The festival

Champion coductorPaul Holland and best soloist

The Flowers band are crowned the french open champions on the 25th anniversary of the contest in style with a clean sweep

Chris Jeans reports from a thrilling event in the Valley of the Kings

The weekend of the 7-9 June saw the 25th French Open Brass Band Championships take place in the beautiful Amboise, the City of Kings on the Loire Valley. As usual the locals were out in force to show their passion for music, and the competing bands appreciated their obvious enthusiasm and encouragement. Amboise is both stunning and pretty, with a medieval feeling to it, and has more to offer than just any brass band competition, and what a great place for a brass band contest.

The driving force behind this initiative from its conception is Jacques Gaudet, President of the Association Des Amis Du Brass Band, and ably assisted by Pascal Caraty who is the director of the Amboise music school, plus 65 volunteers that have been working exceptionally hard behind the scenes to make the day run as smoothly as possible.

The main sponsors this year for music were Bergerault Percussion, Buffet Crampon Group and l’Atelier du 104.

As is traditional,  the festival begins with a welcoming party where everyone can meet each other and have a few light refreshments before the draw commences at the Château D’ Amboise. 

On the Saturday morning, all the bands made their way to the Château d’ Amboise in order to compete in the march section of the championships. The bands played their own choice of marches to adjudicator Peter Collins and were encouraged by an enthusiastic crowd. The Flowers Band conducted by Paul Holland emerged as the winners with a performance of William Rimmer’s The Cossack, which had so much clarity and superb sound quality, earning the band a cheque for 400 Euros. Aeolus Brass Band conducted by Benoit Fourreau from France also delivered an impressive performance that was totally controlled, well balanced, and with lots of dynamic contrasts in Jan Van Der Roost’s march Arsenal, scooping the runner up prize of 300 Euros. Third place with 200 Euros was awarded to the Brass Band Du Val De Loire conducted by Jerome Genza from France who delivered some very exciting, well structured ensemble playing in a performance with well-observed directions, and a reliable pulse of William German’s The President. Brass Band Des Pays De La Loire under the direction of Hans Loirs also from France gained fourth placeand100 Euros with T. J. Powell’s Contestor delivering some confident and stylish playing with a well balanced band sound.

After a leisurely lunch the audience assembled in the attractive Beaumarchais Theatre, eager to be entertained. All of the bands gave their best performances, judged by myself as the President of the jury, Luc Vertommen from Belgium and Norbert Pfammatter from Switzerland. Each band played a varied programme of 25 minutes, which included the set test-piece. The chosen test pieces for 2019 were Philip Wilby’s Ascension (Championship Section), James Curnow’s Brass Metamorphosis (1st Section), Dean Goffin’s Rhapsody in Brass (2nd Section), and John Golland’s Prelude, Song & Dance (4th/Youth Section).

The bands then moved to Michel Debre’ place and La Tour Heurtault where a 20 minute entertainment programme was performed. The prizes for the most entertaining bands from each location went to local band Brass Band Atout Vent and Brass Band Helvetia from Switzerland, each picking up a 300 Euro prize. What a day! Fantastic music, breathtaking soloists, fabulous performances and a great atmosphere made sure that everyone had a thoroughly enjoyable time. The streets were packed from start to finish and provided an excellent opportunity for the bands and audience to socialise as well as perform at both venues.   

The traditional closing Gala Concert took place in Claude Menard Hall this year featured ‘The Flowers Band’ under the skilful direction of musical director Paul Holland. The concert hall was completely packed to capacity at 8pm, containing well over one thousand five hundred people. The first half of the special 25th Anniversary French Open Gala concert opened with Jonathan Bates’ The Red Hills of Georgia. The title of this work comes from a line in Martin Luther King Jnr’s speech, portraying the vast expanses of the plains of Georgia and the notable red hue to the surrounding mountains. The music was very much inspired by the scenery of the big country, which was performed full of energy and drive. The first soloist to be featured was soprano cornet star player Paul Richards who demonstrated the art of soprano cornet playing at its best with music once again from the pen of young composer Jonathan Bates in Let Freedom Ring. This was stunning, and delivered with controlled lyricism and tone which made this a very special performance. The band accompanied him with sensitivity and great direction. Simply spellbinding and all without the use music, and from a presentation point it made it even more impressive. This was so well received by the audience.

