Damian Martin reports on the Festival Of Brass 2019

Thursday 28 November 2019

The Scottish Festival of Brass 2019 kicked off at Perth Concert Hall over the weekend of November 23rd-24th, squeezing both the Scottish Open contest and the Scottish Youth Band Festival into two days of inspirational music-making.

The Scottish Youth Band Festival showcases the cream of Scotland’s young brass and percussion talent, and this year attracted 36 ensembles from across Scotland, from Inverness to Stranraer, and from Campbeltown to the Borders.

The festival opened in thoroughly entertaining style on the Saturday morning with the Percussion section, adjudicated by Mark Landon of the Foden’s Band. There was a real variety of music on offer as each of the five ensembles managed to bring a little sunshine to the hall, despite the stubbornly dreich conditions outside. In the end the Perth crowd were to be treated to a home victory, with the Perth & Kinross Schools ensemble, directed by Lynsey Paterson, coming out on top. The delight among the players and their supporters was evident, as Lynsey explained. “It means so much to the youngsters to have won. They work so hard and are like a little family. They get so much enjoyment out of what they do and that really comes across in their performances.”

Mark was then back in adjudication action once again on the Sunday morning, joining John Wallace and Sandy Coffin as the day’s performances were led off by the Preparatory Bands Section, for younger, less experienced groups. “I was astounded by the standard in both this and the Percussion sections” said Mark. “It was exciting to see that some of the percussion ensembles had 15 or more players, and also that they tackled some demanding, ‘serious’ music alongside the more light-hearted and entertaining items.”

“In the Preparatory Section,” he continued, “there was a wide range of ensembles, with some very young players indeed! But one thing they all had in common was that they really seemed to be enjoying their music making. This well-organised festival gives these young players a great opportunity to perform together in a brilliant concert venue, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my weekend.”

Fellow adjudicator Sandy Coffin echoed Mark’s thoughts in summing up her experience. “I really enjoyed hearing so many young bands making good sounds and learning to play together. It was great to see their enthusiasm, even in a bit of a pressure situation. It’s been a wonderful weekend all round, sharing the joy of making music with friends of all ages, and I’ve been delighted to have been a part of it.”

It was a tricky decision for the Preparatory Section adjudicating trio, with half of the bands earning Gold Awards, but finally it was Dalmellington Brass Academy’s punchy performance that won the day, just pipping defending champions Campbeltown Brass Juniors into second place. Winning MD Karin McKenzie commented “I am absolutely thrilled for the young people that are part of our organisation. A lot of hours of hard work went into their performance, and I’m so glad that it has been rewarded.”

The Novice Section for more experienced junior bands followed next, and adjudicators John Doyle and Sandy Coffin had the unenviable task of picking a champion from no fewer than 15 passionate and committed performances. Last year’s champions Perthshire Youth Brass were once again in fine fettle, with MD George Annan adding to his usual kilt a pair of sparkly blue shoes that would have made Liberace blush! On this occasion however, it was only enough for the runner-up spot, as Abbey Brass under Stuart Black took their first national title with their all Alan Fernie programme.

It was a busy day for Stuart, with four bands to conduct, including three in this section alone, but it was worth the effort, as he explained: “This is a contest that I just love. I said to someone on the day, it may have been a mighty long day, but I just love this event. For me, seeing so many young players of various ages and experience levels enjoying playing a brass instrument in one of the best halls in Scotland, in front of a supportive audience, is just a great thing to see.“

“I am absolutely thrilled with the way the band played.” He continued. “This has been a very busy year for the band and to see everything click the way it did on the stage was a really pleasing moment to have before we enter the Christmas chaos. We were especially happy and proud to premier a new piece of Alan’s as our finale, and to be able to go one better than last year’s second place.”

In the Development Section, for experienced youth bands, there were five bands hoping to impress adjudicators John Doyle and John Wallace. Eventually however, the spoils were to go to Campbeltown Brass Intermediate, led by Katrina Barr, just ahead of a spirited showing from Whitburn Youth Band in second place.

For a group saddled with one of the longest road-trips of the weekend it was a hard-earned reward for Campbeltown, as Katrina explained. “(Junior Band conductor) Stephanie Mitchell and I are both very proud of what the bands achieved today. They work so hard every week at rehearsals, and we are thankful to the parents for all their support. It was a very long day for the kids, with the juniors playing in the morning and our intermediate band not playing until teatime. We had to leave straight after coming off stage as we had a five hour bus journey home, but it was all worth it when the results came through!”.

In the weekend’s final sections it was to be double joy for Alan Fernie, as the Scottish Borders Youth Band MD’s evocative depiction of Eric Ball’s evergreen Indian Summer, with characteristically velvety narration from the weekend’s compère Alasdair Hutton, brought the Senior Section nod from adjudicators Doyle and Wallace. Meanwhile there was another Ball classic, Star Lake, at the centre of Alan’s set with Loanhead Brass Youth, who picked up the Premier Section award with a performance of real style.

