Kudos to Kapitol Promotions for going ahead with the event, even though ticket sales were well down on the usual numbers.
From my seat in a second tier box I surveyed the thousands of empty seats with a mix of emotions: admiration for Kapitol for soldiering on in the face of adversity, and sadness for all those brass band enthusiasts who missed out on what was an exceptional day of music making. Congratulations to Foden’s for another fine triumph, and to Cory for pushing them so, so close. Tredegar gave an epic performance full of energy and vitality, and must have been well in the mix.
The name of the test piece — Heroes, by Bruce Broughton — was apt in the circumstances, as there seemed to me that there was a great deal of ‘behind the scenes’ heroism going on from many of the competing bands, who had suffered lack of preparation time, loss of players due to Covid, and a whole host of logistical problems as the brass band community struggled to get back into shape. Considering this background I thought the quality of music-making was exceptional. For the first time in several years I didn’t agree with the judges with positions 3-6, though I thought Foden’s, Cory and Tredegar deserved their podium places with fine performances that had the right balance — for me — of musicality and technical excellence.
As a former professional trombone player and now a composer and music producer, I do worry about the tendency in our movement for ‘more, more, more…’ in terms of volume and broadness of sound. Now, I’m used to working with some very loud players — names like Mike Lovatt, Louis Dowdeswell and their like have a raw power which, when unleashed, is awesome (in the correct sense of the word), So I am well used to brass players ‘raising the roof’. But to my ears, quite a few of the bands I heard on Saturday were over-blowing in the loudest sections and, to me, a lot of the mid-texture, mid-frequency detail got lost in a swamp of raw volume. At these moments I always ask myself the same few questions: “can you hear the inner parts from first horn down to second baritone?”, “can you hear the balance between the front row and the back row cornets” and, crucially, “are the percussion playing at the right volume for the context of the piece?”
I spent the week before the contest honing these aspects of the performance with the GUS Band and, if I’m honest, I think some of that effort was wasted, as the band lost out to other bands who went for the “give it all you’ve got” approach. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a spine-tingling moment when a band goes “full monty”, but I don’t think that should ever be at the expense of the music. To me, the word ‘dynamics’ should always have another word appended in front of it: ‘relative’. In places on Saturday it felt like I was hearing a choice between ‘loud’, ‘louder’ and ‘loudest’.
I remember Stephen Cobb taking a rehearsal where I was playing euph. After two bars he stopped the band and said to me “you’re too loud”. So, I looked at my part and it was marked ‘forte’. Anyway, in deference to a wonderful conductor I dialled it down a notch. “Still too loud”, he said after a few bars. Then he stopped and said, “Look, I’m not picking on you, but I come from a Salvation Army background where we don’t compete in contests, so we don’t have to play louder than the next band. I set the dynamic levels I want to get the best musical results.” I explained to him that, rather than feeling picked on, I felt like I’d been released from the brass-banding requirement for ever more volume and an ever-bigger sound, so I sat back and enjoyed a thoroughly rewarding rehearsal with the great man. We made some good music that night.
But enough of my nit picking — I leave you with this wonderful thought. The brass band world has been to its own particular brand of hell and back in the last two years, and we have survived. Not only survived, but somehow, by a miracle of hard work, dedication, optimism and a do-or-die attitude, we have thrived. We kept ourselves going with those frustrating zoom calls, we did our best to enter into the online contest spirit of willingness. I personally lost many weeks to the tasks of recording both the GUS and Amersham Band in audio and video performances for several online contests.
But it was all worth it. I spent Saturday listening to some world class bands under some amazing conductors. Special mention to Mareika Gray and Ratby who stepped up to the plate to represent the midlands and landed a fifth place reward — what an achievement!
Apart from the music, what was the highlight of the weekend for me? Well, it was the camaraderie. I spent time with some good friends — Steven Mead, Iwan Fox, Phillip Littlemore among them, and made some new friends along the way.