Test Piece Review – ‘Essay’ (Edward Gregson)

Published by R Smith & Co.

Guidance Notes by Paul Holland

What follows is one adjudicator’s view on Edward Gregson’s Essay.

This article should not be considered a blueprint for success but more so a guide as to what adjudicators may be looking for in a performance of this piece.

I have deliberately steered away from providing advice surrounding the much broader issue of musical interpretation of the work; this is the job of the musical director.  In fact it is seldom the case that interpretation alone puts one performance in favour of another; of course there are always exceptions.  More often than not the ability or inability of a band to meet the fundamental requirements of good brass band playing provide enough discussion points for the adjudicator(s) to place a band in an order of merit with relative ease.  In the rare exception where two or more bands have performed to an equal standard in all aspects of the performance (ensemble, intonation, balance, quality of soloists, tempi, dynamic variance etc) then the subjectivity of musical interpretation may become a further point of analysis.

This synopsis must not be understood as a ‘blue print’ for success but as a guide to how adjudicators analyse the inner elements of the score in order to define the accuracy of a performance. Therefore, this is offered as an example only and conductors should delve further into the score in order to reveal other detail not covered in this critique. Moreover, it is expected that conductors will be as musically creative as is possible within the bounds of the score and enable the adjudicator to “hear what we see”!

1.  Dialogue:

On page one the conductor is faced with the first quandary, the direction “non vib.” Whether or not a band does this and to what extent is highly unlikely to determine the outcome of the contest.  More importantly I would argue is the balance and intonation between the cornet and euphonium line, coupled with the dynamic expression as written in its’ precise detail.  These are the more telling issues in the opening bars.

After figure 1 we have 3/4 bars with grouping and rhythm that conceivably looks 6/8, this is not the case.  The music should certainly feel in 3/4 time with the syncopation and musical line making this clear.  The balance of f vs ff three bars before figure 2 and the additional internal balance of octaves in the cornets at this point need attention and clear execution. From figure 2 the musical line should be long, flowing and lyrical –  do not present individual notes or bars.  This idea continues through figure 4 despite the use of slurred articulation, focus on long musical lines not notes in groups of three.  Figure 5 requires clarity in basses, any “bluff” will be easy to distinguish especially at the indicated tempo marking.

Figure 6 to 7 allows bands to show that they have understood the dynamic detail, mf vs f vs ff as well as numerous articulation issues. Tenutos in this section should have a sense of urgency and weight rather than being overtly long which would not be in keeping with the musical picture.

The slight tempo adjustment at figure 7 needs to be well judged and again a particular care of how to present the multitude of tenutos that follows is advised. Figure 8 to 11 is a further matter of carefully judged dynamics and balance, from the muted octaves in the soprano and rep to the colour and volume of the glock and tambourine – it all needs full consideration. The molto vivace to close should have a sense of urgency and energy but do not allow the “non vib” sounds to become aggressive and untuneful.

2. Soliloquy:

Often in a performance it is the presence, or lack, of expression in the slow sections that make the most impact on adjudicators, audiences and indeed other performers. The majority of this expression must come from the players, especially soloists, but conductors need to insist upon conveying the musical terminology coming to life. In this Soliloquy we are instructed that the music is predominantly cantabile and affetuoso as well as mesto – all terms which should convey mood and feeling.

The lone euphonium, horn and baritone initial motifs need to be played at a relaxed dynamic with warmth and expression but also with an assured security. From the piu mosso the same feeling and sense of phrasing should come from the solo cornet, the decoration from Eb bass should not be ignored and is complimentary to the cornet. It goes without saying this initial section (up to figure 16) is a clear chance for a band to shine and showcase the quality of soloists.

Figure 16 and 17 presents a diligent challenge in rhythm. The demi semi quavers and double dotted rhythms will need razor sharp precision; you may need to make some allowances for “wet” acoustics and not hold the double dot too long so that the adjudicator can actually hear the demi semi quavers. This is a strategic point for the conductor to consider, and to what degree if any would you do so?

Do not be afraid to show strength and power in the con forza section before figure 18, a big balanced sound is desirable here. The frequent criticism from adjudicators of over blowing does not necessarily relate to the actual volume of playing but the lack of balance and poor intonation that can occur at higher dynamics. The final five bars of the movement require nerves of steel and an underlying sense of security despite the thin scoring. Hold your nerve.

3. Epigram:

The immediate danger is the cohesion of the trombone glissando. Both parts need to move at the same time and at the same speed resting immediately on the written C without a momentary lapse in intonation. Most performances will “correct” any initial problem in bars 4 and 5, but by now it is a little late. Figure 20 – 21 should possess clarity in the lower brass and crystal clear quaver movement at the 3rd bar of 20. 20 -23 needs to feel light, agile and playful. The staccato quavers should not be brittle but bright and have appropriate character as accompaniment to the obvious musical line that surrounds it.

Figure 23 – 25 should present light quavers against the legato melody. Ensemble accuracy is paramount in the quavers but so too is the warmth and expression in the legato lines. At 25 the emphasis shifts purely to rhythmic stability and impressive ensemble playing. 27 to 28 recycle much of the material from earlier in the movement, the semi quaver and triplet passages should not be glossed over, every note has its place. The final bars, 29 to the end, provide a brief opportunity for bands to show their bold balanced sounds, technical brilliance and their loudest
dynamic of the piece to close (non rit!)

Good luck

Further information regarding the Association of Brass Band Adjudicators performance assessment criteria (PAC) can be found on the AoBBA website (https://aobba.com/performance-assessment-criteria-pac-a-guide-for-conductors-and-bands/)

© Copyright – Paul Holland January 2016