The testing demands of musical conflict made for a thoroughly absorbing Second Section contest on the Saturday morning in Cheltenham.
And whilst not one band emerged completely unscathed by the heat of battle, none of the eighteen fully committed, well-led competitors were beaten into submission.
The winner was triumphant, the prize winners emboldened, the rest surely improved by the experience of tackling Stephen Bulla's 'Firestorm'.
When the dust finally settled it was North West champion Middleton under Kevin Gibbs that emerged with the National Trophy in their grasp. Their boldly delivered performance was described by the judges, David Hirst, Roger Webster and Brian Rostron in their written remarks as; 'well prepared' and 'well managed', 'well crafted' with 'a lot to admire'.
Even with the occasional mention of the odd moment of unease, these were the type of post-conflict reports Tony Blair and George Bush would have loved to have read in the papers following the end of the Kuwait conflict in 1991; appreciative, detailed and overwhelmingly positive.
They also illustrated the reasons why Middleton was able to snatch victory from Welsh champion Pontardulais, after they had earlier provided the substantive marker off the number 4 draw. They in turn repelled an emboldened North Skelton in third, who finished just ahead of the quality top-six finishers of Bollington Brass, Crofton Silver and Milton Keynes.
Really good performances
"There were five or six really good performances today", David Hirst said when he addressed the audience following the message of goodwill sent from the USA by the composer.
His pre-results précis neatly framed the reasons behind their decision: "It was a fantastic piece," he added. "And all the bands managed to play it (making the point of congratulating the soprano players on what he said was a 'fiendishly difficult part').
It's also an interesting piece in that it's not overtly technical, so the MDs had to shape the music to bring the imagery alive." He concluded: "The winning band created one continuous musical thread — with great detail and musicality."
That was certainly the dual-key to success on Bulla's colourful, rhapsodic score (with hints of 'Scheherazade' and even a nod to Gregon's 'Connotation' to close) that certainly stretched the players and MDs, but without quite requiring them to volunteer for ill-fated missions of unwarranted bravery in pursuit of glory.
All the main soloists were asked to display expressive, sinuous lyricism to complement sturdy technique, whilst the ensemble had to retain solidity and balance throughout (aided by the extensive percussion writing — with some bands, including the winner, fielding up to five players).
Pontardulais set out their stall like their historic counterparts at Rourke's Drift; repelling wave upon wave of rival attacks (which intensified with the eventual top-six finishers of Milton Keynes, Crofton, Middleton, North Skelton and Bollington following each other on soon after the mid-point break) with a performance that was brimming with confidence.
Little wonder conductor Paul Jenkins stood proudly with his troops in the hall as the results were announced — they were eventually only beaten by a high-class rendition by Middleton that just had the edge on them in terms of musical character.
On another day, North Skelton, Bollington, Crofton and Milton Keynes could have exchanged places — such were the small margins of musical subjectivity that you suspect came into play in the box.
These were fine accounts built on well-directed stanchions of sensible tempo and dynamics variances, mature ensemble timbres and solid lead solo lines — the pick of which was the excellent soprano playing of Jo Robinson of North Skelton, who took the 'Best Instrumentalist' award.
The odd moment of unease here and there may have cost a potential higher placing, but each produced performances to be proud of — and a substantive indicator that they should also proposer in the First Section in 2019.
Post battle tales
Behind them it was the usual post-battle tales of the contesting experience; with a number of renditions that held initial promise blighted by nervousness, unforced errors and over-blowing. A number of bands were left to ponder if they had left their best accounts in the rehearsal room.
That said, there was also little to choose between the midfield finishers or the bands that finished at the back of the pack for that matter; with a special mention of the encouraging number of youngsters on show — especially from Campbeltown Brass.
The Scottish champion made an epic journey down from the west coast of the Kintyre peninsula (a nine hour trip of over 470 miles — and then back again) to perform with such youthful vibrancy that each of them deserved a campaign medal of their own to go with the Scottish Championship lapel badges they wore with pride.
Commemorative victory medals though will surely be struck for Kevin Gibbs and his Middleton players as they claimed a deserved victory with a performance that ticked all the judge's boxes in terms of quality of execution and musicality from start to finish — and one that came eleven years after their last National triumph in the Third Section in 2007.
It was also a memorable success for their Welsh MD (who has already won two National titles as a player with Brighouse and Fairey in the past at the Albert Hall) as he revealed to 4BR that he initially said he would help the band out for the one contest last year.
"That was the case to start with," he said with a rueful, but knowing smile. "But I think they knew I would start enjoying my banding again, so we just kept on working together. The band is just down from the road from where I live and they are such a great bunch of people who deserve this success."
As for the test-piece and his approach, Kevin felt it proved to be a very stern test. "We enjoyed it and worked hard on it," he said.
"There were so many things that were difficult about the piece though. I don't think I've ever conducted a piece with so much percussion. It asked so many questions all around the stand."
And as for the future, after the celebrations to be enjoyed with his players and his proud parents, he added: "It's a massive achievement for the band and it will be the first time they've been in the First Section. I'm really proud to be taking the band into the First Section. It's onwards and upwards now."
Commemorative victory medals though will surely be struck for Kevin Gibbs and his Middleton players as they claimed a deserved victory with a performance that ticked all the judge's boxes in terms of quality of execution and musicality4BR
Test Piece: Firestorm (Stephen Bulla)
Adjudicators: David Hirst, Brian Rostron, Roger Webster
1. Middleton (Kevin Gibbs)
2. Pontardulais Town (Paul Jenkins)
3. North Skelton (Lewis Wilkinson)
4. Bollington Brass (Peter Christian)
5. Crofton Silver (Dean Jones)
6. Milton Keynes Brass (Jonathan Mott)
7. South Yorkshire Police (Leigh Baker)
8. Shrewton Silver (Michael Dunford)
9. Helston Town (John Berryman)
10. J36 Brass (Steven Craig)
11. Annan Town (Paul Drury)
12. Ifton Colliery (Scott Lloyd)
13. Hucknall & Linby (Paul Whyley)
14. LGB Brass (Ian Stewart)
15. Flixton (Matt Ryan)
16. Campbeltown Brass (Paul Kiernan)
17. St Sebastian Wokingham (John Watts)
18. Rolls Royce (Derby) (Graham Cardwell)
Best Instrumentalist: Jo Robinson (soprano) North Skelton