Norwegian Legend stalks Derbyshire Dales
MK Brass introduced a touch of Nordic battlefield passion to the normally peaceful Derbyshire town of Buxton this week-end when the band competed in the picturesque resort’s brass band competition.
The band’s chosen test-piece this time out was Philip Sparke’s depiction of Norwegian King Haakon’s struggle to introduce Christianity to his kingdom in the 10th century, called “The Saga of Haakon the Good”.
The demanding work describes the King’s travels around the challenging northern landscape, the establishment of the first churches in the bitter snow-filled environment, and then closes with a rousing portrayal of a battle between the Christian and Pagan armies. The piece raises some significant technical and musical challenges for all the band’s players, but particularly for key soloists, Matt Ball (cornet), Martin Wakeley (trombone) and Duncan Bruce (euphonium) who rose to the occasion, and of course for MD Jonathon Mott, who did a fantastic job of knitting the divers musical elements into an engaging whole.
On this occasion MK Brass were competing in a combined Championship and First Section event (MK is newly promoted to the First Section) so the band’s members were delighted to come away with Third Place, in a significantly more challenging competition. Such a positive result made the long journey north worthwhile.
MK Brass claims welcome 5th Place in Regional Championship
Following promotion to banding’s First Section in January, MK Brass faced its first Regional Championship at the new level on Saturday 16th March in Stevenage. The preparation of the band has been taxing but fun over the past few weeks, with MD Jonathan Mott guiding the band to meet the challenges of a much more demanding set work and less forgiving adjudicators; challenges which his background with the famous GUS band has made him all too well aware.
Traps & Witticisms
The test piece this time was Gilbert Vinter‘s classic “Symphony of Marches”. Vinter, an accomplished orchestral musician, crafted an engaging work full of musical witticisms (like writing marches with bars in ⅞ time!). There were technical demands a-plenty for all the players, with a hat-full of ‘traps’ for the unwary.
Great Result, but Room for Improvement too
MK Brass’ performance on the day reflected much of the preparation work of the MD – the band’s sound and balance was good and much of the playing captured the contrasting character of the three movements of the work, particularly the lively joyful nature of the third movement and the grave, brooding mood of the second movement. Soloists Matt Ball (cornet), Martin Groves (soprano cornet), Sarah Potts (tenor horn) and Duncan Bruce (euphonium) added real quality to the band’s performance too. While the quality of our MD’s musical interpretation shone through, there were a few lapses of concentration and errors resulted. Room for improvement noted! Nevertheless, the resulting fifth place is a great result for the band on its first regional contest outing for some time at this level, and leaves the band 4th in the rankings for next year’s promotion struggle.
The band owes particular thanks to Tim Flach (BBb Bass) and Sue Blunt (Baritone) who moved instruments at short notice to cover gaps in the line-up, and to recent recruits to the cornet ‘front-bench’, Julia Head and Lewis Wallington. Also, importantly, thanks go to former member Chris Blunt who stayed on to cover the First Baritone chair (and driving hundreds of additional miles to rehearsals) despite moving to Nottingham.
It’s Official – Milton Keynes Brass is “World Class”
No kidding! Milton Keynes Brass has been recognised as one of the top 200 brass bands worldwide by the respected international Brass Band news website “4 Bars Rest”.
On the back of 2 years of consistently good contest performances in the Second Section (the third tier of banding in the UK) and a hard-won 3rd place at the Mineworkers Open in the First Section in the band’s first competition since promotion on the 1st January, “4 Bars Rest” has ranked MK Brass in its “Top 200” of the planet’s brass bands, in 188th place.
It’s not often recognised outside the banding world just how widely the banding ‘bug’ has spread around the world from its roots in Britain, with bands from Norway, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, USA, Australia and New Zealand as well as the UK home nations featured in the world rankings.
Promoted to First Section, and it’s in the Prizes again!