For Alan, it was a great end to a great weekend, as he noted. “It’s just been a joy! I’m so proud of both Loanhead bands and particularly pleased with the Indian Summer set played so beautifully by the wonderful SBYBB. There were great performances all day, and I especially enjoyed Whitburn and Stranraer Youth bands - their sheer joy was infectious, and I loved hearing my new march ‘The Jethart Snail’ played so brilliantly by Abbey Brass. Indeed, it was deeply humbling to hear so many bands perform my music - I thank you all!”

As well as celebrating its youngest players, the weekend was also an opportunity for Scottish banding to recognise the contributions of two of its more ‘experienced’ figures. Firstly there was warm applause around the hall as long-serving SBBA Secretary Tom Allen received the association’s Lifetime Achievement award. There was also a medal for 50 Years of service to brass banding for SBBA patron and one of the weekend’s adjudicators, Professor John Wallace. John was brought up with a brass band background and was himself a former member of the National Youth Brass Band of Scotland, before going on to become one of the country’s most distinguished musicians and teachers, and continues to inspire young musicians today.

 

There was plenty to keep young competitors interested offstage as well, with facepainting and a selfie booth among the attractions on offer alongside the usual trade stall offerings. There was also a programme of free workshops throughout the weekend, featuring some of banding’s biggest names, and the chance to see some of the UK’s finest players in action as Dr Brett Baker and White River Brass entertained the crowds prior to the Scottish Open results.

The Scottish Open itself is one of the highlights of the Scottish banding year, and this year featured a high quality field of 14 bands, with an equal mix of domestic challengers and English visitors intent on taking the trophy South of Hadrians Wall for the first time since Tongwynlais’ 2011 success.

With adjudicators John Doyle and Alan Fernie in the box, the set programme facing the bands this time was a twin effort from the pen of Howard Snell: the ‘Salute and March’ from his earlier work ‘Excelsior’, followed by his new reworking of the Berlioz overture ‘Waverley’.

SBBA’s Peter Fraser explained how the choice of pieces had come about: “Howard himself had approached us with the idea of arranging a Berlioz overture to celebrate the 150th anniversary this year of the composer’s death. Since ‘Waverley’ is only nine minutes in length, and lightly scored for percussion, it was felt that a second piece would be required, and Howard suggested the ‘Salute and March’ from his earlier work ‘Excelsior’ – which he then very generously offered to donate to competing bands as a free of charge download.”

Berlioz himself was said not to be fond of ‘Waverley’, and it remains among the least-known of his numerous overtures today. Nevertheless, the Caledonian link provided by its Walter Scott-influenced title made it a fitting pick for the occasion, and there were traps aplenty awaiting the unwary or intemperate on stage, especially in the deceptively demanding opening sections.

Adjudicator Alan Fernie commented “I was very honoured and pleased to be asked to judge today, and it’s been just great to work with John Doyle. All the bands handled the Fanfare and March well, but the awkward and difficult writing in ‘Waverley’ presented real challenges. A lot of it came down to choices made by conductors regarding tempo, balance and shape. Although the winning band, for me, were on the quick side of comfort, clearly the players were up to the task and ran out deserving winners.”

With the heavyweight Scottish duo of The cooperation Band and Whitburn (the latter chasing a remarkable sixth straight Scottish Open title) drawn together and both in fine form, it was difficult to see past their pair of performances for the win. And so it eventually proved, although in the end they were run closest by their English challengers, with John Collins bringing The Oldham Band (Lees) home in fifth place, with a spirited Elland Silver under Daniel Brooks fourth, and a well-crafted performance from Rainford and Sarah Groarke-Booth doing enough in the box for a deserved third position. At the top of the tree, as so often, the two Central Belt rivals slugged it out blow for blow, but on this occasion there was nothing Michael Fowles and his Glasgow outfit could do to prevent Whitburn, once again led by Professor Nicholas Childs, from claiming an unprecedented double hat-trick of consecutive Scottish Open victories.

David McKellar of the Dalmellington Band was a popular winner of the inaugural Neil Philip Memorial Trophy for Best Euphonium, donated by Neil’s brother Alex in memory of the well-known Scottish euphonium star who sadly passed away earlier in the year. And there was more success to come for Whitburn, with Soprano player Scott Forrest picking up the day’s Best Instrumentalist award.

For Whitburn the Open victory was just one highlight of a memorable weekend, as Band Chairman Charlie Farren explained. “We are delighted with our organisation’s success at this year’s Festival of Brass. The Whitburn Band had a fantastic week once again working with Professor Nick Childs and this was borne out on the contest stage. The band played with great confidence and we’re delighted our Soprano player Scott Forrest won Best Instrumentalist. To cap it all off, our youth band gave a fantastic performance on Sunday, directed by Caroline Farren, to finish second in their section. It was good to finish the contest year on a high and we look ahead with great confidence to 2020, in what will be the band’s 150th anniversary year.”

The Scottish Festival of Brass concludes on Saturday the 30th November with the Band Supplies Scottish Challenge, featuring no fewer than 23 bands from sections 1-4 playing a choice of music from the pen of Scottish composers. Tickets from the first weekend of the festival are also valid for entry here to what should be a fascinating contest, with the first band commencing at 9.30am. We hope to see you there!

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