Mareika Gray's 10th year in charge of Eccles Borough Band began with an impressive victory in the First Section.
The duo has tasted Skegness success in the past — winning the Second Section in 2015 and the First in 2018 as they've risen from a lowly 11th place finish at their first contest together in 2010 to the cusp of potential battles with the likes of Foden's and Fairey a decade later.
This though was arguably the most impressive win to date at the Skyline Resort; an admirably consistent performance that secured the £2,000 first prize with classy aplomb.
They were the clearest of winners — something confirmed by adjudicator Gary Davies (who was joined by Leigh Baker) following the announcement of the results.
Prize-winners Stannington, Staffordshire and Dublin Silver from the USA were the best of the rest left in their wake. However, that was no poor reflection on well directed performances under the considered direction of the experienced trio of Derek Renshaw, Craig Williams and Tim Jameson.
They all led solid accounts; ones that certainly met the musical and technical challenges of Mike Kilmartin's cleverly realised arrangement of 'Symphonic Episodes for Brass Band' by Brian Balmages in their different interpretive ways.
Good to hear
It was not however an overtly difficult work for the MDs to master, although it still exposed structural weaknesses in the ability to smoothly change pace and meter (especially in the final section), whilst the exposed central section gave rise to solo nervousness and fragile ensemble precision and balance.
Although primarily a symphonic wind band writer it would be good to hear more of Mr Balmage's works given Mike Kilmartin's considered arrangement skills.
It was clear that Eccles Borough inhabited a different level of overall competency — one hallmarked by Mareika's informed direction and clear command of the score.
These were the keys in shaping a homogenous performance rich in warm tonality, detailed precision and tight command of pace and dynamic — something not lost in the admiration spoken of her by a number of Eccles players to 4BR; the rich praise for her leadership, professionalism and musicality, heartfelt.
The celebrations understandably went on long into the Skegness night, with Mareika joined by husband Russell who has been a willing 'super-sub' player for her at this event on no less than eight occasions.
This time he was 'persuaded' to take on the demanding soprano role (he had to get two special mouthpieces made for him by Yamaha just days before the event) — an experience he said (with a wry smile) that brought him renewed appreciation as a conductor for those who inhabit the banding version of the 'no safety net' high wire act.
"Russell's been with me all the way since I picked up the baton with Eccles,"Mareika said. "He's been willing to help out at any time and in any role, although he did wonder what he let himself in for after seeing the sop part for the first time."
She added: "I've wanted to build something that would last here at Eccles, and the players are the same. I know what they can achieve but we don't take short cuts to get there.
It's taken 10 years to get here with ups and downs on the way. The next step is the biggest, but this win shows us that we're perhaps nearly ready to take it. The players are brilliant and they deserve this win for all their efforts."
The highly competitive North West Regional Championship is up next however — one that hasn't been the happiest of hunting grounds of late, although on this form they will head to Blackpool full of confidence. It won't be misplaced.
Stannington and Staffordshire will also travel to Huddersfield and Bedworth boosted in collective morale after their prize winning efforts.
There were little moments of unease in each of the three movements, but much like the winners, the quality of their playing was a reflection of the clearly defined sense of musical understanding of their conductors.
Meanwhile, Dublin Silver will return to the USA after enjoying their trip to the Skegness festival. Tim Jameson has a band built on solid 'British' brass band foundations — one that continues to mature impressively under his command. They were a match for the best here.
However, it's hoped they won't be put off returning by the over-zealous actions of the UK immigration service, which meant they had had to request a Bb tuba replacement from Stannington Band who preceded them on stage. That was a much friendlier form of a Trans-Atlantic alliance.
Behind them the remaining top-six places went to a brace of contrasting accounts from Sandhurst and Soham Comrades with Marsden Silver perhaps a tad unlucky in seventh.
Consistency, or the frustrating lack of it, accounted for the rest on a day when the title winning credentials of Eccles Borough were there to be heard and admired in full.
I've wanted to build something that would last here at Eccles, and the players are the same. I know what they can achieve but we don't take short cuts to get thereMareika Gray
Test Pieces: Symphonic Episodes for Brass Band (Brian Balmages arr. Mike Kilmartin)
Adjudicators: Leigh Baker & Gary Davies
1. Eccles Borough (Mareika Gray)
2. Stannington (Derek Renshaw)
3. Staffordshire (Craig Williams)
4. Dublin Silver (Tim Jameson)
5. Sandhurst Silver (David Johnson)
6. Soham Comrades (Mark Ager)
7. Marsden Silver (Andrew Lofthouse)
8. Middleton (Kevin Gibbs)
9. Haydock Band (Mark Quinn)
10. Unite the Union (John Davis)
11. Harborough (Brad Turnbull)
12. Milton Keynes Brass (Jonathan Mott)
Highest Placed Mining Band: Haydock Band