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Report & Results: 2023 London & Southern Counties Regional Championships

Zone One, Hitchin, Alder Valley Brass, Simon Langton Brass and Putney & Wimbledon claim the titles at Stevenage.

Steveange
  Zone One Brass claims the Area title

Eight years since they last celebrated an Area victory, Zone One Brass ensured they 'stood out' from their rivals in Stevenage as they claimed the London & Southern Counties title led by Richard Ward.

A thrilling rendition of 'Red Priest' that contained "lots of clarity and transparency in blend and balance" also saw them return to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time since 2019. They will be joined there by another returnee, as former champion Friary regained their place at Kensington Gore as runner-up.

It was a contest that rounded off a long but encouraging weekend at the Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre, with adjudicators Howard J Evans and David Hirst emphasizing to the audience (including one rather idiotic heckler) that the task of listening to the 12 competitors had given them plenty of musical comparison.

Stood out

"One band had stood out" according to David Hirst in a contest that was both a showcase as well as a minefield of technique and musicality. He later told 4BR: "The winners provided a controlled performance with good technique and confident soloists. It wasn't over-egged in any way and the MD fully understood the demands of the inspirations of the music".

He added: "Others had too many inconsistencies — some taking an aggressive approach to the faster passages which saw the tempo override clarity. The 'Barcarolle' that needed a soft lilt and flow was too often misunderstood".

Mastery of the music

No such problems with the winners though, with Howard summing up his written observations by stating: "This was a performance that had lots of character and transparency in blend and balance", whilst David described it as; "A very good performance which the band and MD had mastery of the music."

Victory marked almost to the day the 20th anniversary of a unique brass band ensemble — one built on a cooperative approach of players — many semi or fully professional who combine their love for the brass band medium around their work schedules in and around London.

It has meant a very different contest rehearsal schedule too — just four intense work outs in preparation for the event, with MD Richard Ward confident that the performers take their responsibilities to be able to play their parts in the same way as they would in their day jobs.

Maintain ethos

Speaking to 4BR, Band Chairman Mike Poyser said: "It's brilliant to win here again, especially as we still have two players from our first outing in 2003 and we maintain our ethos and links to the Royal College of Music to attract student players.

Our schedule if very different of course to rivals, but it works for us and Richard brings such an intensity that they are worth double the time."

Meanwhile, Richard admitted that he "took straight away" to the piece; wanting to bring out the more delicate aspects of light and shade as well as keep the music flowing with energy and colour.

That was evident from the opening drive to the initial grandiose theme — followed by an ensemble elegance and great soloists (winning best troms, euph and cornet) and superb percussion that gave vibrancy to the MD's reading of the score.

Informed Vivaldi

Although a little disappointed not to have added a sixth Area title to their CV, Friary will have left Stevenage satisfied in returning to the Albert Hall after MD Chris King drew an informed Vivaldi portrait from his charges.

Their early marker just left itself open, although its overall qualities were more than enough to secure a hard-earned qualification. They now head to the Grand Shield with a timely boost of confidence under their belts.

Close behind came an exciting East London Brass conducted by Jayne Murrill. Full of passionate impulses they claimed their best ever Area result, whilst it was the same for Amersham as Paul Fisher (with big-band trumpet star Mike Lovatt on soprano) also making the type of impression to show that the Area has an increasing number of emerging top flight contenders.

Well led bands now head to the Spring Festival in the Senior Cup and Trophy respectively as competitors to watch out for.

Irrelevant

Former champion Redbridge and Sandhurst Silver filled the remaining top-six places with renditions just pockmarked too often by errors, whilst the remaining places fell clearly into place from Wantage down, with defending champion Haverhill in eighth.

However, any notion of the importance of contesting was made irrelevant with the performance of Thundersley Brass. The tragic early passing of their player Matthew Schroeter at a rehearsal for this event was marked with a dignified appreciation from the band and heartfelt support from the audience.

First Section:

Philip Lawrence's 'A Day in the Life of a Knight' has been a somewhat contentious choice for the First Section this year — its episodic narrative full of detailed scoring complexities and filmatic inspirations being enjoyed as well as endured in the opinion of players, conductors and audiences alike.

As it has done throughout the regional series, it left more questions than answers after a contest of unevenness and inconsistencies. After 'Spectrum' last year, a demanding but not misplaced work has shone an uncomfortable light on the overall quality of the First Section both regionally and nationally.

Diplomatic

The diplomatic pre-results summing up of adjudicator Anne Crookston (joined by David Hirst) with the pair later stating they were disappointed by the overall standard was a carefully restrained appreciation of the contest quality on display.

