Flowers Band provided ample evidence of their serious aspirations to challenge for major contesting honours in 2020 with a commanding victory at the Butlins Mineworkers Championships in Skegness.
Brimming with musical confidence and technical consistency, Paul Holland led them to an eighth Warwick Vase title success, boosting their coffers to the tune of £12,000 in the process.
It was a victory that brokered little argument — the foundation put in place with an outstanding rendition of the set-work, 'Songs of Ascent' on the Saturday, followed by a high class reprise of their 2019 Brass in Concert 'Captain Nemo's Forgotten Journal' programme the following day.
It resulted in a clean sweep of the awards — topping all three elements of the adjudication process and aided by the 'Best Soloist' set-work contribution of tenor horn player Emily Evans. They also added an extra cash bonus of £500 by their players winning the British Open Senior Quartet prize on Sunday afternoon.
It was a thoroughly deserved victory planned and provided for.
"We had to prepare for this contest well in advance and still work very hard on the test-piece,"Paul Holland told 4BR as he headed back home on Monday morning.
"We enjoy coming here as the contest provides a real focal point to work towards for each New Year.
Planning is the key, and then the hard graft and great commitment from the players. It pays off. We're a confident band but we know we have to keep working even harder and secure what we want to achieve. This is a great start to 2020 and hopefully there's more to come."
On this form that will be a distinct possibility. Flowers were the class act of the contest — a clear competitive level above their main rivals over the two days.
Defending champion Desford eventually took a distant £5,000 second place prize, their chances of a repeat success undone somewhat by an under-cooked rendition of Jonathan Bates' test-piece that had broad brushstroke quality but lacked the level of refined detail displayed by the winners.
Despite providing a polished entertainment set — the centre point a sublime, 'Best Soloist' winning 'Impossible Dream' played by peerless sop star Kevin Crockford, they could not catch up lost ground.
No disappointment for Redbridge Brass in third. The 2009 champion produced engaging performances in both disciplines to show that there is substantive potential (boosted by £2,500 prize money) for MD Chris Bearman to build on in the coming months — starting at the Area championships in Stevenage in March.
If there was a prize for the most innovative entertainment item of the weekend it would have surely gone to them as well, with their 'Virtual Reality Brass Band' finale so cleverly realised that Bill Gates may well come calling to find out more...
Behind them, GUS Band also showed that they've emerged from a period of transition with brace of solid performances under Chris Jeans to take the fourth place and £1,000 by virtue of having a better aggregate entertainment placing than Woodfalls, whilst the hard working Wantage Silver was sixth.
Songs of Ascent
Jonathan Bates', 'Songs of Ascent' provided a tricky, but not insurmountable test-piece challenge to the six contenders on Saturday afternoon — its echoes of Edward Gregson's 'Dances & Arias' and 'Rococo Variations' moulded into a score based on a four 9-note stanchions that provided a flexible framework for the music to evolve.
Flowers had the inherent meaty ensemble tonality, aided by lean solo line quality to not merely 'play it' but master it — the contributions of Emily Evans on horn, Harmen Vanhoorne on cornet and Matt Rowe on euph standing out, whilst the leviathan tuba team provided a deeply resonant wall of rich sound.
Paul Holland subtly drew detail out without losing the flow of the music — the end result a performance that was later confirmed by Russell Gray and Dr David Thornton to have made their task "easy".
Woodfalls pushed them close thanks to Dr Robert Childs' hallmark forensic musical approach. It was a fine account, laced with precision and control — and one that had a defined edge of quality over the solidly, but more artisan virtues of Redbridge and GUS, with Desford in fifth and Wantage in sixth.
The odds on Flowers regaining the title were therefore considerably shorter than those on offer for the draw for the entertainment discipline being the same as that for the set-work — and even shorter after they had played.
