A troubling weekend at the Midlands Regional Championships in Corby finally concluded with the return to the top of the Championship Section prize podium for GUS Band.
Their vibrant, energised victory under Dr David Thornton will have instilled huge collective confidence at the start of their 90th anniversary year, one that they will hope to build on as they look to the Grand Shield in Blackpool in May. A return to the British Open there will add another substantial dollop to their celebratory cake mix.
However, the event itself had precious little to cheer — although you can have nothing but sympathy for Regional Secretary Lesley Bentley and her team of volunteers.
Played out in public
Sunday's embarrassing Championship Section results confusion was played out in public (although it ensured any result conspiracy theories were nipped in the bud), but unfortunately, so was the unpleasant behaviour of a minority of people who abused Corby Theatre volunteers and staff before the announcement of the results on Saturday evening.
Neither was the fault in any way of the Regional Committee.
The venue itself may not be best suited for the hosting of a multiple brass band competition and frustration at not being able to hear the results was understandable.
However, any 'entitlement' argument made that players should be allowed to pile into an underground auditorium regardless of the potential ramifications of ignoring both fire and health & safety requirements, was made redundant as soon as some resorted to verbal abuse and threatening behaviour (and oddly, few piled in to listen to fellow bands).
The days of turning a blind eye to safety measures is thankfully long gone. There have been far too many incidents when things have gone tragically wrong. The aggrievement aimed at volunteers legally entrusted with people's safety was misplaced and wrong.
And as frustrating as it was not to be able to pack into a hall to celebrate a potential victory, their advice and decisions should have been respected.
It was only due to the diplomatic skills of Lesley Bentley, Vice-Chairman Mick Veasey and a band representative in talking at length with the venue management to resolve issues that averted the second day of competition being cancelled. It was that serious.
Any problems that subsequently arose on the Sunday from the urgently revised ticket allocation came from trying to stop any repeat of the unsavoury incidents that marred the experience of sitting in a great acoustic listening to plenty of good quality playing.
Thankfully, Sunday, despite its problems, went ahead, although the final denouement rather summed things up.
Philip Wilby's demanding 'Red Priest' score certainly exposed Championship level credentials; its stylish inferences, light touch and sense of mood tackled wholly successfully only by the minority of the competitors.
GUS and Dr David Thornton certainly worked in harmony to produce "a stunning performance — so full of character and musicality — it really shone", according to adjudicator Stephen Roberts.
Leigh Baker summed up his written observations by saying that it was a "most enjoyable" performance, "tight and detailed" and ending with a "glorious close".
It was a victory based on clear thinking, technical adroitness and lightness of musical touch, with the MD later telling 4BR that he was "thrilled to have started my work with the band with such a fantastic performance".
David Thornton added: "The soloists all played with great authority, the control from the ensemble was never overcooked or forced, and they did exactly what I asked of them". He also paid tribute to resident conductor Chris Bond who whose preparation work had been "invaluable".
Joining them at London for a third consecutive year (as well as at the Grand Shield), will be Ratby Co-operative, as Ian Porthouse led a detailed account that just faltered in the more exposed sections. It was however another indication of the increasingly secure stature of a band, that even with some noticeable errors wasn't knocked off qualification course.
Just missing out was third placed Derwent Brass, as a confident MD Jack Capstaff brought colour and vibrancy to an occasional inconsistent but absorbing account. They will also head to the Senior Cup as a band to watch out for after taking another significant step forward in their top-flight development.
An unexpected step back though for the defending champion Desford — much to the surprise of the audience who felt Michael Fowles and his experienced outfit had done more than enough (despite noticeable early clips) to at least secure qualification.
It wasn't to be (perhaps the breadth and depth of their dynamic range worked against them in the acoustic) — although the audible murmur that greeted their placing was almost as big as it was when Gresley Colliery was originally announced in fourth 20 minutes before.
With the chatter of bemusement echoing long after the revised results were confirmed, a brace of battling accounts from Newstead Brass and Enderby filled the top-six places, with the rest falling behind (Brass Band of Central England going from 'third' to eighth, and Gresley, from 'fourth' to eleventh).
The final act came 24 hours later with the statement by the Association of Brass Band Adjudicators accepting that their members took full responsibility for the mistake and that no blame should be directed at the Regional Committee team.
Stephen Roberts, being a musician of integrity, resigned — although it was in no way necessary.
Before the unpleasantness that arose before the results in the First Section, the audience and adjudicators Nicholas Garman and Anne Crookston enjoyed an engaging battle for qualification on Philip Lawrence's 'A Day in the Life of a Knight'.
Much like 'Red Priest', it certainly tested credentials, with the best, headed by a fine winner in SPAL Sovereign Brass and fellow qualifiers, Thoresby Colliery and Bilton Silver (Rugby) bringing the filmatic score to life.
