The Durham University Concert Band billed their concert as ‘A Winter Wonderland’. Coming in from the cold into the beautiful Church of St Oswald’s, it immediately felt just that. I was immediately presented a small, beautiful programme, adorned with snowflakes and other Christmas images. It was wonderfully concise, giving me just enough information about the concert without overwhelming me. The list of repertoire gave much cause for optimism, providing an exciting mix of traditional concert band works and four wintery pieces, ready to fire the audience into this year’s Christmas festivities. I am delighted to say that this optimism soon turned to pure joy.
The concert opened with Ride, a piece written by the American composer Samuel Hazo. The band captured the thrill and excitement of the piece perfectly, with sleek, crisp articulation as well as great confidence from the players. The syncopated beats were controlled with ease by the lower brass players, and although there was a tendency to rush, Conductor Evan Penn kept everything together with clear and sharp body language. The piece really got the audience enthused and eager to see what was to follow.
What did follow couldn’t have been more of a contrast in style. Cloudburst, written by Eric Whitacre, was originally intended for an 8-part choir. A Concert Band version, however, was released upon commission in 2001. The opening came across as very mysterious with a mix of instruments and vocals from members of the band. Coming from a group that doesn’t specialise in singing, the sound was truly magical. The choral sections that followed were played smoothly, with a great sense of togetherness and timing, without lacking emotion. Solos from Sam Musson, on euphonium, and Chloe Langham, on oboe, mirrored this lyrical and mysterious sound with great expertise, and they should be praised highly for the expression shown here. The same can be said for pianist Siobhan McAteer, who added to the texture beautifully. As the intensity grew, the percussion became more and more prominent, the thunderclaps represented wonderfully. Clicking began to pitter-patter through the band and the audience, and it was clear what image Penn and the performers were trying to portray. There were a couple of intonation issues in the mid-brass, but this did not detract from the display. This strange, almost haunting, work was performed to great success, and it was one of the main highlights of the whole concert. Credit must be given to the whole group for pulling off such a difficult work in terms of atmosphere.
Following this, Associate Conductor Laura Scott, took to the podium to conduct Palladio by Karl Jenkins and the famous Pirates of the Caribbean Suite, arranged by Klaus Badelt. It was brilliant to see an up and coming conductor such as Laura conduct with confidence and success. She led clearly and enthusiastically throughout the concert, and must be given the highest levels of praise. Palladio began with the melody in the clarinets. This was played with great clarity and diction. The Band did well to generate energy and excitement to levels Escala could not even achieve on the Britain’s Got Talent! stage a few years ago, and the growth in intensity towards the climax was particularly stimulating. At times, the percussion and clarinets ran away a bit, but they quickly recovered.
Pirates of the Caribbean followed, and it brought the first half to a vibrant close. Scott and the band handled transitions between thematic sections smoothly and precisely. There was a fantastic use of articulation and dynamic contrasts, making the performance engaging and rousing. The storm was represented particularly well, the undulating phrases perfectly captured by the upper wind. Solos from Dan Hunt and Jon Hodkinson were given great prominence, and they lived up to the expectations. Another performer of note is bassoonist Maddy Lyons, who combined her lyricism and her bass lines wonderfully. The percussionists were extremely professional throughout the concert, and their skills were shown off to a great extent here, adding infinitely more excitement to the work as a whole. It was a fantastic choice of piece to end the first half, and Laura Scott should be proud of what she achieved with the Band.
Following a short interval, the concert restarted, finally entering the Winter Wonderland. They opened with Sleigh Ride, a classic Christmas song by Leroy Anderson. Laura Scott stepped up to the conductor’s platform for this piece, so Evan Penn took his place among the percussion on the wooden block. The articulation was very clear and precise, feeling very light and spring-like. The melody just seemed to leap along. The stop time was very effective when mixed with Penn’s well timed wooden block. The players really looked like they enjoyed the song, which the audience reciprocated.
The next piece, also conducted by Scott, was Christmas Bells by Phillip Watson, bringing together the two melodies of Jingle Bells and Ding Dong Merrily on High. The playing was very controlled, especially on the difficult syncopated rhythms. The lower brass shone, in particular the tuba player Edward Renshaw. The transitions between sections were seamless and effortless. The clarinet section was sometimes a little harsh and excitable, but this took nothing away from the overall mood of the piece.
The Snowman by Howard Blake holds a place in everyone’s childhood memories. Just recalling the scene of the boy and the Snowman flying over the ocean brings back feelings of happiness. I was praying that Penn, who had returned to the podium, and the Concert Band would really do it justice, as it is so well known. Just like the rest of the concert so far, they pulled it off professionally. The tone of the flutes and the oboes in the Walking in the Air theme was gorgeous, and, at times, entrancing. The band was playing with passion and the percussion were incredible. The theme was even more special on its return late in the suite, when piccolo player Esther Havell and oboist Ryan Kerr combined to produce an unbelievable, magical sound. The high notes on the piccolo were especially breath-taking! The difficult scalic runs across the band were controlled and in time in the motorbike motif, organised perfectly by Penn. There were a couple of mistakes in the Dance of the Snowmen, and the flutes were occasionally overpowering, but they can be overlooked due to the sheer brilliance of the performance, recalling joyous memories from my childhood.
The final work of the evening was Leroy Anderson’s Christmas Festival. It is a piece made up of eight famous carols, interwoven into one wonderful composition. Many people in the audience considered this to be the highlight of the evening. It demonstrated the best dynamic of the concert so far. The percussion was, once again, spectacular. All four of the players – Oliver Newton, Alison Lam, Kweku Bimpong and Samantha Wong – were fantastic all night and deserve special praise for their efforts and organisation. The bass section rushed a little at points and there were a couple of tuning issues in octaves, but the overall polished product made these issues redundant – the excellent articulation and tone of the band made this a worthy ending to a marvellous concert.
Evan Penn, Laura Scott, Emma Morris (President) and the whole exec succeeded in taking the audience to a winter wonderland this evening. Not only that, they also provided me with one of the most fun evenings of my life. I would fully recommend future Concert Band performances to any avid music fan across Durham and further afield!