Ebbw Valley Brass completed a unique 'Grand Slam' of Cheltenham National Championship victories as they added to their 'Triple Crown' of 2013, 2014 and 2015 title successes with a richly deserved First Section triumph late on Saturday evening.
It was one based on an impressive fusion of mature ensemble playing and classy solo contribution which allowed MD Gareth Ritter to draw detail, energy and stylistic variations from Philip Harper's cleverly conceived score.
They were also the qualities on 'St James's — A New Beginning' that adjudicators Glyn Williams, David Hirst and Paul Holland were exactly looking for, and which their written remarks later showed: "â€¦ a fantastic show. So much detail, colourful, musical shape"; "interesting detail and fine solo lines"; "a thoroughly enjoyable performance brimming with detail and energy from a terrific reading by the MD".
They in turn further endorsed Glyn's precise pre-results speech in which he said that the experienced trio had seen the best bands "catching the detail" of its easy listening complexities whilst "still allowing the music to flow"in the slower sections.
That saw "soloists playing with expression" and an ensemble "having control of intonation"to enable the conductors "to focus on the detail". And whilst he added that "there wasn't one bad performance"in the 20-band field, he admitted that they felt some had struggled.
Brought to life
The best, led by Ebbw Valley, certainly showed that the narrative storyline of the historic Great Fire of London, its aftermath and visionary architectural renaissance inspired by Sir Christopher Wren could be brought to life without trying to set fire to the stage with overheated tempos and dynamics.
Close on their heels came runner-up Sovereign Brass who preceded them on stage, with Welsh compatriots Beaumaris in third. The top-six in an engaging contest was completed by Coalburn Brass, AW Parker (Drybrook) and Wardle Anderson Brass.
The technical demands were certainly well within the capabilities of these prize-winners and others who will be much more severely tested by the Championship challenges of 'Variations on an Enigma' in six months' time at the Area Championships.
On this evidence, Ebbw Valley will be confident that they can more than hold their own in a top section in Wales that due to the Royal Albert Hall prize winning consistency of Cory and Tredegar has offered regular opportunities for one or even two additional qualifiers to head to London each year.
Theirs was a performance of those substantive credentials; a wide dynamic range, balanced tonal shape, technical proficiency and fine soloists — with the solo euphonium Huw Davies adding to their unique Cheltenham record by winning the 'Best Instrumentalist' prize (each victory has come with the additional individual award).
"That's what we are hoping to build towards now," MD Gareth Ritter told 4BR. "It's been a fantastic journey to have been on at Cheltenham since our first win in 2013, but one that has shown our progress to everyone.
It's been a brilliant team effort too and even though the players on stage, including Huw Davies delivered superbly for me, the backroom supporters and administrators have fully played their part too.
I can't thank everyone enough — the communal effort put in for this win was incredible."
He added: "Now we've got the Wychavon contest to look forward to and then concerts and 2024. The Area contest is going to be a massive challenge, but our ambition is to reach the Royal Albert Hall and to get close to the British Open in the years to come."
The immediate comparison for the judges on Ebbw Valley came with Sovereign Brass who played immediately before them, and a little later from Beaumaris as the penultimate band to perform.
Just a couple of noticeable fragilities may have just cost the Midland Champion in what was an impressively mature sounding contender led by Alan Gifford, whilst Beaumaris also gave a fine account of richly portrayed musical character.
As Glyn said, these bands drew colourful narratives of the panic and urgency of the opening 'Great Fire' (aided by bold but not overwhelming percussion effects) followed by the sombre solo desolation of its 'Aftermath', the optimism of the euphonium led 'Vision' and the joyful acclamation of the rousing, free quoting 'Renaissance' to close.
Nor far behind them though came the top-six of Coalburn Brass, AW Parker (Drybrook) and Wardle Anderson Brass.
The Scots gave the early marker the judges were looking for, with MD Gareth Bowman (despite taking to the stage with broken ankle) bringing a free flowing musicality to his take on the score, whilst there was also dramatic impulse and certainty about Josh Ruck's take with the West of England contenders.
Wardle rounded off the contest with another performance well thought out and directed by Brad McCulloch.
Others also impressed, if perhaps not quite as much with the judges. Hebden Bridge ended seventh with their slightly more considered narrative led by Christopher Binns, with colourful accounts from Bathgate, Boarshurst Silver and Horbury Victoria eventually filling the remaining top-ten places.
There was little to choose between the host of midfield finishers — Medway, York Railway Institute, Manx Concert Brass, Thoresby (who set a solid marker off the number 1 draw) and Chalford all presenting intelligently led performances that on another day and a couple of less noticeable fragilities could have made it into the top half of the results table.
The bottom five may have left a little disappointed, but the performances held much more substance in the credit than debit columns — from Hitchin down to Bilton Silver (Rugby).
For Ebbw Valley though a fourth National title in 10 years and a place in the National Finals record books.
It's been a brilliant team effort too and even though the players on stage, including Huw Davies delivered superbly for me, the backroom supporters and administrators have fully played their part tooMD, Gareth Ritter
Test piece: St James — A New Beginning (Philip Harper)
Adjudicators: David Hirst, Paul Holland, Glyn Williams
1. Ebbw Valley Brass (Gareth Ritter)
2. Sovereign Brass (Alan Gifford)
3. Seindorf Beaumaris (Bari Gwilliam)
4. Coalburn Brass (Gareth Bowman)
5. A W Parker (Drybrook) (Joshua Ruck)
6. Wardle Anderson Brass (Brad McCulloch)
7. Hebden Bridge (Christopher Binns)
8. Bathgate (Craig Anderson)
9. Boarshurst Silver (Jamie Prophet)
10. Horbury Victoria (Duncan Beckley)
11. Medway (Chris King)
12. York Railway Institute (Dr David Lancaster)
13. Manx Concert Brass (Ian Clague MBE)
14. Thoresby Colliery (Dean Jones)
15. Chalford (Steve Tubb)
16. Hitchin (Andrew Kershaw)
17. Harrogate (Craig Ratcliffe)
18. Regent Brass (Alan Duguid)
19. Sherborne Town (Dave Shead)
20. Bilton Silver (Rugby) (Jack Fisher)
Best Soloist: Huw Davies (euphonium) — Ebbw Valley