• Liv Appleton

Contest Stage|Spring Festival 2016



So, I spent this Saturday being a band geek watching some high class bands from all over the country compete in the 96th Spring Festival Contest at the Blackpool Winter Gardens. In a nutshell there are three sections, The Senior Trophy (lowest section), The Senior Cup and The Grand Shield which are each assigned a test piece. It was a brilliant opportunity to listen and learn from some fantastic players and it was inspiring to see so many young players holding their own in all sections.

There really was a lot to take away from this contest…and I looked so damn cool taking notes in my little nerdy notebook during the performances… but with three sections of around twenty bands each, all performing simultaneously, seeing every performance…plus fitting in beer time, was impossible (unless I invest in one of those time-turner things  that Hermione Granger uses in Harry Potter) but I saw a good few bands in each section and here is what I took away from my day in sunny Blackpool.

*click here for more on this contest*

The Senior Trophy| ‘James Cook Circumnavigator’– Gilbert Vinter

Top 4 =Senior Cup|Bottom 6 = must requalify 

Hey there Sailor: the man himself Captain J.Cook


I love a bit of descriptive music and this piece really ticks the boxes for me as a listener. Written to describe the life of Captain James Cook, who was the first person to sail around New Zealand (not to be confused with the guy from Peter Pan), this piece really immerses the listener in a maritime world with lilting tempos, tidal dynamics that swell and decrease dramatically and jaunty melodies.

Roberts Bakery -MD Simon Stonehouse | United Kinneil- MD Colin McKenzie

Just based on listening to the performances without a score to scrutinise the technicalities, there was a lot to commend in both performances. The dynamic contrast from both bands was fantastic, with both loud and quiet dynamics held with such control, it brought life to the more exciting parts of the piece and a real tenderness and emotion in the melodic sections. The euphoniums in Robert’s Bakery were impressive…now I’m going to try not to praise them too much as I know both of them and it would be rather cringe-worthy, but they worked so well together, with technicalities executed accurately and clearly, even the little grace notes were in perfect unison and the euphonium solo was expressive and simply stunning. The melodic playing from the horn section in United Kinneil had some beautiful moments and the solo from the Principal cornet was brilliant, I appreciated her turning a little towards the audience during the technical solo as the articulation could be heard far clearer compared with those who didn’t do so, due to the acoustic causing a loss in clarity. I was impressed with the dynamic contrast and musicality from both flugel players in their solo parts, it really stood out and since becoming a flugel player I know we just want to prove that we shouldn’t be overlooked…because we can play a solo just as well as the principal cornet…and we’re cooler. Both endings were impressive, but in my humble opinion I felt that Roberts’ was the more powerful. Overall two superb performances that both bands should be immensely proud of.

The Senior Cup| ‘Music From Battle Creek’– Philip Sparke

Top 4 =  Grand Shield|Bottom 4 = Senior Trophy

I enjoyed parts of this piece…but I wasn’t crazy about it (sorry Phil…still a massive fan though).  It was written for the Brass Band of Battle Creek, an American band and is meant to musically immortalise the determined attitude of the founders of the band- Jim and Bill Gray. It is technically difficult in every sense and I believe the main challenge was to make this piece musically interesting as, if played blandly, it ran the risk of just sounding like a technical exercise. My favourite part of the piece (to listen to…not to play as there is lots of counting involved…I don’t like counting) is the fast-paced, West Side Story-esque ‘ Rondo Finale’ as when played well it sounds epic.

Rainford| MD Gareth Brindle 

Rainford’s Solo Euphonium- Seth Livingstone accepts the first place trophy for the band


I was lucky enough to dep for Rainford during one of their rehearsals on this piece and it was pretty good at that stage (despite my attempts at sightreading the repiano cornet part…it’s a hard piece if you suffer from sightreading dyslexia) so I was expecting a pretty decent performance from them and they didn’t disappoint, their rendition was the most secure and interesting I heard in their section.

