As the final notes of Friary's imposing performance of 'Seascapes' sounded on stage at the Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre, there was a feeling of inevitability that despite three rivals still left to perform, a fifth consecutive Area victory was already in their grasp.
Not since Redbridge between 2007 and 2011 has a band so comprehensively dominated this contest. They will be odds on favourites to make it a double hat-trick in 2020. It's hard to think of a rival at the moment that possesses the all round cohesive ability, especially on an ensemble work such as 'Seascapes', that can topple them.
Although the results ceremony did its best to prolong what has become an increasingly familiar announcement, the procession of deserved individual awards stamped the hallmark on the victory for Chris King's admirable band.
They are fast becoming a potentially significant top section contender at major events — the next test coming at the Grand Shield in a couple of month's time. Secure British Open qualification there and who knows what could happen later in the year.
For the time being they can reflect on a performance of lyrical inspiration by their MD (who modestly acknowledged the input of Russell Gray on his visit to the band); one built on broad, warm sounds that seeped though a luscious 'Sarabande' as well as the detailed precision of the compactly delivered outer movements.
All the main solo lines were excellent, with the percussion adding subtle colour and effect. At its fulcrum was the MD, unobtrusive but with a clear authority of purpose. He led his band to a comprehensive, classy victory.
Behind them there was an engaging scrabble for the second qualification spot; eventually taken by the peripatetic talents of Zone One Brass.
Theirs was a performance (rumoured to have been constructed on just seven rehearsals) under the intuitive baton of Richard Ward that whilst notably looser in precision, was equally cultured in stylistic appreciation.
As the very last performance of the entire 2019 Area series (Wales and the North of England had finished some hours earlier) it was also one that rather summed up the more successful approaches to 'Seascapes' heard around the country; lyrical, flowing and descriptive.
Balancing out the contrasting musical and technical deliveries found in the performances from Redbridge, Haverhill, Wantage and Aveley & Newham who eventually finished behind them would have been an interesting task for Dr Robert Childs and Michael Fowles in the box — each providing engaging if somewhat variable accounts.
Glitch or two
Disappointment then for Redbridge, as David Thornton just failed to make it a personal hat-trick of qualifying successes as his poetic template was just marred by the occasional glitch or two. It was good though to hear the band back to something approaching the form that made them such a formidable contender here in years past.
A delighted Haverhill also showed that their solid progress under Paul Filby continues as they came fourth, whilst Wantage was left to rue a performance that found a great deal of favour in the Gordon Craig auditorium but not in the box.
Aveley & Newham claimed the final top-six slot with a purposeful account, whilst the rest of the field fell into fairly obvious places in the results table.
Before the announcement of the results, Dr Childs made a number of pertinent points in regard to balance and poor intonation (it was only absent in the top three he said), whilst he said it was clear that the third movement was the weakest in many bands in sounding "underprepared".
Michael Fowles may have joked he'd been left with nothing to say (which resulted in a joyful cheer from one person in the hall), but he also ensured that the audience was left in no doubt to the reasoning behind their decision. As he had been instrumental in picking 'Seascapes' in the first place, he spoke with considered authority.
And given the result, so did Friary Brass Band.
In what has become a somewhat depressing confirmation of true First Section standards around the country, Gilbert Vinter's 'Symphony of Marches' once again cut a painful swath through the aspirations of far too many contenders in Stevenage.
And few would have been able to contradict Paul Norley's clear pre-results assessment on what he had heard alongside Mark Wilkinson in the box. He didn't pull a single punch. You could feel his accurate musical jabs painfully but honestly hitting home.
It may have hurt some feelings, but he wasn't half right. Mark may have been a little more sympathetic, but his points held just as much sting. They later confirmed that the top four of Amersham, Fulham, Medway and Egham were head and shoulders above the rest in what was a "disappointing contest".
The deserved winner Amersham gave a performance under Paul Fisher that had an authentic feel of lightweight sharp-edged Vinter at his best. Impressively paced and dynamically coherent, it did have its moments of scrabbling unease, but the compact sound of the ensemble and the stylish appreciation of the score stood out.
So too the early marker from Fulham; MD John Ward also recognising the importance of pacing and dynamic in a performance (aided by a classy 'Best Cornet' soprano in Grant Jarvie) that left no one in any doubt that it would be a contender for Cheltenham.
Behind them came Medway as Nigel Taken used his years of experience to guide his band through some early hazards encountered to claim third, whilst Egham performed with confidence (as did the MD Gareth Green without a score) as their solid account came fourth.
The gap for the judges to the remaining top-six finishers was marked, with Jonathan Mott leading a bold Milton Keynes into fifth and Sharon Broughall and a determined Grimsdyke providing the contest marker off the number 1 draw to end sixth.
After that it was a question of variability both in style and execution as the likes Sandhurst and Staines caught the imagination of many in the hall but not in the box, whist others simply found the challenges of Vinter's masterful work too much for their current competitive standing.
With the Fourth and Championship Sections battling it out in the Gordon Craig Theatre on Sunday, 18 bands were faced with the enjoyable challenge of Darrol Barry's 'Rise of the Phoenix' in the Main Hall.