It was however an accurate appraisal that could have been used from Corby to Perth, Huddersfield to Swansea this year. You could not disagree with them.

The fact that some placings irked performers (who made their case to 4BR) rather reinforced the wider scope of what Anne and David had highlighted. Overall though this was not a contest that endorsed the purpose of the First Section — either here or around the rest of the UK.

Characterful account

Hitchin will worry about Championship challenges to come for another day though as the Hertfordshire based band delivered a determined, characterful account to claim the Area title for the first time since 2013. They also return to Cheltenham for the first time since 2017.

"I couldn't be prouder of everyone," MD Andrew Kershaw said. "We repeated what we did in rehearsal on stage, with the soloists (awards going to their basses and soprano cornet) playing with artistry and the ensemble with commitment and desire. There were a few little mistakes, but I think our musicality was key to making a mark today."

Solid marker

Joining Hitchin at Cheltenham for a second successive time will be Medway, who provided the solid marker from the number 1 draw led by the experienced nous of Nigel Taken, and Regent Brass (for the first time since 2017) directed with careful appreciation of his resources (with a cracking prize-winning solo cornet) by Alan Duguid.

Both emerged with battle scars, whilst others were wounded more deeply. The surprise was simply the amount of poor basic playing that was on show; intonation, rhythmic laxity, bizarre balances, poor tempo choices and a plethora of wrong notes. Unforced errors and nerves aside, too often MDs were simply beating time.

Aveley & Newham, Jersey Premier Brass and Cawston made up the top-six places with inconsistently executed performances, whilst the rest of the field increasingly struggled to master a work that should have been within First Section capabilities.

Second Section:

17 closely matched rivals made for absorbing seven hour plus marathon of comparison on Rodney Newton's 'The Pilgrim's Progress' for judges Sarah Groake-Booth and Adam Cooke.

With the composer sat in the audience to enjoy his work that tested both the technical as well musical talents- from soprano to basses, Adam Cooke gave a clearly defined appreciation of what they had heard prior to the announcement of the results.

Afterwards in speaking to 4BR he said: "I think it's fair to say a few 'pilgrims' stumbled through the gates of the Celestial City today. It was a challenge — especially in maintaining quality and stamina through the difficult penultimate section, but we had plenty of good playing too."

He added: "It is a very demanding work for this level and although some bands struggled with intonation, balance and ensemble issues especially in the faster moments the better ones really made the music come to life and so enjoyable to listen to."

Top four

Adam also confirmed that it made it very tight at the top, with four bands that caused a great deal of food for thought in different ways — dynamically as well as stylistically.

Alder Valley's super account took the title honours. Led by the experienced British Army conductor David Hatton, it had a miliary discipline in terms of pacing, stamina and detail, aided by a cracking prize-winning trombone trio.

It saw the band claim a National Finals berth for the first time since 2013, with the MD telling 4BR that he was delighted that the hard work and commitment of his players had paid off.

''We put a great deal into this performance," he said. "We didn't take anything for granted but this has always been our first step back to the First Section. We concentrated on getting the basics right and then put on the style.

I'm delighted at the way the band played under pressure. It makes this hugely satisfying, although we all know we must build on this for Cheltenham."

Exclusive club

The victory also gave exclusive club membership for Regional Secretary, Kevin Williams, who now joins colleagues Carrie Boax (Scotland) and Richard Milton (North West) in leading the organisation of the contest day as well as playing with a title winning band.

Alder Valley will be joined in Cheltenham by Chinnor Silver (for the first time since 2016) and Chiltern Hills Brass (a first appearance since 2006) — both of whom benefited greatly from the informed direction of MDs Oliver Hallstead-Brooks and Gordon Davies to lead a late charge for the title.

Missing out

Just missing out though was the fourth of the mentioned quartet, City of Norwich, who had given the well-constructed early marker, whilst the remaining top-six places went to Olney Brass and St Sebastian Wokingham.

Behind them the judges took their time to place bands in their order, as they considered increasingly inconsistent performances that still emerged in overall credit.

Third Section:

Sunday morning in the Gordon Craig Theatre saw judges Anne Crookston and Andrea Price, as well as a supportive audience thoroughly enjoy 18 performances of Stephen Bulla's 'Chorale and Toccata'.

Their pre-result remarks certainly confirmed it; insightful, analytical and positive, with band representatives later telling 4BR that their written observations were also the same.

