The beautiful and historic Durham Town Hall was the perfect venue for an evening of traditional band music and carols when Durham University Brass Band and Concert Band joined together for their festive celebration “12 Days Till Christmas”. Brass Band was led by their principal conductor Jonathan Fenwick, and Concert Band by their associate conductor, Chloe Langham. It was great to see Langham coming into her own as a conductor, but we join with the ensembles in sending well wishes to Hugo Jennings and wish him a speedy recovery.
Brass Band opened the evening with an arrangement of ‘Jingle Bells’ by Derek Ashmore. The ensembles warm sound was an excellent start to the evening, though the tempo could have been pushed a little to really liven the atmosphere in the hall. The dynamics of the whole band were excellent, but special mention must be given to the trombone section for their impeccable intonation. Moving away from festivities now, the band performed ‘Punchinello’, a traditional brass band march often heard at the Durham Miners Gala and Whit Friday Marches. The group were clearly comfortable here and this particular march allowed all sections to show off, though it did lack some of the ‘punch’ a march of this calibre deserves.
From the lively march we moved to what some might argue British brass bands do best: hymn tunes. Due to the community nature and culture of brass bands, it was particularly moving to hear ‘Manchester’ arranged by Andi Cook as a tribute to all those who lost their lives in the city earlier this year. The lower band deserves a mention here for their effortless grace in driving the hymn onward sensitively and respectfully. It was time now to showcase the bands soloist, Sean Moran, who performed the mesmerising ‘Alone with my Thoughts’, entirely from memory. Moran has excellent communication with the band who responded to his rubato sensitively, it was just a shame that poor tuning in the horns often left Moran perilously exposed.
Brass Band’s final two pieces shifted the mood of the hall once again. Firstly with Philip Sparke’s timeless arrangement of ‘Birdland’, this showed great energy and had the audience tapping their toes along! Finally the band began to smile! Perhaps more drive from the percussion would have helped but special mention must be given to the euphoniums that shone throughout. To finish their half brass band presented a more unusual arrangement of ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ by Matt Kingston which presented the traditional tune in a way you have never heard before! It could have been more polished and the soprano cornet player could have had more confidence, but the audience clearly enjoyed this fun arrangement.
After a brief interval to add plenty more chairs, the Concert Band took to the stage with an excellent amount of tinsel on display! They opened with a powerful rendition of the Concert Band (and Brass Band!) classic, ‘A Christmas Festival’ by Leroy Anderson. This Christmas favourite set the tone of their programme perfectly and it was clear that both band and audience were invested from the start. There were some moments of intonation issues and over-blowing in the upper brass, but this is often to be expected in such an exciting piece, and special mention must go to the saxophone section for their fantastic intonation and rhythmic drive. The often difficult transitions between tunes were executed effortlessly.
Next we had ‘Symphonic Highlights from Frozen’ which took a while to settle in but eventually sounded comfortable and familiar with the audience smiling throughout. Here the horn section really had the opportunity to stand out with their powerful sound – a fantastic achievement for such a small section! Here some of the transitions were clumsy which could have been avoided with more watching of the conductor. The solo clarinet (who it would have been good to be able to name!) stood out for his rhythmic clarity, gentle tone, and overall flair of his performance.
Concert Band’s penultimate piece was ‘The Snowman’ which they moved into rather too quickly after Frozen; it would have been good to have a little more time to settle and savour each piece. Throughout The Snowman the accompaniment could have been a little gentler but the flute melodies were beautiful and truly heart-warming on a cold evening. There were the occasional moments of temperamental tuning in the brass, but the piccolo soared over the top and captivated the audience. To finish their half Concert Band did what they do best, a glorious medley of show tunes from ‘The Sound of Music’. Here the trumpets were able to shine with their swagger and elegance, as well as a strong bass and percussion section. Here Concert Band was at their most confident.
The evening closed with two audience carols where both ensembles joined together, followed by complimentary mulled wine and mince pies. This was the perfect start to the festive season for many, and a great end to a spectacular term for both bands. We look forward to hearing Concert Band in Durham next term, and wish Brass Band the best of luck at the national UniBrass Competition in York!