And once again, and as has been the case nationally, the astute choice of the Kapitol Music Panel proved to be an enjoyable test of determined ambition, technical accuracy and musical acumen.
Speaking to 4BR following the contest, Mareika Gray (who was joined by Mark Wilkinson) stated that they had been looking for what she called "controlled performances" that had a palpable sense of continuity, whilst Mark said one of the defining characteristics had been the ability to retain clarity and balance especially in the quicker sections.
Both praised the efforts of the main soloists (cornet and flugel in particular), whilst much of the lower brass had brought a sense of drama to the music.
There was also praise for a "fine winner" in Epsom & Ewell directed by Paul Graham (brother of composer Peter) who they felt had delivered a performance of power and poise off the number 14 draw to claim victory and their first appearance at Cheltenham since 2013.
They will be joined there by two well led qualifiers who almost bookended the contest.
Third placed Bedford Town gave the judges the type of well constructed, solidly delivered marker from the number 2 draw under the experienced Craig Patterson to see them make their first finals appearance since 2011.
Sometime later Tendring Brass as the penultimate band of the contest claimed their spot with a well structured rendition under Antony Saunders to maintain their recent run of excellent form on their first year in the Second Section.
Horsham Borough and LGB Brass certainly gave the judges plenty to ponder with their colourful accounts as the first two bands of the day to eventually finish a fine fourth and fifth respectively, whilst BAE Systems ended sixth.
Behind them the judges confirmed to 4BR that each performance brought out something of interest and quality, although with consistency the key, small errors and nervousness put pay to the good intentions employed by the MDs.
The opening contest of the weekend saw 15 bands produce a raft of solidly delivered accounts of Holst's 'First Suite in Eb'.
Adjudicators Mareika Gray and Michael Fowles said they thoroughly enjoyed their time in the box as every band brought a sense of style to their performances — something that Mike in particular was delighted with given the struggles heard in other regions.
His question to whether bands may have underestimated the 'simplicity' of the piece had been answered by the obvious amount of hard work that had gone into a host of fine renditions.
It was a point emphasised by Mareika who also noted the encouraging standard on show, stating a number of ensembles outside the main prizes had given accounts that showed a great deal of potential.
The key was consistency — especially in the deceptively treacherous opening section. Poise and brightness was required as was fluidity and lightness in the central section, whilst a little bug-bear for the duo came in the March where carelessness at bar 27 caught many out.
It was therefore appreciated that Mike said that the duo had taken considerable time to sort out the placings — especially in the midfield. The remarks of both judges were mini masterclasses in constructive criticism and encouragement.
With all that in mind few would have quibbled with the end result — one that saw Chichester City led by Rom Stanko claim their first ever Area title (and first contest victory since 2010) to return to Cheltenham for the second successive year.
They will be joined there by Epping Forest, who played straight after them following the adjudicator's comfort break. Keith Schroeter drew a super rendition from his troops to secure their first finals appearance since 2012 and add to their growing list of increasingly impressive recent contest achievements.
Hungerford will perhaps rue the draw after they were just edged out after producing an excellent marker from the number 1 draw, whilst Olney Brass, Brighton & Hove City and City of Norwich ensured that the first half of the draw contained performances of engaging merit.
Behind them it become increasingly variable in terms of consistency, but there was much to enjoy from the likes of Welwyn Garden City in seventh who led home a large batch of midfield finishers that all brought a great deal of stylish musicality to their performances.
It was good to be able to enjoy 20 Fourth Section performances of impressive merit as a tasty aperitif to the Championship battle that followed on the Sunday at Stevenage.
The crafted challenges of Ray Steadman-Allen's 'Stantonbury Festival' certainly brought out the best in the bands and gave Nicholas Garman and Paul Norley a difficult job in the box.
In the end it was Simon Langton Brass under Keith Twyman that came out on top — a wonderful achievement given that Keith had responded to a late call to substitute his instrument for the baton after MD David Cutting had been taken ill a couple of days before the event.
What a man to have in a potential crisis, as his calm authority saw his players respond in kind with a splendid performance to claim the title on what was their first appearance back in the Fourth Section. The title celebrations and the trip to Cheltenham for the first time since 2013 will have boosted David Cutting's recovery for sure.
Joining them will be Great Yarmouth, as their confident account under Colin Swaep just before the comfort break couldn't be dislodged from a qualification spot. Building on their good form at Butlins they will now return to Cheltenham for a second year in a row.
And on a day when just about every band has a fair sprinkling of youthful players in their ranks it was a delight to see a certain David Read MBE playing bumper-up with Cottenham Band as they carried on their recent good form under Peter Mackley to claim what is believed to be their first ever National Final appearance.
Their late charge meant that they pushed out a fine effort from Hemel Hempstead into fourth, with well directed efforts from Pangbourne & District Silver and Letchworth Garden City making up the top-six.
Behind them came a number of solid accounts, with all the bands bringing something of musical merit out of their performances.
Once again the trip to Stevenage was a hugely enjoyable experience — from the warm welcome offered by the excellent regional committee headed by Kevin Williams and his superb helpers, to enjoying a great results ceremony MC and a host of very fine performances from bands that will represent the region with a great deal of pride in the Autumn.
