On Friday 10th March crowds descended on the Gala Theatre, Durham, for one of the biggest musical events of a generation: Swing, Strings, and Sir Tom. Fresh from their record number of successful performances in Michaelmas Term, Durham University Orchestral Society joined the award winning Durham University Big Band, and internationally acclaimed Sir Thomas Allen for an evening of jazz arrangements.
Months of organisation, rehearsals, diary coordinating, and planning had gone into the evening and the result did not disappoint. The concert set up was fantastic, with strings to the left of the big band allowing for each part of the ensemble to be heard clearly, yet blend beautifully. The positioning of the harp meant the audience could both see and hear the exciting glissandos, generating an air of magic to the evening. Throughout the entire evening the rhythm section came into their own, adding a new level of life to the sound perfectly matched by Sir Tom’s dynamic hosting and magnetic charisma! The evening could not have been so successful without the watchful eyes (and ears) of DUOS conductor John Reddel and Big Band Musical Director Matthew Jacobs; their work (along with that of the society executive committees) allowed for a smooth running concert complete with varied repertoire and stunning soloists.
The concert opened with Stella by Starlight Suite, a gentle opening to a sophisticated evening of music making. Sir Thomas Allen then joined the performers on stage for a toe tapping rendition of I won’t dance which had the audience swaying together and wanting to get out of their seats and join in. Sir Tom also joined the players for a number of pieces throughout the evening including A Foggy Day, Our Love is here to Stay, One for my Baby, Embraceable You, and the rousing finale of the evening, I’ve got you under my skin.
Sir Tom is known for his ability to make any role ‘his own’ within opera and it is clear this talent extends to jazz singing too as his brilliant stage presence and impressive range allowed him to fit in perfectly with a genre outside of his comfort zone. He said himself that he was particularly looking forward to giving a ‘dress down’ performance, without the costume and staging of opera, of the music he grew up listening to, and in a place so dear to his heart. This passion was clearly transferred to the audience who were transfixed from his first note to his last.
It was not just ‘the professionals’ who were on show however. A number of student musicians made excellent contributions to the evening, most notably the tenor saxophone solos of Matthew McKernan who exhibited extraordinary breath control and stamina, as well as true quality of expression. Zach Fox’s saxophone solo lines were effortless and graceful, particularly in East of the Sun and Laura. A further talent to shine was that of Matt Jacobs. Perhaps often forgotten in the rhythm section, his piano version of Yesterday took the audience on a journey to a style they had perhaps not experienced before but will be sure to listen to again. It is not often that Big Band and Strings are able to collaborate in Durham due to logistical challenges, but DUOS certainly rose to the occasion tonight. The delicate and empathetic playing of the strings really complimented the band and winds, particularly in the Sauter movements (where strings accompanied solo saxophone) and so we hope to see more collaborations of this kind in the future.
If one had to offer points of improvements for what was a phenomenal evening of music making, it could be suggested that rehearsals should ensure some of the more unusual instruments (namely the French horn and the oboe) were always audible, and it could have been nice to hear some of the other fantastic singers that Durham has to offer.
That being said, this collaboration was a wonderful high point for music in Durham, showcasing some of the best student performers and cementing a brilliant relationship with Sir Thomas Allen who has done so much to move music at the university (and in the local area) forwards. This was a performance that everyone involved can be immensely proud of, and we hope to see more events of this nature in the future.