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Seen and Heard  Review Article

European Brass Band Championships 2007, Symphony Hall, Birmingham: a report from Christopher Thomas (CT)

The European Brass Band Championship has come a long way since its inception thirty years ago. Originally a “bolt on” to the British National Championships, the contest was initially viewed with a degree of derision by those who believed that a band from outside the United Kingdom would never be capable of toppling the top British bands from their positions of  superiority. Three decades on and it is clear that little could those early doubters have realised how far from the truth they were going to find themselves.

Two key factors have contributed to what has gradually become the brass band world’s most important competitive festival. Firstly, a huge amount of work has gone into the development and expansion of the concept. From its modest beginnings, the contest now extends to a full week of events, and is  itself  preceded by either a composers’, conductors’ or soloists’ competition which is rotated on an annual basis. A host of fringe events also take place throughout the week whilst the competitive element has been bolstered by the addition of a “B” section competition featuring bands of lower section status:the whole capped off by a celebratory Gala concert.

The second factor is the sheer depth of quality of the bands competing. The rise of the brass band as a musical force in Norway, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland that has taken place over the course of the last twenty years or so, is a huge success story and one which we in the UK should be envious of. It was in 1988 that the European trophy passed to the continent for the first time when Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag of Norway secured glory, a feat they were to repeat the following year, in both cases being steered to the crown by the clearly non-Norwegian talents of Howard Snell, a man who had tasted European victory before with Desford Colliery Band in 1986.

The venue for the contest now also rotates amongst the competing nations with recent years having seen the event held in Bergen, Glasgow, Groningen and Belfast. 2007 saw the contest return to Symphony Hall for the second time - having first taken place in Birmingham in 2000.

For the purposes of the solo competition held during the early part of the week however it was the Adrian Boult Hall, the concert hall attached to the Birmingham Conservatoire that was pressed into action. From an impressive field of sixty three starters from eleven countries, it was the marimba playing of Belgian, Lin Chin-Cheng that came through the “concerto” final on Thursday evening to emerge as the champion. Ably accompanied by the local talent of The Staffordshire Band, Chin-Cheng’s performance of the Concerto for Marimba by Ney Rosauro, played entirely from memory, saw off the challenge of English euphonium player Steve Walsh and Danish trombonist Steffen Maersk, to take the first prize in some style.

With the solo championship decided, attention turned to the much anticipated main event. In years gone by the “split test piece” format of the European Championship would be squeezed into one day. Fortunately, these days the set test piece performances and the own choice element of the contest is spread across two days, allowing the bands suitable time to recover from the musical exertions of the previous day. The set piece this year was commissioned for the occasion from Martin Ellerby, the organiser’s request for an “English theme” resulting in Elgar Variations; an appropriate celebration both of Elgar’s  150th birthday and the close connections that he enjoyed with the city of Birmingham.

Day One: The Set Test Piece

In his pre-contest talk Martin Ellerby explained that the variations are somewhat unusual in that they are not based on a theme by Elgar himself. Rather,  the work takes Elgar’s music as a general starting point, alluding to it in numerous ways, sometimes thematically, sometimes harmonically and occasionally texturally. Buried deep in the score is Ellerby’s own thematic “enigma”, the secret of which the composer vowed never to disclose!

So many test pieces written specifically for the medium in recent years test a band’s technical abilities to the limits without always seeking insight into the real musicality of either band or conductor. Ellerby’s piece is certainly not without its technical demands but it was the stylistic and interpretative elements of the score that were to prove crucial on the night. On a technical level all of the bands were able to demonstrate a level of ability commensurate with the status of the occasion, yet stylistically there were a vast array of approaches, not all of which would have got inside the atmosphere music as the composer intended.

Ultimately there were three performances that truly stood out from the crowd. Welsh representatives Cory, playing from a late draw of eleven amongst the twelve competing bands and also many people’s hot pre-contest favourites to carry of the crown gave a performance of real stature. Bold, authoritative and both technically and stylistically faultless, the band was to emerge the winner of the set test after analysis of the scoring on Saturday evening. Shortly prior to Cory’s performance and playing from a number seven draw, Brass Band Willebroek from Belgium, the defending champions, gave a reading every bit as strong as Cory from a technical point of view, if not quite capturing the essence of the music to  the same degree. Their second place was well deserved  and placed them just ahead of a strong late performance from Norwegian band Stavanger, playing under the experienced and dynamic direction of Englishman Allan Withington. Stavanger’s was a crowd pleasing performance, although individual slips and a slightly heavy handed approach to the dynamics were to cost them a higher placement than third. Highly creditable performances from English contenders Foden’s Richardson, Brass Band Oberösterreich and Gothenburg added to a contest that provided a fascinating evening of listening: one which kept the audience both enthralled and eagerly anticipating the bands' own choice performances on the following day.

