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Report & Result: 2018 National Championships of Great Britain: First Section

Oldham Band (Lees) conquers King Arthur's Scenes from a Radio Drama to take the First Section National title in Cheltenham.

  Oldham (Band) Lees makes it a Regional, Senior Cup and First Section National titles hat trick in 2018

As Oldham Band (Lees) showed in compelling fashion at Cheltenham, finally claiming your place in the annals of brass banding National history is well worth the wait.

Formed in 2004 from a merger of the rapidly declining membership of Oldham Brass '97 Band and the emerging talents of youngsters from Bare Trees Community Band, 14 years of accumulated hard work and commitment came to fruition in the classiest of style on Sunday evening.

Inspired by MD John Collins, they can now add a National title entry to an outstanding CV of notable successes that has already included five North West Area and four Pontins victories, as well as a bundle of other triumphs that in 2018 alone had seen them win the Brass at the Guild and Senior Cup contests.

Worthy champion

Here they were to become the worthiest of First Section National Champions. Their return to the Championship Section in 2019 will give the North West Area contest in particular an added competitive edge for sure.

In a contest that also shone an encouraging light on the top flight ambitions of a number of competitors, came brave, but well beaten rivals; led by an invetive Staffordshire and the early draw marker of Johnstone as podium finishers, ahead of well-portrayed accounts from Amersham, Dunaskin Doon and Ebbw Valley.

And whilst the rest of the field displayed commitment and endeavor in spades, they were increasingly hampered by varied and variable inconsistencies, as Paul Hindmarsh's expertly considered arrangement of 'King Arthur — Scenes from a Radio Drama' provided the sternest of tests for the seventeen competitors.

Ballsy nerve

Those demands focused on steely technique as well as lyrical musicality (and especially sheer ballsy nerve) right from the opening low-pitched cornet fanfares that proclaimed Arthur's identity as a flawed but heroic figure of legend; a freewheeling leader of a band of round table brothers who played hard and partied just as enthusiastically (The 'Wild Dance' was captured with colourful abandon by the best on the day).

However, it was the sparsely inhabited central section with its mystical echoes and troubling miasmic visions that cast a spell on those with more fragile contest winning mind-sets.

Time wise, the decision to omit the third section of the work made sense (the contest ending well ahead of schedule) although it was still a pity it wasn't heard. Such was the challenge imposed even in 'contest cut' form that the 'Death of Arthur' finale, with its visceral pulse of terminal, drama tension, still sapped the stamina before slaying any lingering hopes of victory for those who displayed engaging but flawed inconsistencies in their performances.

Arrogant swagger

Not so Oldham Band (Lees) off the late number 16 draw: MD John Collins immediately displaying his opening intent by utilizing an experienced fanfare team to proclaim their confidence with a touch of arrogant swagger (not misplaced either) in the 'Overture'.

The middle section was superb; their outstanding flugel player (the pick of some excellent individual contributors) leaving her seat to join the cornets to add a rich seam of enticing texture to the music which hung atmospherically in the air of the Centaur auditorium.

By the time they delivered a vicious, dramatic finale, it was their rivals, not the Arthurian figure of their conductor, who had been struck the mortal blow to their 'Holy Grail' ambitions of title winning destiny. They knew it too.

Excellent winner

And so did the judges, John Maines, David Hirst and Alan Bourne.

"The winner was excellent; clear," John said in his summing up to the audience before the results. "There were no bad performances today, but some bands and MDs handled the piece better than others. They had to create a visual image in the mind with the music — getting the basics right first and then adding something extra."

Their collective opinion was reinforced by their individual remarks: "A fine performance from band and MD' wrote John; 'A well structured presentation of the work with good direction by MD', added David, whilst Alan summed up his enjoyment by thanking the band '…for a very enjoyable performance'.

There was little doubt that their opinion was also shared by the majority of those in the audience who enjoyed a thoroughly absorbing contest — with most neutral critics of the opinion that Oldham was the deserved winner.

Valiant challengers

Behind them came the valiant challengers.

Leigh Baker's use of an antiphonal seating arrangement with Staffordshire certainly made a favourable impression as he drew a textured performance from the Midlanders to end a worthy runner-up, whilst the bold approach of Johnstone under Martyn Ramsay also made a lasting mark in the box off the number 3 draw — aided by the excellent contribution of 'Best Instrumentalist' award winner Helen Mitchell on soprano.

Just behind them came the engaging musical approach of Paul Fisher with Amersham as the last band of the day to fulfill the deserved expectations of the London & Southern Counties representative, whilst just a few too many clips and fragilities put pay to well-led accounts from Dunaskin Doon and the fancied Ebbw Valley.

The judges later told 4BR that there was little choose in the comparison stakes between many bands in the eventually midfield placings.

And whilst Sandhurst (eighth) and the likes of Foresters Brass (fourteenth) may count themselves a little unfortunate that their lucid, colourful interpretations didn't quite capture the imagination of the judges as much as it did with others in the hall, the majority of the remaining bands could have had little cause for complaint in where they eventually ended up.

And certainly not the winners.

Close calls

"We prepared so well for this," John Collins later told 4BR as he reflected on finally leading his fine band to a National title after so many close calls.

"We've come second three times and now we've won it. I cried when I heard the result. I knew we could give a very good performance of the piece and we did on stage. I'm so proud of all the players and everyone involved in the band.

I've got a great mix here. I've brought in players when I've needed them, but over half this band has been with me from the early days. We've enjoyed a great year so far, but there is more to come in the future now."

That confidence will not be misplaced either as their mature, rich sound, excellent main soloists and ensemble cohesion will surely stand them in good stead in 2019 and beyond against the likes of the experienced battle hardened North West heavyweights of Foden's, Fairey, Leyland and Wingates.

On this type of form they will be respected and even feared.

Iwan Fox

By the time they delivered a vicious, dramatic finale, it was their rivals, not the Arthurian figure of their conductor, who had been struck the mortal blow to their 'Holy Grail' ambitions of title winning destiny. They knew it too.4BR


Test Piece: King Arthur — Scenes from a Radio Drama (Benjamin Britten arr. Paul Hindmarsh)
Adjudicators: Alan Bourne, David Hirst, John Maines

1. Oldham Band (Lees) (John Collins)
2. Staffordshire (Leigh Baker)
3. Johnstone (Martin Ramsay)
4. Amersham (Paul Fisher)
5. Dunaskin Doon (Chris Bradley)
6. Ebbw Valley (Gareth Ritter)
7. Chalford (Steve Tubb)
8. Sandhurst Silver (David Johnson)
9. Enderby (Simon Oates)
10. Freckleton (Paul Dalton)
11. Bournemouth Concert Brass (Howard J Evans)
12. Skelmanthorpe (Martin Heartfield)
13. Harrogate (Dean Jones)
14. Foresters Brass (John Davis)
15. Burry Port Town (Gareth Robinson)
16. Houghton Brass (Lee Morris)
17. Strata Brass (Jonathan Bates)

Best Instrumentalist: Helen Mitchell (soprano) — Johnstone

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