PP Ed’s Blog: US Sojourn Day 2 – Balmoral Classic Results/ Toronto Police Concert

Day two in Pittsburgh began with breakfast with Jimmy and Gordon Bell, illustrious sons of the late and equally illustrious George Bell, Bishopbriggs and New Jersey. I told them that  over the years I had been in regular contact with their father up until his death eight years ago.

George had been taught by Bob Hardie in the Bishopbriggs Boys Brigade and in the Kenmure’s Pipe Band. Hardie would go to Robert Reid and bring back the knowledge to pass on to those younger than his very young self. I have a tape somewhere of George’s reminiscences and I hope to publish these in due course.

Off to the competition which was held in a beautiful hall at the Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh. There were 12 pipers forward competing for trophies and quality sets of pipes donated by D Naill and Company (ceol mor) and McCallum Bagpipes (ceol beag) and other prizes. Well done to these two PP advertisers for supporting this worthwhile event.

Adjudicators Jimmy Bell, Ian K MacDonald and myself, heard a mixed bag of playing. In the piobaireachd nervous competitors were guilty of memory lapses and indifferent technique. You had to keep telling yourself that this was not a professional competition but one for amateurs aged 21 and under playing for high stakes – and judge accordingly.

In the end the piobaireachd went to Mark McClennan from Guelph, Ontario, with, Tulloch Ard. In second was Kolya Sier from Gilman, Illinois, with Corrienessan’s Salute. Both these pipers had note errors and small chokes but credit was given for the musicality of their presentations. This put them ahead of Charles Morris, all the way from Agoura Hills, California, in third. Charles played the Old Men of the Shells but in rather stilted fashion with mid phrase pauses spoiling momentum. Charles can take consolation from his admirable technique and steady pipe. Colin Johnston, Aurora, Ontario, came fourth with John MacKenzie’s Music of the Sea, or Ceol na Mara as it is in the Piobaireachd Society’s book of Modern Piobaireachd. Colin made a good fist of this attractive piece  but a couple of chokes and false D T&Cs knocked him down the list. The final prize went to Evan Burlew from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with MacFarlane’s Gathering – erratic in places and crunluath needing work.

Ceol mor winner Mark McClennan and Overall Champion Kolya Sier
Ceol mor winner Mark McClennan and Overall Champion Kolya Sier

On to the MSR. This was dogged by young amateurs trying to play like their professional heroes. Clipped, flawed technique was everywhere, brought on I am sure by pipers (and their tutors) not thinking clearly about what they were trying to achieve and playing too fast as a result. I say again for the thousandth time – tempi must be dictated by the accuracy of finger. Once you lose this it’s time to slow down until the work is, literally, back up to speed.

Not guilty was young Gemma Briggs who, although she wandered off in Allan Dodd’s Farewell to Scotland, played well within her capabilities and was able, therefore, to present listenable music and gain fifth prize. Fourth went to Colin Johnstone, third to Mark McClennan, second to Charles Morris and first to Kolya Sier. (Kolya’s forename is Russian he told me later.) A good prospect this lad, and once he learns how to play double E from F will go on to greater achievements all things being equal. Struggling with your E doubling from F? Check out this link.

Kolya’s tunes were the Taking of Beaumont Hamel, Islay Ball and Fiona MacLeod. Here he his with his winning set repeated at the evening’s concert:

Full results of the 2016 Balmoral Classic Amateur Solo Piping Championship:

Ceol Mor
1 Mark McClennan
2 Kolya Sier
3 Charles Morris
4 Colin Johnstone
5 Evan Burlew

Ceol Beag
1 Kolya Sier
2 Charles Morris
3 Mark McClennan
4 Colin Johnstone
5 Gemma Briggs
Overall champion: Kolya Sier

Blair Beaton with Balmoral director George Balderose and MC Arthur McAra in the background
Drumming Champion Blair Beaton with Balmoral director George Balderose and MC Arthur McAra in the background

The drumming champion was Blair Beaton from Scotia, New York, a precocious talent. Aged only 12, Blair has already played in the Worlds Grade 1 arena with the 78th Frasers; clearly a lad with a  big future. His dad told me later that Blair had been born with a serious hearing impairment in one ear. It makes his achievement all the more noteworthy.

After a good break it was back to the auditorium and the prize giving with Glasgow exile Arthur McAra doing a great job of keeping the crowd amused and shepherding the winners forward to collect their prizes. Then to the main event of the evening, the concert by the Toronto Police Pipe Band (pictured on stage up top with dancers to the fore). Well, I have to say, this was a thoroughly enjoyable show and as I walked back to the hotel the thought occurred that this band should be given the opportunity of doing the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall Worlds Week gig. They are well up for it.

Significant for me were the controlled volumes from the drum section (only four sides used at any one time) and also the varied drum textures achieved using different drums and beaters. Too often do we hear pipe band concerts ruled and even ruined by over dominant one-level percussion. No so with TorPol; it was refreshing to hear how the drummers, led by Craig Stewart, underpinned and supported P/M Sean McKeown’s accomplished  pipe corps with an interesting array of sounds and rhythms.

bill-on-stage
Bill Livingstone on stage in Pittsburgh

Another bonus was the lack of idle chat between numbers – the tunes were all in the programme anyway. This meant that the music flowed and the band was able to build up some momentum in the same way you might find at a rock, pop or classical music event. Two 40 minute spots – perfect. I thought, given the off-season time of year, the band played very well indeed. There were highlights from Bill Livingstone, 74 years young and showing all his maturity and knowledge with part of the piobaireachd, Lord Lovat’s Lament. Another gem was Bill’s self-penned tune, Reay MacKay, Box Player Extraordinaire, written for the respected Canadian adjudicator. Incidentally I hear that Reay has not be well recently so best wishes for a speedy recovery to him. Here is part of Bill’s tune for Reay  followed by Phil Cunningham’s classic, Centenary Jewel:

On the debit side I have to mention Nick Hudson and his choice of tunes of the tag solos. Maybe it’s an age thing, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of his tunes. Also some of the transitions in the band’s Pachelbel’s Canon set didn’t have quite the required discipline. And, finally, The Little Cascade as played by the piping quartet was too quick for the full beauty of the tune to be appreciated. These small points aside this was an excellent evening’s entertainment from a band who, as I say, deserve the opportunity of playing on an even bigger stage than they did in Pittsburgh. Promoters – they will not let you down.

Afterwards it was back to the hotel for a celebration and a mini piping  ceilidh which brought the 2016 Balmoral Classic to a fitting end.

• Read the first part of the editor’s ‘US Sojourn’ here.