Next we were treated to Karl Jenkins’ Stabat Mater Suite – Sancta Mater, Cantus Lacrimonus, Lament featuring principal euphonium player Matt Rowe who played this piece with the most beautiful and lyrical feeling, which was equally matched by the sensitive accompaniment from the band, and finished with Paridisi Gloria. This was hauntingly beautiful music about grief, sorrow, anguish and the pain at the death of someone close to you, and is supposed to depict emotions felt by Mary, the mother of Jesus at her son’s crucifixion. Movement 1 & 3 featured antiphonal cornets, whilst movement 2 featured some beautifully controlled quartet playing by Thomas Fountain on cornet, Lauren Chinn on flugelhorn, Emily Evans on tenor horn and Matt Rowe on euphonium in front of the stage. The first half was brought to a close with Gioaccino Rossin’s finale from William Tell, which presented us with some well-executed fine ensemble playing with a great sound quality, performed with brilliant technique, much to the delight of the audience and demonstrated what a fine band was on display.  

It was now just after 11pm and at the award ceremony it was The Flowers Band under the direction of Paul Holland that managed to flourish in the set work of Philip Wilby’s Ascension. So Paul Holland and his wonderful band are now  the newly crowned 2019 French Open Champions, and collected 1400 Euros of prize money, and an invitation to compete in next year’s championships. All the adjudicators agreed that Flowers were clear winners. Their performance of the set test piece was outstanding, a statement echoed by all members of the jury. There were many immense solo contributions throughout the performance in particular Paul Richards on soprano, Thomas Fountain on principal cornet, Lauren Chinn on flugelhorn, Emily Evans on tenor horn, Rob Wilshaw on trombone, Matt Rowe on euphonium and Carlton Sykes on Eb tuba, as well as some amazing percussion playing.

Their contest programme opened with an impressive account of Jacob’s Ladder from the pen of Jonathan Bates followed by the cornet solo Threnody by Ben Hollings. This was performed by principal cornet Thomas Fountain, and was delivered full of warmth, sentiment and actually made me cry. His faultless performance earnt him the prize for the most outstanding soloist of the day and picked up a cheque for 350 Euros.  In second place and collecting 900 Euros of prize money was Aeolus Brass Band from France conducted by Benoit Fourreau. The band opened their programme with Howard Snell’s arrangement of Richard Wagner’s Entry of the Gods into Vahalla, which had a real ‘grabbing’ power with so much detail, folowed by a stunning and captivating account of the set-work, and finishing with Elgar Howarth’s arrangement of the Harry James Trumpet Concerto.

In the 1st Section there were two French bands competing for the title, which was awarded to Brass Band Du Val De Loire under the directed of Jerome Genza, collecting 900 Euros of prize money. Their programme opened with the set work James Curnow’s Brass Metamorphosis, which was full of energy and drama throughout. Then featured some stunning technique in the Eb tenor horn solo Fugitive by Rodney Newton and concluded their programme with Michael Hopkinson’s arrangement of George Barboteu’s Chansonnerie, which was full of spirit and character. In second place was Brass Band Atout Vent conducted by William Houssoy, collecting 750 Euros of prize money. Their programme included a very musical and detailed account of the set work, followed by the spellbinding tenor horn solo A New Dawn by Christopher Bond, finishing off the programme with the challenging A London Overture by Philip Sparke, which was delivered with some real atmosphere.

In the 2nd Section there were five bands fighting it out and all the adjudicators commented that this was the highhest of standards they had ever heard from a 2nd section band. The title was awarded to Brass Band Des Pays De La Loire conducted by Hans Loirs, collecting 900 Euros of prize money. Their programme included a very musical and detailed account of the set work Dean Goffin’s Rhapsody in Brass, then featured the cornet solo Lairg Muir from the Hymn of the Highlands by Philip Sparke and closed their programme with a superb rendition of Michael Giacchino’s The Incredibles arranged by Joy Bocook. This was a really well drilled band with such good balance throughout every single section of the band, which would have easily held it’s own in the 1st section. In second place was Brass Band Avenir De Lignieres conducted by Cyril Perrenoud from Switzerland, collecting 750 Euros of prize money. They also opened with the set work, then featured their euphonium soloist in Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s Neath the Dublin Skies, and concluded their programme with Turris Fortissima by Steven Ponsford displaying some stunning technique. The third position was awarded to the Eagley Brass Band conducted by Chris Wormald from the UK, collecting 500 Euros of prize money. The band opened their programme with the well controlled march The Wizard by George Allan, then featured their cornet soloist in the Michael Buble’s classic Cry Me a River, followed by the set work, and completed their programme with Igor Stravinsky’s Final hymn from the Firebird in a performance that was committed and inteligently put together by the band and MD. In fourth place was Brass Band Helvetia conducted by Yves Sauthier who chose to open their set with music from the pen of our Swiss judge Norbert Pfmammater entitled Energy, and then featured their flugel horn player in Concerto D’Aranjuez, and closed their programme with the set work, of which they delivered a fine account. Finally in fifth place was Brass Band De La Vienne conducted by Mathias Charton from France, also opting to open their programme with the set work, their next piece was Dundonnel from Hymn of the Highlands, and closed with Philip Sparke’s Brass Machine, which had growing maturity.