Day Two: The Bands' Own Choices

A sense of anticipation is one of the enduring appeals of the European Championship; the wait until the final announcement of the results on the Saturday evening giving plenty of opportunity for discussion and deliberation on the bands likely to emerge with the best aggregate points from the two separate sets of presiding adjudicators. The band’s individual choices of test piece for the Saturday included four performances of the same work, Music of the Spheres, by Philip Sparke, two of Philip Wilby’s Mozart inspired Vienna Nights, an unquestionable classic in Wilfred Heaton’s Contest Music, Peter Graham’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth as well as Of Men and Mountains by Edward Gregson and Tristan Encounters by set work composer Martin Ellerby. Possibly the greatest interest however surrounded two new works written for the occasion in Beyond the Horizon by Paul H. Kelly and Titan’s Progress by John P. Alliston, both composers' names apparently pseudonyms in an attempt to avoid divulging the identities of the bands concerned to the screened off adjudicators.

Of the four performances of Philip Sparke’s Music of the Spheres, Gothenburg were the first to play the work from a number six draw and turned in a strong performance that would have picked the band up after a slightly disappointing showing on the set work the previous evening. Brass Band Aeolus from France could not emulate Gothenburg’s reading and the same sentiment could be applied to Brass Band De Waldsang from the Netherlands. Perhaps the most controversial outcome of the own choice contest however was the second placing of De Waldsang by the adjudicators. Having been placed twelfth on the set work there was no doubting the fact that the band turned in a much improved performance on the own choice piece, yet second place would have come as a total shock to many present in the audience. The stars for  this particular work were undoubtedly Willebroek, taking to the stage as the last band of the afternoon in a performance that whilst not without blemish, was shot through with class and playing of real excitement.

Having taken to the stage at number four and with a real sense of anticipation following the fine performance of the Ellerby on Friday, Cory took something of a chance with their choice of work. Edward Gregson’s Of Men and Mountains inspired by a train journey the composer and his wife took through the stunning scenery of the Canadian Rockies, does not make the extreme technical demands on the players called for by the Sparke or Wilby works,  making its demands in more subtle and musical ways. The work is no less exhilarating for this though and Cory’s performance was majestic if not quite as faultless as had been the case in the Ellerby work. Overall though, despite moments of real magic, there was the sense that Cory had left the door open for one its close competitors to steal the glory.

For many people in the hall, based on Saturday’s performances at least, that band was Stavanger. Allan Withington directed a scorching performance of Wilby’s Vienna Nights, the work Wilby wrote in tribute to Mozart for the 2006 British Open Championships. Executed with stunning technical clarity the reading was sheer class from start to finish and raised the roof of Symphony Hall at its conclusion, both in sound from the band and from the large contingent of supporters the band had brought with them.

The performance that set  most of the audience  talking  however was that given by Switzerland’s Brass Band Treize Etoiles, the work Beyond the Horizon. If ever there was a technical showpiece, written to show off a band’s virtuosic, if not entirely all round musical ability, this was it. Lasting nearly twenty five minutes, this was fireworks from start to finish, despatched with a brilliance that was, at its best, simply staggering. Perhaps as a result of the work’s lack of real musical contrast,  it did not find favour with the adjudicators but it was something that those present will not easily forget; a performance for the real brass aficionado.

Ultimately, when the dust had settled following the Gala Concert and the results were announced,  it was Willebroek who emerged victorious, retaining their title based on their admirable consistency of second place on the set work and first on the own choice. Norwegians Stavanger could be rightly proud of walking away as runners up whilst Cory, despite first place on the Ellerby, were knocked down to third as a result of only managing fourth place on their own choice work. English representatives, Foden’s Richardson came in fourth, bolstered by a strong performance of Heaton’s Contest Music on the Saturday, whilst Austria’s Brass Band Oberösterreich, a star studded collection of some of the country’s finest brass players from the orchestral world, were rewarded with fifth place for their impressively musical if idiosyncratic performances.

The standard of playing across the two legs of the contest proved to be of a consistency that is possibly the highest ever attained in any European Championship contest so far. In such circumstances it seems almost churlish to pass negative comment about two particular elements of the festival but a balanced account would not be possible without doing so. Firstly, the “B” section contest that took place on the Saturday morning prior to the commencement of the own choice competition was a great disappointment, not as a result of the bands or the newly commissioned test piece, The Drop by young Cornish composer Simon Dobson, but by the almost farcical nature of a contest with only three competing bands. Full marks should go to the bands themselves however, representing Italy, Northern Ireland and England (the local talent of West Midlands Phoenix Brass) but this is an aspect of the festival that will need to be looked at closely by the organisers if it is to have any future competitive significance. Secondly, the Gala Concert could have been an altogether more successful affair had the guest soloist not been a World Champion whistler. The playing of the European Youth Brass Band in the second half of the concert was a highlight, yet had they enjoyed the experience of playing with a star soloist from the world of brass, it would surely have been better for both the youngsters of the band and the highly 'brass educated' audience.

On a purely competitive level however, this was a European Championship with much to commend. It would be difficult to imagine a finer venue than Symphony Hall, although the bands of Norway might well have something to say about that when the contest arrives in Stavanger next year. With Norwegian banding being as ambitious as it is these days, there is no doubting that they will be aiming to put on a cracker of a show.

Christopher Thomas


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