This wasn't 'everyone's a winner for taking part' appreciation either. The overall standard was good; the prize winners accomplished, the qualifiers and winners in particular, excellent. It was also good to see conductors with heads out of their scores, able to communicate their musical instructions directly rather than through a form of semaphore.

Band craft

'Band craft' as Anne called it, was certainly to the fore with the winner Simon Langton Brass, neatly directed by Andy Collins. Bold but by no means brazen in tonality, it was cultured in musical understanding by the MD and led with classy aplomb by their prize-winning principal cornet.

"An accomplished performance," wrote Andrea. "Some quality ensemble playing and fine individual contributions. Very enjoyable." Anne agreed, writing that it was, "a well-crafted performance."

It was a deserving winner, securing a third Area title and a first National Finals appearance since 2019. They are a band to watch out for.

Seemed to work

Understandably, the MD was delighted when 4BR caught up with him after the celebrations had died down a little: "We really enjoyed working on the piece and it grew on everyone," Andy said. "We put in the work and I tried to emphasise the style of the music as well as bringing out the little intricacies. It seemed to work!"

Close behind came the podium finishers of Hungerford Town and Fairlop Brass (offering a fine marker from number 1) — directed with an experienced touch of composure by Tim Crouter and Kevin Jordan to balance the warmth and tonality of the opening half with the lively but not over excitable detailing of the second.

Both last appeared at the finals in 2009, so their understandable joy come the results was plain to see.

Behind them came a small group that in other Areas may well have gained a qualification nod in Welwyn Garden City, Amersham Concert Brass (aided by their prize winning bass section) and Bradwell Silver, whilst there were solid showings from Hemel Hempstead all the way down to Cottenham Brass.

Fourth Section

Although concerns remain that the halcyon days of 25 plus competitors in the Fourth Section may be gone forever, there remains a keen competitive quality to the standard of the playing.

Darrol Barry's melodic 'Hungerford Town' aided this (even those with reduced playing numbers), whilst adjudicators Sarah Groarke-Booth and Andrea Price mixed positivity with critical insight in their remarks to encourage future confidence and development.

Lightness of touch

Both were also pleased to have noted the approaches of the MDs — the most successful bringing a lightness of touch to the music, whilst Andrea (being a specialist percussionist) reserved extra plaudits for the hard working players who added the colour and effect.

Other rarely mentioned performers such as the baritones where also highlighted by Sarah in what were excellent pre-results analysis.

In a later conversation Sarah confirmed that the first two bands stood out with their consistency of secure basics added to by a little touch of musical polish.

Leading the way

Leading the way to Cheltenham was Putney & Wimbledon conducted by Sam Topp, with a performance of distinctive characteristics. It was a little cracker, as the band formed in just 2017 claimed their first Area title.

"Wow! What a day and what a feeling!" Sam later told 4BR with not the merest hint of understatement. "We had a great few weeks rehearsing the piece and the players really upped their performances right into the stage. I thought we may be in with a chance, but to win is special."

Two excellent early draw performances from Tadley Concert Brass led by Paul Chapman and Watford conducted by Ian Graves will join them on the trip west up the M4 in September. Tadley qualified for the first time since 2008, aided by their super prize-winning soprano cornet, whilst Watford return for the first time since 2017.

Behind them a whole batch gave Andrea and Sarah plenty of food for thought with their coherent renditions — from the top-six finishers of Letchworth Garden City, Wantage Academy and Godalming all the way to Norfolk Wherry Brass.

Good heart

The London & Southern Counties regional committee led by Kevin Williams, Philip Doe and others will have gone home happy, but exhausted after organising another fine event. The relaxed contest day and friendly welcome was noticed by all, whether regular attendees or first time visitors.

And with World of Sound in attendance all performances will be available to listen back to on www.wobplay.com platform

Malcolm Wood

A very good performance which the band and MD had mastery of the musicAdjudicator David Hirst on Zone One's winning performance

Result:

Championship Section:

Test piece: Red Priest (Philip Wilby)
Adjudicators: Howard J Evans and David Hirst

1. Zone One Brass (Richard Ward)*
2. Friary (Chris King)*
3. East London Brass (Jayne Murrill)
4. Amersham (Paul Fisher)
5. Redbridge Brass (Chris Bearman)
6. Sandhurst Silver (David Johnson)
7. Wantage (Paul Holland)
8. Thundersley Brass (Melvin White)
9. Haverhill Silver (Paul Filby)
10. Fulham (John Ward)
11. Kidlington Concert Brass (Duncan Wilson)
12. East of England Coop (Nigel Cooper)