New Demanding Level of Competition
Following last year’s success at the “Regional” in the Second Section MK Brass was rewarded with promotion to the First Section (the second tier of the Brass Band competition in the UK) from January 1st, 2019. The band’s first foray at this new and more demanding level of competition was the well respected and well know “Mineworker’s Open” held at Butlins, Skegness in the opening, short, dark days of the new year. The level of competition at all five tiers of banding competition is very high, as the sponsors (Butlins) put on a fantastic week-end of competition, concerts and band related events, as well as providing some of the highest level of prize money in the banding world.
In the Prizes!
So it’s no surprise that the band is exceptionally pleased to have been awarded 3rd Prize in its first competitive outing at First Section level for some years, against some really top opposition. The rehearsal programme for this contest has been quite demanding, as (like most bands) MK Brass had a very busy Christmas events schedule so fitting in the necessary practice has been difficult – the extra effort well worth it in the end, however.
High Musical Demands but Memorable Performance
The test piece La Forza del Destino, the overture to the opera by Giuseppe Verdi transcribed for Brass Band by Frank Wright, places great technical and stylistic demands on brass players as they seek to reproduce the drama and dynamic intensity of one of the great orchestral overtures – but the band under the guidance of MD Jonathan Mott, and lead by some excellent soloists, pulled off a memorable performance which found favour with adjudicators Alan Morrison and Dave Lea.
A Busy End to the Year
As the nights draw in and the mercury begins to drop, MK Brass (like most bands up and down the country) gets prepared for a busy, and sometimes chilly couple of months. Here are some of the highlights…
First of the Winter Season’s activities, and arguably one of the most important, was our regular support of the British Legion’s Remembrance Day parade in Newport Pagnell. The town’s High Street was absolutely packed (later estimates put the crowd at over 3000 people) as the band lead the parade and provided some appropriate music at the War Memorial, with the band’s Principal Cornet, Matt Ball, framing the two minute silence with the Last Post & Reveille.
This portion of the year of course brings many Christmas events. The band’s events programme included concerts at Hanslope (in aid of the Church Bells fund) and Newport Pagnell (to support the United Reformed Church’s Mead Centre project); providing musical backing for Loughton Manor First School’s nativity celebration in the MK City Church (possibly our largest audience of the year with the body of the church and the galleries packed!), for Leighton Buzzard Methodist Church’s Christmas Service, and for Willen Hospice at the ‘Lights of Love’ event, and at the great Switch On of the Summerhays Lights at Great Linford; the band was also delighted to support Christmas staff events for BMW and Nifty-Lift, and the village celebrations in Weston Underwood. In addition to these highlights small groups of the band’s carollers were out and about in various locations around the city helping to create a cheery Christmas atmosphere.
Contest Season closes on a high – but it’s another 2nd Place!
The band’s November visit up the M1 to Loughborough to round off the pre-Christmas contesting season was crowned with success again against a strong field from across the Midlands, Yorkshire and the South of England. The band produced a rousing performance of Philip Sparke’s “The Saga of Haakon the Good”, which relates the struggles of the legendary King Haakon of Norway to introduce Christianity to his country. However, although the performance received warm praise from the adjudicator, Steve Pritchard-Jones, it wasn’t quite good enough to edge the band past eventual winners Horbury Victoria Band from Yorkshire.
Third “Second Place” this year!
“Déjà-Vu” as MK Brass secures multiple awards at Wychavon
MK Brass is showing consistency in contest performances at least this year. November saw the band return to the Wychavon Festival, after securing a 2nd place and the Entertainment award in its section last year, in optimistic mood. The optimism was founded on secure preparation under MD Jonathan Mott, and was, as things turned out, not misplaced. Jonathan’s “London” themed programme featured the “Knightsbridge” march, euphonium solo “As long as he needs me”, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and the descriptive “Congestion Charge” – offering the audience a range of styles and tempos – it evidently caught the adjudicator’s (Sarah Groarke-Booth) ear. She awarded the band the “Best Entertainment” prize, Euphonium player George Bruce was adjudged the best euphonium, and the band’s percussion section (Henry Wakley, Kit Bancroft & Dave Johnston) smashed their way to the “Best Percussion Section” award. However the First Place overall went to Haydock, and MK Brass had to be content with a repeat of last year’s Second Place.
