Editorial ~ 2004: October


Age shall not weary them...; The Open Question; Is Albert still the best Hall?

Age shall not weary themů.

When is a test not a test? When it's a challenge that cannot be overcome perhaps?

That may be the question that a number of bands will be asking now that they know the line up of set works to master for the 2005 Regional Championships - and the answer many will be giving in return.

The Championship Section bands get to perform an interesting work in the newly arranged form of Wagner's third opera, "Rienzi", whilst the bands with ambitions to reach the top tier of the contesting tree will have to overcome an old classic in the shape of "Comedy Overture". These are worthy, demanding works that will test the bands to the full, but are certainly not beyond their capabilities both musically and technically. In fact, "Rienzi" should provide an enjoyable experience for all concerned - a new twist on a very old theme maybe, but one that still provides a fresh enough challenge for players, conductors and audience alike.  "Comedy" should also prove popular, especially if the bands don't forget that it is still a period piece of musical quality and not the equivalent of an IKEA bookcase - all superficial image and very little practicality.

However, it is the choices made by the Music Panel of Paul Hindmarsh, C. Brian Buckley, John Maines, Richard Evans with Alan Hope as Secretary, for Sections Two, Three and Four that raise the eyebrows higher than even Roger Moore could manage.

"Variations for Brass Band" by Vaughan Williams; "Tam O'Shanter's Ride" by Denis Wright and "Divertimento" by Bryan Kelly are fine works indeed, and even though two of them are fast approaching their 50th anniversaries and the other is closing in on it's 40th, time hasn't dulled their sharp musical edges.  So much so, that it comes as a great surprise that they have been chosen as the tests pieces for the sections they have. 

Having listened to the standard of performances at both the Regional Championships and Lower Section Finals this year (and listened to the thoughts of the judges - especially at Harrogate), these choices appear to be overly ambitious tests to say the least for the bands to try and overcome. 

Giving bands realistic challenges is a difficult task at the best of times, but these three choices seem to be too severe as tests to be mastered in any meaningfully musical way at the levels they have been pitched at by the Panel. Playing them will be one thing, performing them to a standard that doesn't rob them of their musical integrity will quite another and there could a great number of fairly dire performances around the country next year through no fault of the bands and MD's.

Great competition music will always provide a great competition test - but it becomes poor music when it cannot be a test that can be realistically overcome. And there is a real danger this could occur at the 2005 Regionals.

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The Open Question

As always, the British Open has created its fair share of fevered opinion and debate. The usual differences of opinion have been aired (including contributions from players, reviewers and adjudicators) and which creates a vibrancy that can only be good for the movement as a whole.

The experiment this year of having a choice of three test pieces for the bands to choose from, may or may not be seen in the fullness of time to be a success or not (in the opinion of 4BR it was not, for others it was - but next year it reverts back to one original composition), but you cannot help but congratulate the organisers on the power of their convictions to try something new and untested in order to maintain the British Open as the premier brass band contest in the world. 

In the past few years Martin Mortimer and his team have challenged assumptions on the type of music that may be appropriate for such a contest (look at the difference between "The Maunsell Forts" and "Les Preludes" for example); as well as the judging process (positions on merit rather than points); and the composition of the competing bands (invitations to the USA and New Zealand for instance). 

Could now be the right time for the final and most radical change then?

What about a British Open that is based around deciding the winners from the 12 best bands in the UK. The bands would perform both a set work and an own choice work and the contest would be run over the two days of the Open weekend.  The bands would decide to either opt for open or closed adjudication plus the choice of judges, whilst the bottom two bands over a two year period would be relegated to be replaced by two from a newly constituted Grand Shield series of contests. 

Perhaps a bit too much too soon? Maybe, but as was shown at Birmingham there is now a mood for the process of change to be maintained to ensure the continued good health of our premier contesting event. The Open has shown it has the capacity to encompass innovative change - sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but whatever the outcomes have been in the past, the future could prove to be even more exciting if the appetite for radicalism is grasped by those concerned. 

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Is Albert the top Hall anymore?

This year sees the National Brass Band Championship Finals return to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time since it has finally been overhauled and refitted to the tune of millions of pounds of taxpayers money.  We are told by those who know a thing or two about these things (usually those who inhabit the "Arts Establishment" world of Quangoland) that it is now an auditorium fit for the 21st Century.  About bleeding time then.

For the past thirty years or more the Hall was one of the biggest performing toilets in the entertainment world: It was run down, shabby, and dirty. The cost of hiring the hall was exorbitant; the food was awful and over priced; the staff unhelpful and surly; the amenities almost medieval and unsanitary; the seats uncomfortable; the view terrible and acoustic ludicrous. It was a Victorian monument to imperial excess and glorious mourning gone to seed and it was a venue that was fit only for celebrity tennis matches and the jingoistic Last Night of the Proms. 

We were of course told that it had a special atmosphere like Wembley Stadium (a miasma of carbolic soap, damp and cigarette smoke in fact), but after Wembley was knocked down and the football ended up in Cardiff, those arguments dried up.

In the meantime some of the best entertainment auditoriums in the World have sprung up the length and breadth of the UK and have put the old Hall to shame, with the likes of Symphony Hall in Birmingham, the Bridgewater in Manchester, the revamped Barbican in London and now the soon to be opened and quite awesome Millennium Centre in Cardiff setting standards that the old "inside out wedding cake" could never match.   So what can the bands and audience expect in a couple of weeks time then?

Hopefully, better seats, decent grub, clean toilets, polite staff, a good view and an acoustic that at least allows you the chance to hear some detail of what is actually being played. Oh, and decent seat prices as well, although that is more to do with the Hall still charging a mini ransom for the organisers to hire it out for the day.

If it doesn't come up to scratch, then perhaps it will be time to say goodbye to a monument that really has little relevance, except perhaps as an emotional tie to the movement and look for a venue that really does give us value for money and a real sense of meeting our 21st Century needs.

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