Desford hit form with a polished set encompassing the familiar with the new, adding a sprinkle of glitter-ball sparkle along the way (as well as that great sop solo feature). It was a classy marker — one that proved good enough to haul them back from fifth overnight to second overall. The set-work though was their Achilles Heel.
Wantage followed with a cleverly realised 'Bach to the Future' set that saw Jonathan Bates intertwine suave French jazz and virtuous Catholic prayer with Philip Wilby test-piece brilliance and even a bit of Michael J Fox and his DeLorean car.
Another push of the flux capacitor button also saw Redbridge open with 'Back to the Future' film music to herald a curious set of two halves; the first overtly, almost sombrely traditional, the second, a brilliant splash of evangelical zeal and high tech gadgetry.
Their 'i-Band' finale was such a clever skit — and one you suspect will be copied by brass band 'hackers' for their own concert and contest appearances.
An exciting future also beckons with GUS Band, as their 'Speed & Light' set written by Mike Sheppard provided a tantalising, if a little uneven glimpse into what should prove to be a fruitful musical partnership — the ideas and execution not quite a perfect match at present, but full of inventive promise.
Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, so it was no surprise that Woodfalls take on the same vein of pantomime inspired entertainment pioneered by Friary Band last year proved popular with the packed audience in the Centre Stage venue (1700 plus people sardined in) even if it eventually came up short with the judges.
Their 'oh no they didn't' variation on the old 'Cinders' storyline, was based on the familiar 'Prince in search of a Princess' tale, and despite being cleverly realised (featuring a comedic flatulent 'leading boy' cameo lead) — it didn't quite claim enough points to fill a glass slipper with celebratory champagne.
There was much debate over the weekend as to why a number of 'leading' top flight bands give Butlins a miss — especially given the hefty prize-fund on offer.
The early calendar date was a repeated argument, but given that all six bands produced solid renditions, and better, of a tricky test-piece, as well as provide polished, varied entertainment sets, it was one that quickly lost credence.
On this evidence the suspicion is that a few may not fancy getting a spanking by a Flowers Band that on this form will be odds on favourites to retain their West of England Area title and could well cause Cory to glance over their shoulders later in the year.
They capped off the entertainment with a flourish — and such an imposing one both dynamically and musically, as they submerged below the waves to reprise a forgotten tale from the journals of Captain Nemo that didn't quite make it to the Jules Verne novels or the Disney films.
It was super stuff; vivid, vibrant and exciting as the ensemble responded almost intuitively to Paul Holland's James Mason inspired direction and with a spotlight solo from Harmen Vanhoorne that was like hearing Jacques Cousteau sniffing helium the higher he went to the incredible pianissimo finish.
And whilst Debussy's 'Sunken Cathedral' loomed large in the dynamic depths 20,000 leagues under the sea, the playing was exemplary; the 'Escape from the Kracken' finale signalling a resounding triumph for a band in prime form and riding the crest of a wave that on this form could carry them to the very edge of further major contest success in 2020.
Planning is the key, and then the hard graft and great commitment from the players. It pays off. We're a confident band but we know we have to keep working even harder and secure what we want to achievePaul Holland
Set-Work/Music (entertainment)/Entertainment = Place
1. Flowers (Paul Holland): 1/1/1 = 3
2. Desford Colliery (LCITWF) (Michael Fowles): 5/2/2 = 9
3. Redbridge Brass (Chris Bearman): 3/3/4 = 10
4. GUS Band (Chris Jeans): 4/5/3 = 12*
5. Woodfalls (Dr Robert Childs): 2/4/6 = 12
6. Wantage Silver (Jonathan Bates): 6/6/5 = 17
Best Soloist (set-work): Emily Evans (horn) — Flowers
Best Soloist (entertainment): Kevin Crockford (soprano) — Desford Colliery (LCITWF)
Winners set-work: Flowers
Most Entertaining Band: Flowers
Highest Placed Mining Band: Desford Colliery (LCITWF)
*Placing on entertainment takes precedence