Technical passages were tight and clearly well-rehearsed without sounding clinical and it had a good sense of flow throughout, without any sluggishness or dragging. The soloists were absolutely outstanding, simply secure and effortless, with a lot of expressive and musical playing being demonstrated, which can be difficult in a piece that is so technically challenging and doesn’t leave a lot of room for musicality and it was ace to see such skilled solos executed by young players. My favourite part of the performance was the final section – Rondo Finale. The programme notes describe this section as being ‘chaotic’ and that was true for quite a few performances, but for me, Rainford’s performance made this tricky syncopated section rhythmical and energetic rather than chaotic. It was no surprise to me that they won first place with the prize for Best Soloist going to their Principal Cornet, it was thoroughly deserved and this second consecutive Spring Festival win sees this determined band compete in the Grand Shield next year.

The Grand Shield| Of Distant Memories- Edward Gregson

Top 2= British Open (held in September) | Bottom 4= Senior Cup

Winners of the Grand Shield: Carlton Main Frickley Colliery. Photo: 4barsrest.com


I know ‘Essay’ and I didn’t get on, but this piece just reaffirmed why Edward Gregson is one of my favourite composers. Of Distant Memories, in my opinion, is a genius piece of music as it is proof that we can have a modern test piece that thoroughly tests the bands in all aspects whilst still sounding like a piece of music rather than a clutch of arban exercises, which I feel is becoming the case with a lot of recent test pieces…ok I’ll get off my soapbox and get back to the point. Sadly for me there were only a few bands that really brought out the emotion in this music, with quite a few of them just simply ticking boxes, and whilst in those performances a lot of the piece was accurate, if it lacks emotion I feel they missed the point of the piece.

Pemberton Old Wigan DW-  Kevin Gibbs| Aldbourne- David Johnson|Kirkintilloch-  Garry Cutt|Reg Vardy- Russell Gray.

Again, I didn’t get chance to watch every performance, but this group of bands, despite not being in the prizes, inspired me in different ways. Out of all the bands I heard in this section, I felt Reg Vardy had the best opening, with the volume and balance being enough to be sonorous and full without being too overpowering. There were some lovely moments when a phrase was shaped expressively by the MD and the band followed with such a sense of ‘togetherness’ (not sure if that’s a word) starting and finishing together, it was brilliant musical teamwork. Speaking of expression, Kirkintilloch’s interpretation was definitely my favourite, so expressive and I felt they dared to be quite different in their style, without completely destroying the character of the piece, which was so refreshing. I particularly enjoyed the expression in the Principal Cornet’s solos, it was the most unique performance both dynamically and musically that I heard,  they were the hipsters* of this section in my opinion. There was a lot to commend in the solo playing in Aldbourne’s performance, the top D was hit effortlessly by the Principal Cornet and musicality was abundant in the euphonium solo. I also enjoyed the euphonium solo in Pemberton’s performance which was played with such a beautiful tone and so expressive, however the star of their performance for me was their young solo cornet! The solo in this piece is damn difficult and it was encouraging (and made me slightly jealous) to see it handled so confidently and with such skill by a fellow young player. I hope she was proud of that performance…I would have been, simply fantastic.

*Hipsters: people who go against mainstream ways of thinking…though I’m sure it is just the interpretation that was hipster…can’t imagine many band members enjoy eating vegan food, whilst wearing clothes that look too big and claiming they listened to some indie band before it was ‘cool’.

Final thoughts

Well they say Spring is the time for all things young, fresh and new and it was nice to see many bands (circum)navigate through these pieces in new interesting ways. Most importantly it was brilliant to not only see so many bands such as Robert’s Bakery, Pemberton, EYMS and Virtuosi GUS giving younger players Principal and Assistant Principal positions, but to watch these players battle it out with the more seasoned players and give them a damn good run for their money. This is a trend that is, thankfully, seeming to grow among quite a few of the big names of the banding world, with bands such as Brighouse and Rastrick, Fairey’s, Black Dyke and Leyland providing the younger generation of banding talent fantastic performance opportunities and the chance to reinterpret the brass band movement, which can sometimes seem so stuck in its traditional ways, giving it a new lease of life which will hopefully, one day ,ensure that the brass band movement being viewed as an outdated musical artefact will be nothing more than a distant memory

Click here for the full results

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