National Finals – A top-6 place following a quality performance
The cream of the nation’s second section bands, Milton Keynes Brass included, met at Cheltenham race-course in September to battle it out for the title of “Champion Second Section Band of Great Britain”, so the competition was bound to be stiff. The organisers selected an appropriately difficult work to test the bands – Steven Bulla’s “Firestorm”, and a severe test it proved to be. The composition depicts the composer’s impressions of the First Gulf War, and so there are aggressive, angular sections to the music, contrasted with more reflective quiet sections which brought to mind the desolate desert landscape and the atmosphere of a Middle-eastern market. The score makes extensive use of percussion too.
It’s a tribute to the quality of M.D. Jonathan Mott’s preparation and the players’ commitment to practice and rehearsals that the band took to the stage in a relaxed but focused mood off the number 11 draw. (Perhaps the state of mind was due to having enough time for a relaxed breakfast in the hotel before we set off to play?) It’s fair to say that there was a good degree of satisfaction with the performance from the band’s members and conductor, (later reflected in positive adjudications, too) and it was encouraging at the end of the contest to learn that both “pundits” (from 4 Bars Rest and British Bandsman) had predicted a 2nd place for MK.
Our final placing of 6th – “in the frame” as the saying goes – is by any estimate more than respectable in the context of the national finals, so the initial disappointment eased quite quickly.
Regional Championships Success – Promotion and a place at the National Finals
Milton Keynes Brass were awarded third prize in a large field of 18 bands in the second section, at the contest on Sunday, March 18. MK Brass Band Playing a new piece called Ex Terra Lucem, by Jonathan Bates, the band gave a great performance featuring solos for Matt Ball (cornet) and George Bruce (euphonium). As a result, the band have now been promoted to the first section and will play at the National Finals in Cheltenham in September.
MD, Jonathan Mott, said: “The band has worked very hard and maintained consistently good results over the last 12 months resulting in an appearance at the national finals and promotion. 12 months ago we had a plan to achieve this and it’s nice to see this coming to fruition.”
Great result at Butlins.
We made our way to Skegness for the weekend to take part in The Butlins Mineworkers National Open Brass Band Festival on 13th January. The second section test piece was Variations for Brass Band by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a significant challenge for bands in this section. With limited preparation time after the Christmas break, the band work hard, putting in a lot of extra work to be ready for the contest. A short rehearsal on Friday evening at the Skegness Silver Band’s rehearsal room helped us to experience the piece in a very different acoustic.
Saturday morning and time for the draw. Being drawn second meant a quick rehearsal and then off to register. The band played well, starting the piece particularly well and continuing with some great playing from all sections of the band. Nicely played solos from Matt Ball and George Bruce and a good solid foundation from the basses.
Now for the long wait for the results. Having worked very hard on this piece we were hoping for a good result and were extremely pleased when we were awarded second place, beating a number of bands that that had beaten us in recent contests. There were some good comments from the adjudicators praising many aspects of our performance:
‘You captured the varying moods well. Bravo!’ (Alan Morrison). ‘This was a very fine performance with some very fine players.’ (Paul Andrews).
A great start to our year of contesting.
Our Next MK Brass Appearances…
Saturday 13th July 2019
Dunstable Bandstand. Grove House Gardens, High Street North Dunstable LU6 1NF
The band will be playing from 14:15 – 16:15
Sunday 6th October 2019
Bolsover Entertainment Contest
We are working on an exciting programme for our appearance at this contest in Derbyshire.