PUSHING BOUNDARIES - How Les Neish is making a successful career of tuba playing

Issue 6011

ON THE BEAT - Gavin Pritchard emphasises the importance of preparation

FRANKLY SPEAKING - Frank Renton discusses the role of conductors


Brass in Concert Review

Thursday 22 November, 2018

Every year at Brass in Concert, a trend emerges. Quite where it comes from, I am not really sure, but there it is, plain as day. You can set your watch by it. In recent years we have had death and destruction, war and the end of it and all manner of things in-between. This year’s trend was the use, and some will say, overuse, of the hall’s lightshow and projector capability. Some bands used it to great effect, some didn’t use it at all, others were overkill.

And so, a healthy early morning crowd, no doubt coaxed out of bed early for an opening trio of Foden’s, Brighouse and Cory, settled in for this annual feast of brass entertainment.

And they were rewarded for doing so! Foden’s got proceedings underway, after the mercurial Frank Renton, now in his 25th year of compering the event got the introductions done and dusted. Foden’s opted for a theme of 'Kings and Queens', and whilst the link was tenuous at times, the playing was rock solid, including a magnificent early morning euphonium solo by Gary Curtin, which deservedly won the Best Euphonium prize of the day. The band would eventually come sixth in a high-class field - no shame from the dreaded number one draw.

Up next came the challenge of Brighouse and Rastrick under David Thornton. They had opted for a suite of music, Our Hidden Language, in several movements, all on the theme of dance, composed by the Danish genius Jacob Vilhelm Larsen. And quite magnificent it was too! The music oozed and swayed and kept the audience captivated throughout. The slapstick moment on Washboard Watkins was a throwback to the 80s humour element of brass in concert and didn’t quite come off. However, the concept, the playing and the very atmospheric light show was just stunning, and whilst I thought third overall was maybe a little harsh, the band can be justifiably proud of a great performance.

And so, with the crowd buzzing, on came Cory, who were to be crowned the BIC Champions with 197 points out of 200. Their theme of 'Romeo and Juliet', set in baroque times but with a very neat Leonard Bernstein/West Side Story theme running through, linking old and modern times, was so well thought out by MD Phil Harper. A clever mix of huge sonorous sounds, with modern salsa inspired brilliance, then sombre funereal music at its best, topped off with some sublime playing from Chris Thomas (best trombone), Helen Williams (best flugel), Glyn Williams and Tom Hutchinson, was to prove an irresistible formula for the judging panel and they emerged as worthy winners.

Cory are always a hard act to follow, and that dubious honour fell to local favourites Reg Vardy. Their 'Time' inspired programme was inventive and original, but costly clips and slips in a day of such high standards ultimately was their downfall, finishing in tenth place. This was a band, I suspect, that given a couple of additional rehearsals would have produced a much more polished performance.

The hall then fell into complete darkness for the entry of Whitburn. Their theme of from 'Darkness into Light' was very cleverly thought out by conductor Leigh Baker. An opening earthquake of bass drums from around the hall set the spine tingling and ensured the crowd were buckled in for the ride. In my view, the use of the stage and hall lighting, along with the powerful images on the projection screen worked so well with the them of the programme. Spotlights on a beautiful cornet solo by Chris Bradley, First Light by ben Hollings, was one of my highlights of the day. Some original works coupled with great playing had Whitburn right up there for us. Not so with the judges, who placed them in eighth position overall.

A well-deserved lunch break followed with feverish discussion in the foyer and bar on the merits of each band’s performance, with surprisingly different opinions as to who was leading, such was the variety of brilliant content that we had witnessed.

And so, fed and watered the very good crowd, headed back to the hall for the first of two performances from American bands. Fountain City were up first, and what a show they put on. Every year they attend BIC, their choreography and staging is bewilderingly good. The playing is top drawer too, with a clever selection of numbers all arranged by the supremely talented Lee Harrelson. The finishing Malaguena, with conductor Jo Parisi treating the crowd to his incredible trumpet skills, was worth the entry ticket alone. Best percussion and soprano awards were richly deserved. This year, however, the intricate staging sometimes overtook the performance element and was maybe too much? Perhaps this was in the judge’s minds when placing them an overall fifth.