*Qualify for National Final

Outstanding Trombone Section: Zone One Brass
Outstanding Tenor Horn Player: Friary
Outstanding Euphonium Player: Zone One Brass
Outstanding Cornet Player: Zone One Brass


First Section:


Test piece: A Day in the Life of a Knight (Philip Lawrence)
Adjudicators: Anne Crookston and David Hirst

1. Hitchin (Andrew Kershaw)*
2. Medway (Nigel Taken)*
3. Regent Brass (Alan Duguid)*
4. Aveley & Newham (Will Wilkins)
5. Jersey Premier Brass (Jason Mildren)
6. Cawston (Leigh Sharpe)
7. Egham (Gareth Green)
8. Milton Keynes Brass (Jonathan Mott)
9. Bedford Town (Craig Patterson)
10. Soham Comrades (Jayne Murrill)
11. Horsham Borough (Will Wilkins)
12. Grimsdyke Brass (Stuart Quinlan)
13. Staines Brass (Gareth Trott)
14. LGB Brass (Ian Stewart)
15. Wantage Concert Brass (Simon Jones)

*Qualify for National Final

Best Bass Section: Hitchin
Best Soprano Cornet: Hitchin
The Outstanding Cornet Player: Regent Brass


Second Section:

Test piece: The Pilgrim's Progress (Rodney Newton)
Adjudicators: Adam Cooke and Sarah Groarke-Booth

1. Alder Valley Brass (David Hatton)*
2. Chinnor Silver (Oliver Hallstead-Brooks)*
3. Chiltern Hills Brass (Gordon Davies)*
4. City of Norwich (Mark Ager)
5. Olney Brass (Philip Devine)
6. St. Sebastian Wokingham (John Watts)
7. Epsom & Ewell (Paul Graham)
8. City of Cambridge (Philip Fisher)
9. Ware Brass (Mark Ager)
10. Waterbeach Brass (David Minchin)
11. Tendring Brass (Paul Dove)
12. Tilbury (Melvin White)
13. Oxford Cherwell Brass (Danny Dullforce)
14. Epping Forest (Keith Schroeter)
15. BAE Systems (David Lockwood)
16. Yiewsley & West Drayton (Christopher Cole)
17. Chichester City (Alfie Hughes)

Best Bass Section: Chiltern Hills Brass
Best Trombone Section: Alder Valley Brass


Third Section:

Test piece: Chorale and Toccata (Stephen Bulla)
Adjudicators: Anne Crookston and Andrea Price

1. Simon Langton Brass (Andy Collins)*
2. Hungerford Town (Tim Crouter)*
3. Fairlop Brass (Kevin Jordan)*
4. Welwyn Garden City (William Douglas)
5. Amersham Concert Brass (Malcolm Peach)
6. Bradwell Silver (Brian Keech)
7. Hemel Hempstead (Jonathan Pippen)
8. Hangleton (Richard Baker)
9. Regent Community Brass (Simon Tong)
10. Littleport Brass (Ian Johnson)
11. Cold Ash Brass (Jemma Johnstone)
12. Brighton & Hove City Brass (Andy Wooler)
13. Jubilee Brass (Oxford) (Clifford Sadler)
14. Great Yarmouth Brass (Colin Swaep)
15. Reading Springs Gardens (Matthew Ruel)
16. Castleton Brass (Melvyn Stammers)
17. Crystal Palace (Danny Wakefield)
18. Cottenham Brass (Peter Mackley)

*Qualify for National Final

Best Bass Section: Amersham Concert Brass
Best Instrumentalist — Keith Pritchard (cornet) — Simon Langton Brass


Fourth Section:

Test piece: Hungerford Town (Darrol Barry)
Adjudicators: Sarah Groarke-Booth and Andrea Price

1. Putney & Wimbledon (Sam Topp)*
2. Tadley Concert Brass (Paul Chapman)*
3. Watford (Ian Graves)*
4. Letchworth Garden City (Tim Welch)
5. Wantage Academy (Nikki Jones)
6. Godalming (James Haigh)
7. Pangbourne & District Silver (Stewart Lewins)
8. Hadstock Silver (Diane Pannell)
9. Royston Town (Steve Earley)
10. Woodbridge Excelsior (Chris Lewis-Garnham)
11. Abbey Brass (Rob Tompkins)
12. Witney Town (Guy James)
13. City of Oxford (Douglas Brown)
14. Patcham Silver (James Benka-Coker)
15. Norfolk Wherry Brass (Stephen Kemp)

*Qualify for National Final

Best Instrumentalist: Soprano cornet of Tadley Concert Brass
Youngest player: Witney Town

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