Unfortunately there was no 3rd section this year.

In the 4th Section Brass Band Oceane conducted by Pascal Piedefer from France claimed the title, collecting 900 Euros of prize money, who displyed some excellent clarity of detail and good ensemble playing in the set work of John Golland’s Prelude, Song & Dance and continued with a brilliant performance of Christopher Bond’s Song of the Night Sky and Jan De Hann’s Cityscape. In 2nd place there was plenty of ambition on display in North London Brass Band’s performance directed by Andrew Brittin from the UK, collecting 750 Euros of prize money. They also opened with the set work and then featured their solo euphonium in Evelyn Glennie’s Little Prayer arranged by Robert Childs, finishing with a commanding rendidion of Eric Ball’s Petite Suite De Ballet.

There was plenty of local support for the youth champions, which was awarded to Brass Band Du CRR De Tours conducted by David Hubert from France, collecting 900 Euros of prize money who produced a fine, balanced programme.

After the excitement had died down slightly, it was the new French Open Champions, the Flowers Band, back on stage to entertain with a foot tapping number –  Manhattan Skylinemusic written by Olivier Calmel.  The band then featured flugelhorn player Lauren Chinn, who portrayed the beauty of Tokyo Sunset by Richard Taylor, which the soloist performed in style, with a great sense of lyricism that was so beautifully effective. Then we were treated to the march Cross of Honour by William Rimmer. Then Paul invited all the audience to sing along with the band in Bohemian Rhapsody, and the audience had a great time.   The final soloist was tuba player Carlton Sykes who demonstated his technique in the classic Carnival of Venice for tuba, which was delivered with such ease and had the audience stamping their feet and asking for more for nearly two minutes. Next was Eric Whitacre’s music from the poem called The Seal Lullaby, which was just beautiful, and so dark and rich in texture. The final piece in the programme was Jonathan Bates’ That Promised Land. The title of the piece is a quote from one of the verses of the spiritual ‘Deep River’, and the a polished performance was delivered from this impecably drilled ensemble. This was followed with an encore, which not surprisingly led to a standing ovation. At well-gone midnight the band left the audience buzzing and still wanting even more.

The new champions The Flowers Band under the director of conductor Paul Holland were in great form and the playing was of the highest quality throughout. It had been a long day for all the competitors, but all agreed that it had well been worth it for the warm welcome received, and the success achieved on the contest and concert stage. A band spokesman commented that ‘The atmosphere in the concert venue was like nothing the band had ever experienced before! Incredable!! Amboise is a lovely place to host a brass band contest, especially when we had plenty to celebrate too!!!’

Musical Director Paul Holland was also delighted by his band’s efforts, and stated: ‘It said a great deal about the commitment of the band, that after leaving on Thursday and getting to Amboise on Friday evening they were still able to produce a top class performances on every occasion. It was a great weekend, even if it was a bit exhausting, and our thanks go to everyone involved in the organisation of the French Open for making it such a memorable trip.’

With the main contest now over, we could now just sit back and enjoy the entertainment on the Sunday morning and afternoon with a special celebration to mark the 25 years of the competition as La Banda Jean, Brass Brass Band Atout Vent, plus 75 young musicians from France treated us to some excellent programme of light entertaining music. After the excitement had died down, there is no doubt that Sunday evening seemed very calm in Amboise, even though it was exceptionally busy due to the Bank Holiday tourism. Many people I interviewed expressed their pleasure and their attachment to the event. Indeed, many music lovers book the date from one year to the next to spend a musical weekend in Amboise. Jacques Gaudet and Pascal Caraty are already making plans for the 2020 French Open Brass Band Championships to be held over the weekend 28-30 May and as it is the half-term week, we are hoping for the attendance of many more bands from the UK.      

A weekend not to be missed!