St Oswald’s Church was the perfect venue for this short and informal concert, which showcased the Durham University Brass Band’s work over the past two terms. This concert was also an opportunity for the ensemble to say thank you to their 2016-17 outgoing executive committee, and their outgoing conductor, Abigail Groocock.
The concert began with Matthew Ruddock’s arrangement of ‘Pack up your troubles’ and ‘Deep Harmony’, a chorale prelude by Dennis Wright. These very different pieces demonstrated the ensemble’s strengths as they have adapted to their incoming conductor, Jonathan Fenwick, and also showed off the very pleasing acoustic of St Oswald’s. Particularly in the Chorale piece, the main theme was well phrased, and the swelling, changing harmony in the lower brass was kept just under the tranquil surface. Ending this section was a piece called ‘Breezing down Broadway’ arranged by Goff Richards, featuring a lot of well-known and entertaining show tunes. The main point of interest in this piece, however, was the way it showed off some extended techniques in the various instrumental sections, which created character in each of the varying themes, making them distinct from one another. The changes in metre were very smooth and Mr Fenwick guided the ensemble through the transitions into various dance styles very ably. The final staccato ‘stab’ chords at the end of the piece were accurate across the ensemble, and produced a very powerful effect as they reverberated down the nave of the church. Overall, this was very well executed and showed off a great range of abilities.
Following this, Abigail Groocock, the ensemble’s outgoing director, took up the baton as the band showed off their winning set from the ‘Unibrass’ competition in York earlier this year. The set featured narration between pieces, and followed the journey from a child going to sleep through to morning. The set began with ‘Punchinellie’, a mash-up of several themes, predominantly the tune of ‘Nellie the Elephant’. There were some brilliant and characterful moments, particularly in the trombones, which served as the trumpeting of the elephant’s trunk, and which the audience found quite amusing. The tutti chords at the end of this movement were very powerful, as were the striking pedal notes in the trumpet at the top of the texture. Following this piece was Eric Whittacre’s ‘Sleep’, a choral piece arranged for brass band. The lower brass was warm and full-sounding, and despite some tentative entries in the trumpet melody, this opening was delicate and the dissonant harmonies and unresolved suspensions throughout the piece were very atmospheric. A large crescendo towards the end of this piece filled the space perfectly, and the ominous drumroll at the back of the ensemble created a great feeling of space. The closing chords, although they could have been quieter, were very idyllic under the held pedal note in the horns.
The rest of the set featured an arrangement of the jazz standard ‘Fly me to the Moon’, which had some great transitions between different dance forms, and a soaring main trumpet melody. This piece was chosen to represent being in a dream state. Following this, the fourth piece – ‘Nightmare’ from Cry of the Celts – this piece really showed off the expressive quality of this ensemble. The ominous opening chords and percussion continue relentlessly throughout, and gestural, siren-like slides in the trombones combine with other sound effects (such as fluttering, microtonal trills and dissonances in the trumpet line) to make an interesting soundscape. The final movement is called ‘Morning’, and was composed by a former member of the band. The piece was very pastoral in nature, combining a well-known hymn tune theme interspersed with more complex percussion ostinatos and ensemble textures. A faster section features a repetitive percussive ‘bell’ and energetic staccatos to paint an effective picture of a morning scene.
To end the concert, incoming conductor, Johnathan Fenwick, took up the baton again, as the ensemble played Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’. A massive swell into the closing section and other variations in dynamics throughout the piece keep the piece interesting, and despite some cracking in the upper range of the trumpet melody, the overall impression was confident and engaging. Personally, I found the tempo to be a little too brisk and rather prefer a more indulgent rendition of Nimrod, but it certainly wasn’t stodgy which can be a danger. To end the evening – and featuring some audience participation – was the infamous ‘Floral Dance’, first performed by the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. The piece was entertaining, and a perfect way to close the evening. The piece has a single subject, and this strain is simply repeated in different guises, but despite this, the band managed to give the impression of continuous growth to the piece.
Ending informally with drinks and nibbles, this concert was an enjoyable and relaxed way to see the band’s exploits this term, to celebrate their achievements this academic year, and to look forward to the future of the ensemble as it enters its next year under the wing of a new director and executive committee.