The judges' forensic critiques left no doubt what they were looking for; from the technical points of tuba intonation and missing percussion, to triplet consistency, mute effects and musical expression — the latter alluded to as they spoke of the 'storyline' narrative to be told.
Anne said the best MDs were able "to fill their boots"- something SPAL Sovereign's MD Alan Gifford certainly did with his take on the score. It was hard to see, but they must have been the equivalent of size 15 Dr Martens.
His players — from a cracking sop down to darkly nimble tubas also displayed neat footwork in negotiating the obvious traps. It was an impressive bit of contest playing.
"A performance full of excellent playing and expressive rhythmic precision," wrote Nicholas, whilst Anne summed up her observations by writing: "This was so well controlled."
"It's been a great build up for the band," their experienced tuba player Phil Green later told 4BR. "Alan is doing a fantastic job and things are really on the up. Cheltenham is another step, but its great to enjoy a victory here again."
Phil was one of five players (alongside Steve Parson, Mark Matthews, Andy Monk and Ian Smith) who have enjoyed regional titles with the band at each competitive levels — Fourth to Championship, with the First Section completing the 'bucket list' and seeing Sovereign qualify for a National Final for the first time since their top section Albert Hall appearance in 2005.
Joining them at Cheltenham will be Thoresby Colliery — another band with recent top-flight experience that has undergone a rebuilding process led by MD Mike Howley.
They secured qualification with an evocative Saturday morning pictures take on the episodic score — confident and colourful from the word go with super solo contributions, whilst Bilton Silver (Rugby) led by Jack Fisher also brought controlled excitement to their qualification tale of drama, damsels and dragons.
There was certainly no shortage of almost visceral drama to Kibworth's waspish account under Brendan Caddy to finish fourth, whilst Langley's more considered account also impressed with the judges to end fifth.
No successful title defence for Staffordshire though as they took a little while to hit their knightly bootstraps stride off the number 1 draw. Some early discomfort meant that they had too much ground to make up.
Although Nicholas Garman said he and Anne had agreed all the way down the results list, there must have been considerable debate on separating the bold but inconsistent midfield finishers from Bedworth Brass down to Harborough, although there would have been few complaints from the remaining contenders.
The musical realities of the journey to the National Final may not have the same allegorical significance of John Bunyan's theological tale, but Rodney Newton's intricate 'Pilgrim's Progress' certainly tested the qualification faith of those taking part in the Second Section.
14 bands set out in search of the 'celestial city' of Cheltenham (the majority short on actual pilgrim numbers) but with the majority overcoming the tricky obstacles set in their way with determination and spirited endeavour.
The best, and by a clear margin came from Foss Dyke, splendidly directed by Gareth Westwood.
Theirs was a fine account; richly coloured, balanced and confident in equal measure. "Lots to admire, and generally very consistent" wrote adjudicator Sam Fisher, whilst Gary Davies stated: "A performance of merit. Well controlled dynamics, quality sound and detail heard. Well directed by MD and well done all soloists (especially Eb tuba)."
Gary later stated that the winner was in their opinion, "exceptional".
There was little to argue against as Foss Dyke claimed their first Area title since 2006 and first Finals appearance since 2017. On this form they are certainly a band for rivals to fear.
Joining them at Cheltenham will be Rolls Royce (Derby), who despite lacking a full tuba team produced a performance rich in sound quality and musical character, thanks to the musical approach of their experienced MD, Graham Cardwell.
Also benefiting from the informed insight of their conductor was Raunds Temperance as Jonathan Pippen made the most of his resources (22 brass and 2 perc) to draw a well-tempered appreciation of the score.
These three gave the judges the early markers (drawn 3, 5 and 4 respectively) that the rest of the field just could quite match despite some fine efforts.
Where the top two according to Sam has "worked consistently to overcome the intricacies and basics" to enable the MDs "to have a better handle of the score", Gary added that the best had "knitted together the different variations to tell the story — just like the river in the tale, full of musical flow and emphasis."
Both praised the quality of the soloists on show (particularly the Eb tubas), with Gary adding that they felt that the qualifiers should "do well"at Cheltenham.
A delighted City of Coventry eventually ended fourth, aided by some splendid solo contributions, whilst the top-six spots went to well directed accounts from Shirland Welfare (with more than a few youngsters playing their part) and a fantastic effort from Tintwistle and MD Andrew Mallon who took to the stage with just 21 players and one remarkable multi-tasking percussionist.
Few complaints for those who finished further down the list, but each band deserved huge credit for their performances (just five competitors had a full complement of players).
Stephen Bulla's 'Chorale & Toccata' offered considered musical challenges for the 14 Third Section bands to tackle in their bid to claim the three qualification places on offer on Sunday morning.
There was plenty of considered musicality on show for the judges to ponder too — led by a purposeful winner in Stourport on Seven under Oliver Wilson.
His excellent take on the score enabled his players to perform with confidence, so it came as little surprise that they eventually claimed their first Area title since 1985 and first Finals appearance since 2016.