They are fast becoming a potentially significant top section contender at major events — the next test coming at the Grand Shield in a couple of month's time4BR
Test Piece: Seascapes (Ray Steadman-Allen)
Adjudicators: Dr Robert Childs & Michael Fowles
1. Friary Brass Band (Chris King)*
2. Zone One Brass (Richard Ward)*
3. Redbridge (Dr David Thornton)
4. Haverhill Silver (Paul Filby)
5. Wantage (Paul Holland)
6. Aveley & Newham (Alan Duguid)
7. Kidlington Concert Brass (Duncan Wilson)
8. East London Brass (Jayne Murrill)
9. Thundersley (Melvin White)
10. Jersey Premier Brass (Simon Jones)
11. Hitchin (Martin Heartfield)
12. Regent Brass (Paul Archibald)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Cornet: Richard Straker, Friary
Tenor Horn: Friary
Trombone Section: Friary
Test Piece: Symphony of Marches (Gilbert Vinter)
Adjudicators: Mark Wilkinson & Paul Norley
1. Amersham (Paul Fisher)*
2. Fulham (John Ward)*
3. Medway (Nigel Taken)
4. Egham (Gareth Green)
5. Milton Keynes Brass (Jonathan Mott)
6. Grimsdyke Brass (Sharon Broughall)
7. Sandhurst Silver (David Johnson)
8. Cawston (Leigh Sharpe)
9. East of England Co-op (Nigel Cooper)
10. Staines Brass (Jonathan Pippen)
11. Ware Brass (Craig Patterson)
12. Alder Valley Brass (Lee Woodward)
13. Chiltern Hills Brass (Gordon Davies)
14. Soham Comrades (Mark Ager)
15. City of Cambridge (Philip Fisher)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Cornet: Sop (Fulham)
Test Piece: Rise of the Phoenix (Darrol Barry)
Adjudicators: Mark Wilkinson & Mareika Gray
1. Epsom & Ewell Silver (Paul Graham)*
2. Tendring Brass (Antony Sanders)*
3. Bedford Town (Craig Patterson)*
4. Horsham Borough (Mark McLaughlin)
5. LGB Brass (Ian Stewart)
6. BAE Systems (David Chapman)
7. Colchester (Victoria Steinitz)
8. Castleton Brass (Peter Ryan)
9. Wantage Concert Brass (Calum MacDonald)
10. Waterbeach (Andrew Kershaw)
11. Chinnor Silver (David Pegram)
12. Oxford Cherwell Brass (Terry Brotherhood)
13. St Sebastian Wokingham (John Watts)
14. Yiewsley & West Drayton (Christopher Cole)
15. Cold Ash Brass (Jemma Johnstone)
16. Littleport Brass (Ian Knpaton)
17. Tilbury (David Stokes)
18. Fairlop Brass (Kevin Jordan)
*Top three bands qualify for National Final
Bass Section: Tendring Brass
Trombone Section: Tendring Brass
Test Piece: First Suite in Eb (Gustav Holst arr. Sydney Herbert)
Adjudicators: Mareika Gray & Michael Fowles
1. Chichester City (Rom Stanko)*
2. Epping Forest (Keith Schroeter)*
3. Hungerford Town (Tim Crouter)
4. Olney Brass (Kevin Nicholls)
5. Brighton & Hove City (Matthew Hackett)
6. City of Norwich Brass (Mark Ager)
7. Welwyn Garden City (Duncan Wilson)
8. Crystal Palace (Michael Gray)
9. Regent Community Brass (Chris Bearman)
10. Bradwell Silver (Brian Keech)
11. East Coast Brass (Paul Speed)
12. Tadley Concert Brass (Paul Chapman)
13. Jubilee Brass (Oxford) (Clifford Sadler)
14. Godalming (James Haigh)
15. Hangleton (Richard Baker)
*Top two bands qualify for National Final
Test Piece: Stantonbury Festival (Ray Steadman-Allen)
Adjudicators: Nick Garman & Paul Norley
1. Simon Langton Brass (K. Twyman)*
2. Great Yarmouth Brass (Colin Swaep)*
3. Cottenham Brass (Peter Mackley)*
4. Hemel Hempstead (Paul Fothergill)
5. Pangbourne & District Silver (Stewart Lewins)
6. Letchworth Garden City (Tim Welch)
7. Witney Town (Steve Sizeland)
8. Woodbridge Excelsior (Chris Lewis-Garnham)
9. City of Oxford (Gareth Coulson)
10. Abbey Brass (Rob Tompkins)
11. Royston Town (Steve Earley)
12. Luton Youth Brass (Simon Router)
13. Amersham Community Brass (Malcolm Peach)
14. Hadstock Silver (Diane Pannell)
15. Snowdown Colliery (Andy Collins)
16. Watford (Ian Graves)
17. Bletchington Silver (Sheldon Barwick)
18. Patcham Silver (James Benka-Coker)
19. Norfolk Wherry Brass (Eddie Baker)
20. Wantage Academy (Nikki Jones)
*Top three bands qualify for National Final