The declaration of Hauts de France as the newly crowned French Champion at the recent National Championships held in Mégacité in Amiens should first and foremost be seen as a tribute to the 20 year vision and strategic development planning of Philippe Lorthios as well as that of conductor Luc Vertommen and his fine players.
Lorthios was the founder/conductor of the then Nord Pas-de-Calais Band in the late 1990s, and his remarkable, selfless commitment has been core to its growing success.
This may have been their fifth French title success, but it was the first in which they had beaten their great rivals Paris Brass Band head to head (their 2017 victory came in their absence).
It has cemented a new era — one that is now led by their acclaimed Belgian conductor with Lorthios as a very proud President.
Speaking to 4BR about the past as well as the current success, he said: "We have at last become a real brass band!"
They are indeed.
Adjudication Jury Chairman Paul Holland observed during the results ceremony that whilst the standard of playing in the lower sections was surprisingly good, France now has two bands which can hold their own at the highest European level.
Paris will soon test that assertion in Montreux, whilst the new champion on this form will surely be a band to fear in Palanga in 2020.
Such was the standard that between the two 'poids lourds' (heavyweights) that there was only a single point to separate them come the announcement of the results.
Both had risen superbly to the elegant challenges of the set-test, 'St Magnus' by Kenneth Downie, before setting out their own-choice considerations with contrasting works; Hauts de France opting for the technical detail and brilliance of 'The Turing Test' by Simon Dobson, whilst the defending champion opted for the vast astronomical canvas of 'Music of the Spheres' by Philip Sparke.
The recent changes in personnel brought a youthful vigour to Hauts de France, who played with huge confidence over the two disciplines under Luc Vertommen's precise baton, especially with the rhythmical and metrical challenges of Dobson's intriguing composition.
At its core though was a wonderfully shaped expressive duet for flugel and solo horn, played with immense sensitivity by Arnaud Perru and Sophie Budelot. It gave the work a very human and humane heart.
In contrast Paris and Florent Didier brought symphonic artistry to both their performances — the playing transcending mere technique. The purity of sound belied the more mechanical aspects, with their celebrated cornet and euphonium soloists, Alexis Demailly and Bastien Baumet on exceptional form.
Judges as well as neutrals were left to ponder the contrasting musical dichotomies from two exceptional bands — the jury however having the ultimate decision to make. It fell in favour of Hauts de France — a most deserving new champion.
Some way behind them came the third band in the contest — Brass Band Lyon, who have appeared in the top section twice before, but on this occasion did not play to anticipated form.
In both 'St Magnus' and their own-choice 'Audivi Media Nocte', the muddled sense of direction brought a lack of musical coherence. It was as if each player was left to make as much sense of the music as they could.
There was close battle for the Excellence Division title; one eventually claimed in fine fashion for the fourth time by Douai Brass Band directed by Olivier Degardin. Their performances of the set-work, 'A London Overture' by Philip Sparke and especially of their ambitious own-choice of 'Fraternity', made a lasting impression.
Close behind came Brass Band Brassage, whose rendition of 'Earthrise' also confirmed the growing maturity of the bands at this level, whilst the encouraging debut of Strasbourg, inspired by Philippe Wendling and Micael Cortone d'Amore, respectively euphonium and tuba professors at the Strasbourg Conservatoire, was heartening.
Equally heartening is the emergence of what can now be called a 'French school' of brass band composers — led by Thierry Deleruyelle.
His 'Fraternity' was once again heard, but it was his new work, 'Lions of Legend' set as the test in the First Division that left a fine impression — especially played the way it was by eventually winners Brass Band de Hainaut to give them their third National title at different levels.
So too with their own-choice selection, 'Machu Pichu' written by their conductor, Thibaut Bruniaux. His music was first heard at the 2017 contest, and he was then commissioned to write one of the test-pieces for the 2018 contest. This latest well-constructed work is sure to be heard again.
Brass Band de Hainaut is certainly one the rising stars of French banding, but there was a great deal of enjoyment to be heard in the playing of a rejuvenated Amiens who played with sensitivity and rigour, especially on their own-choice of 'Trittico'.
Brass Band l'Oise was the sole entrant in the Second Division, but played with competitive spirit and confidence under Yannick Parent on the set-work, 'Toccata Festiva' by Jan van der Roost, as well as their own-choice selection of 'Fire in the Blood'.
Part of the joy of attending the French National is to be able to welcome newcomers to French brass banding.
First among them was Coniques Brass Band from north-west France, who so impressed the jury in the Third Division that they awarded them the title — a particularly commendable achievement as they are an 'open' community band.
Likewise, with Musicalis Algrange who came runner-up on their third appearance and newcomer Brass Band Lyon Junior, who like all French youth ensembles, has players who benefit from being educated in a country with a still functioning national system of music education.
Founded in 2017 and conducted by Anthony Galinier, artistic director and principal cornet of the Lyon Brass Band, they are part of one of Lyon's schools of music and regularly performs in the first half of the parent band's concerts.
Their presence highlights the fact that so many French bands are investing in developing the players and the bands of the future.
And whilst Brass Band Willebroek's exceptional gala concert under Frans Violet's was an inspirational joy — the ensemble and solo playing bringing prolonged applause, one of the great foundations on which this event is growing comes from an obvious sense of communal support from competitors to each other — one most readily seen with the numerous joint 'team' photographs together.
The motto of the Confederation Musicale de France is a call not just to 'make music together' but to 'LIVE music together' — something also seen throughout the weekend with a vibrant musical community working 'hands on' in the mundane tasks of moving chairs and stands and percussion to the professional presenter Pascal Piedefer.
French banding continues to grow — headed by a brace of outstanding ensembles, but as was shown all weekend, the basis for further development is now fully embedded.
Judges as well as neutrals were left to ponder the contrasting musical dichotomies from two exceptional bands — the jury however having the ultimate decision to make. It fell in favour of Hauts de France — a most deserving new champion4BR
Jury: Paul Holland (president), Bastien Stil, Jacob de Haan
Test piece: St. Magnus (Kenneth Downie)
1. Hauts-de-France (Luc Vertommen) — 95
2. Paris Brass Band (Florent Didier) — 94
3. Brass Band de Lyon (Julien Roh) — 84
Test piece: A London Overture (Philip Sparke)
1. Douai Brass Band (Olivier Degardin) — 89
2. Brass Band Brassage (Laurent Douvre) — 87
3. Strasbourg (Philippe Wendling) — 83
Test piece: Lions of Legend Thierry Deleruyelle)
1. Brass Band du Hainaut (Thibaut Bruniaux) — 88
2. Orchestra de Cuivres Amiens (Eric Brisse) — 81
Test piece: Toccata Festiva (Jan van Roost)
1. Brass Band de L'Oise (Yannick Parent) — 83
Test piece: Hinemoa (Gareth Wood)
1. Brass Band Coniques (Antoine Freart) — 92
2. Musicalis Algrange (Andre Sablon) — 85
3. Brass Band Lyon Junior (Anthony Galinier) — 83