SIDDIS brass winners Manger Musikklag came next with a reprise of their winning 'In Time With Cubism' programme, very cleverly put together by Martin Winter. Using a series of cubist pictures, Manger interwove music relevant to each picture with stunning clarity. The playing was top drawer, though maybe a gear lower than at SIDDIS two weeks ago. The abiding memory of My mother is a Fish will stay long! The inventiveness of the programming and the compositional writing was of the very highest calibre and bravo to Martin Winter and the band for this. Joe Cook on tuba gave a masterclass and was unlucky not to win the soloist award. As we have come to expect, the BIC crowd is more traditional in what it likes, where the SIDDIS crowd passionately embrace new thinking. Fourth place overall was probably a fair result for our Norwegian friends.

Flowers took to the stage with a late replacement conductor in Lee Skipsey, on a programme developed exclusively by Jonathan Bates. What a fine writer he is turning out to be, with no less than 15 pieces played at BIC from his pen. Not a bad one amongst them either. Flowers' theme was 'Freedom', and from the off they delivered a slick, well-choreographed and very well played programme. The lighting use was stunning, and the performance of Paul Richards on Let Freedom Ring was the undisputed piece of the day, bagging Paul the Best Soloist Award, and richly deserved.

Hammonds Saltaire, who need to be congratulated for filling the spot vacated unduly late on by Grimethorpe Colliery Band, gave a worthy performance, the crowd, knowledgeable in the circumstances gave them a rousing reception, and the challengers from Yorkshire put on a very good show, that didn’t come across as last-minute or underprepared. Well done to Morgan Griffiths and the band. Their programme of 'Myths and Folklore' was well thought out, the star number being Matthew Brown’s trombone solo Brasilia - terrific playing.

Sometimes at BIC, as the day reaches late afternoon, lethargy can set into the audience. It is a long day and a lot of listening. So, the task of Carlton Main Frickley was to get the audience fizzing again with a very welcome adrenalin shot! And, my word, did they do just that. Their theme of The Murder In The Night took inspiration from Murder on The Orient Express, and with clever use of the projector, lights, dry ice machine and Hercule Poirot voiceover telling the story, everything came off perfectly. The story of the death of the unlucky Mrs Jones on the overnight train from Paris led us on a musical journey fraught with tension and excitement. It was gripping stuff. When then victim was discovered, Kirsty Abbotts treated us to a cornet masterclass in slow melody playing and was the deserved winner of the Best Principal Cornet award. The programme was the best story telling and theme of the day, superbly played and choreographed, very well thought out and superbly executed. It leaves Carlton Main with one small problem – how to top this next year! Second overall for Carlton, which shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

Atlantic Brass, the second of the American bands, had the honour of finishing the contest, and whilst the programme, based around 'Empires', was well thought out and the graphics excellent, there were too many mistakes in the playing to really challenge, which was a real shame, as this is a good band. The finale of Roman Festivals was unfortunately littered with problems and the judges had no real alternative than to place them last. I hope it doesn’t put them off returning to the UK as they are a fine band and a great group of people, and on another day would undoubtedly have distinguished themselves better.

An absorbing, high-level day of contesting, where the thought into programme content, execution and production was perhaps the best that this fine contest has experienced. Add to this the very successful youth contest of the previous day, won in splendid style by Wardle, and you have a weekend recipe for success. Foden’s and Matt Ford on the Saturday evening was a great concert, but a low point in terms of audience numbers. This is predominantly a brass audience and the feeling amongst respected village elders is that brass should be at the fore, following a similarly disappointing crows for Only Men Aloud the previous year. I am sure the excellent organisational team at BIC will address this for next year. A fitting award to Frank Renton was the highlight of a somewhat subdued awards ceremony, for his 25-year stint as compère. A nice touch for a great compère and friend to the banding world.
So, what will be next year's trend? That’s the beauty of this contest, you will have to buy a ticket to find out!