his apathetic audience: “Don’t clap too loudly, it’s a very old building.”
That may not quite apply at The Sage, but its foundations are sponsored by the Northern Rock Building Society – and look what happened to that.
A new box of tricks from the organisers?
The last few years has seen the majority of bands provide little in the way of progressive thinking, whilst the organisers have tinkered around the edges with the contest’s format and design.
Variations on tried and tested themes remain the contest winning raison d’etre: Flashy opener, solo, comedy insert, slow piece, big finisher. Insert a bit of cool jazz/orchestral filler to make up to the 23 minutes of playing time and hey presto.
The competitors may well argue that a points format that lacks a coherent weighting towards the quality of performance over the visual entertainment stops them from really going out on a limb – and they have a point. The current system seems badly thought out.
Both Stavanger and Eikanger have showed us a glimpse of the brave new Nordic world in the past few years here – although the reception to their programmes was Euro sceptic to say the least.
It will be a cold day in hell you suspect when a band is able to perform John Cage’s 4’33” – as was the case at SIDDIS a week ago.
Prescriptive programme sets remain the norm, although thankfully the fashion for ‘non swinging’ swing music seems to have ended – the folly of which was perfectly summed up by Cory trying to kid us that the 'King of Swing' was Glen Miller and not Benny Goodman.
A Welsh Male Voice choir...: Tredegar in full voice
The Brits should have learnt from the harsh lesson in musical reality that was handed out when Brass Band of Central Florida first came and showed us just how it should be done in 2006.
They are back again, and may be about to dish out a lesson on the art of performing cool American modern jazz - the current flavour of the month in many a band programme.
Unfortunately, there still appears to an insatiable appetite for lame, overlong comedy items – from men dressing up as busty middle aged women to mad maraca playing trombonists, and a puzzling new phenomena – the brass band as a male voice choir, even though Gareth Malone would struggle to make some back row cornet players sing in tune.
Multi media presentations may have come and gone quicker than a new brass band app for an iphone (although it’s real potential is still there), whilst it is hoped that audience members of a certain age will now be spared ropey trumpet players trying to burst their eardrums with misplaced Maynard Ferguson impressions – nearly all of which sound more like Sir Alex Ferguson on best hairdryer form.
Come and gone? The multi media screens may have been a fad...
So will we get the first glimpse of a brave new brass band entertainment world at The Sage on Saturday, or will the contest move sedately into comfortable middle age (it’s now 35 years old), satisfied with the cosy thematic repeats, the odd chuckle of laughter and a Ben Hur finisher?
Wait and see.
But as Archie Rice found out to his cost – growing old with your audience is not a recipe for long term success.