Durham University Concert Band is one of Music Durham’s non-auditioned ensembles so anyone can give it a go! As a first time DUCB concert goer, I was excited to see what the National Concert Band Festival finalists had in store for us.

The band began with a rousing performance of Trailblaze by Goff Richards, their tight ensemble playing enhanced by the excellent percussion section which really kept the band in check. We were then introduced to the ‘magic calendar’ (in the form of a paper flipchart) which was to guide us on our musical journey through time and space! I thought it was a great idea to give the audience some context to each of the pieces and it really showed how well the programme had been thought out. As I was sat near the back of Castle Great Hall, however, it was sometimes a struggle to read the ‘magic calendar’ and I thought the conductors may have benefitted from a microphone to help their voices carry even more but the concept was absolutely brilliant!

Vaughan-Williams’ English Folk Song Suite was a lovely contrast to the opening number. The band caught the light and jolly character of the music very well with a great tempo set by conductor, Thomas Hicken. The first movement featured a beautiful trumpet solo and really strong brass in the 6/8 section. The band just needs to be careful not to rush in the reprise of the opening but overall, DUCB showcased great ensemble playing. The second movement demonstrated the band’s lovely blend with countermelodies in every section of the ensemble highlighting the group’s brilliantly high standard – there really was no weak link! The third movement saw the return of the lively tempo, again with precise direction from Hicken.

The next piece, Summertime, had a lovely jazz swing with great style in the bass woodwind. Although some of the close harmony could have had slightly better intonation, the trumpet solo came across well and followed the phrasing of the traditional vocal line, an important factor when the lyrics of this piece are so well known. Following this, we journeyed to prehistoric times with extracts from Jurassic Park. The beginning of the piece captured the eery atmosphere very successfully and I commend the French horns for their execution of the extremely exposed motif after this – you need a lot of nerve to pull that off so really well done! I thought conductor, Douglas Brown, handled the time changes throughout the piece very well. To make the music even more magical, I’d like to hear more exaggerated dynamics, especially hearing some triumphant crescendos to really blow us away. However, the final section was very strong and again, well directed by Brown.

After the interval, DUCB came back with a tense rendition of Carmina Burana followed by an excerpt of one of their pieces for the National Concert Band Festival Final, High Spirits by Rob Wiffin. Despite still having a few weeks to rehearse this repertoire, the extract already seemed very polished with lovely dynamics and great kit playing which I felt added a sparkling touch. We were then rocketed into outer space by the infamous Mars from Holst’s The Planets Suite. Opening dynamics set the tense mood very appropriately and the interplay between the horn and trumpet contributed to this well. The upper wind could have brought out the chromatic passage slightly more over the ostinato, but the overall effect of the piece was suitably intergalactic!

Coming to the end of the concert, Brown donned a cowboy hat to transport us to the wild west! Go West by Ralph Ford was extremely well executed by the band and captured the theme of adventure successfully. Finally, we were treated to an uplifting medley from The Wizard of Oz with special guest appearances from the Scarecrow, the Lion, the Tin Man and even Toto (Hicken) who took to the conductor’s podium! I had a smile on my face throughout this whole journey to the Emerald City with ‘The Merry Old Land of Oz’ being my personal highlight of the night.

Thank you to DUCB for taking us on this whistle stop tour around our Wonderful World. Congratulations must go to President, Charlotte Clews, and her brilliant exec for all the work they have put into this concert and throughout the rest of the year.  Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the NCBF Nationals 2020 have been cancelled.  While this is hugely disappointing after all the band’s hard work, thank you for demonstrating the power of music to lift our spirits no matter the circumstances.

Kirsty Dempster