Not a dream
As they later said on their band Facebook page: "Turns out it wasn't a dream! Very much looking forward to our next bands rehearsal."
So too will be Long Eaton Prize, after they produced a fine late run under Sharon Stansfield as the last band to secure their first Finals berth since 2012 and to carry on their recent great run of contesting form.
Celebrations too for Cleobury Mortimer as they returned to Cheltenham for the first time since 2018 led by Matthew Ludford-King.
Both judges said that they were impressed by what they had heard throughout the contest on what was "a fine, but very tricky piece", although there were a number of bands that made their task difficult in sorting out the minor placings.
The remaining top-six spots eventually went to well worked accounts from Amington (with MD Alan Gifford nearly making it a qualification double on the weekend), City of Birmingham and Towcester Studio.
As for the immediate future of the event — the Fourth Section with 15 bands returns to the Core Theatre on Saturday 4th March.
Hopefully there will be no repeat of the circumstances that blighted this weekend, although any constructive, well thought out arguments about future venues, stewarding and results co-ordination will surely be welcomed by the Regional Committee.
However, those who believed it wasn't anyone other than a minority of their own banding movement who put the contest at risk should think very carefully indeed before calling for wholesale changes.
Midlands regional banding can ill afford to lose the skills and dedication of Lesley Bentley and her team under any circumstances.
The soloists all played with great authority, the control from the ensemble was never overcooked or forced, and they did exactly what I asked of themDr David Thornton
Test-piece: Red Priest (Philip Wilby)
Adjudicators: Stephen Roberts & Leigh Baker
1. GUS (David Thornton)*
2. Ratby Co-operative (Ian Porthouse)*
3. Derwent Brass (Jack Capstaff)
4. Desford Colliery (Michael Fowles)
5. Newstead Brass (Martin Heartfield)
6. Enderby (Stephen Phillips)
7. Blidworth Welfare (John Roberts)
8. Brass Band of Central England (Howard Evans)
9. Jackfield (Ryan Richards)
10. Shirley (Tom Stoneman)
11. Gresley Colliery (Craig Stevens)
*Qualify for National Final
Test-piece: A Day in the Life of a Knight (Philip Lawrence)
Adjudicators: Nicholas Garman & Anne Crookston
1. SPAL Sovereign Brass (Alan Gifford)*
2. Thoresby Colliery (Mike Howley)*
3. Bilton Silver (Rugby) (Jack Fisher)*
4. Kibworth (Brendan Caddy)
5. Langley (Cliff Parker)
6. Staffordshire (Craig Williams)
7. Bedworth Brass (Wayne Ruston)
8. Rushden Town (Adele Hudson)
9. Oddfellows Brass (Ben Smith)Williams)
10. Stamford Brass (Julian Bright)
11. Harborough (Brad Turnbull)
12. Burbage (Buxton) (Steve Critchlow)
13. Hucknall & Linby M.C. (Paul Whyley)
14. Hathern (David Newman)
15. Carlton Brass (Tony Wilson)
Withdrawn: Glossop Old
*Qualify for National Final
Test-piece: The Pilgrim's Progress (Rodney Newton)
Adjudicators: Gary Davies & Sam Fisher
1. Foss Dyke (Gareth Westwood)*
2. Rolls Royce (Derby) (Graham Cardwell)*
3. Raunds Temperance (Jonathan Pippen)
4. City of Coventry (David Nicholson)
5. Shirland Welfare (Lynden Cooper)
6. Tintwistle (Andrew Mallon)
7. Market Rasen (Ian Knapton)
8. Audley Brass (Tom Hancock)
9. Leicestershire Co-op (Snibston) (Keith Leonard)
10. Pleasley Colliery (Geof Benson)
11. Wigston (Ian Needham)
12. Wellington (Telford) (Ian Johnson)
13. Shirebrook MW Unison (Ben Hewlett-Davies)
14. Avonbank (Colin Herbert)
*Qualify for National Final
Test-piece: Chorale & Toccata (Stephen Bulla)
Adjudicators: Sam Fisher & Steve Pritchard-Jones
1. Stourport on Severn (Oliver Wilson)*
2. Long Eaton Silver Prize (Sharon Stansfield)*
3. Cleobury Mortimer Concert Brass (Matthew Ludford-King)*
4. Amington (Alan Gifford)
5. City of Birmingham (Saphran Ali)
6. Towcester Studio (Neil Brownless)
7. Ratby Co-operative Mid (Andrew Mackereth)
8. Shipston Town (Howard Gibbs)
9. Daventry (Ken Ewer)
10. Trentham Brass (Jamie Meredith)
11. Cubbington Silver (Kieron Howe)
12. Ireland Colliery Chesterfield (Sam Johnston)
13. Ibstock Brick Brass (Chris Banks)
14. Melton (Tony Rifugiato)
*Qualify for National Final
Arrow Valley Brass — Withdrawn