As only the second concert in the Music Durham calendar this year, there was a lot of excitement and anticipation in the build up towards this collaboration masterpiece. Including 3 different bands (the University Brass Band, Concert Band and the Band of the Royal Armoured Corps), it was sure to be a mammoth affair. The bands had come together throughout the day for workshops and masterclasses, as well as talks about life as an army musician, and all groups seemed very comfortable throughout the evening.

The Durham University Concert Band opened the evening with a toe-tapper conducted extremely well by Evan Penn, and Samuel R. Hazo’s Ride was executed well with a very real sense of dialogue between the brass and the percussion. This was helped by the placing of the brass in the left transept of the church, which made their chordal interjections all the more exciting. A very sensitive interpretation of Cloudburst by Eric Whittacre followed, where the audience performers were used to great effect in creating the effect of rainfall to complement some very realistic percussive ‘thunder’ looming behind the sustained woodwind. This section was closed with Pallido by Karl Jenkins and John Wasson’s arrangement of the Pirates of the Carribbean film score conducted by the groups associate conductor, Laura Scott. Some timing issues took away from the transitions between themes, and the ensemble would have benefited from a compact layout. Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience – what an excellent arrangement for the band!

Next, the Brass Band, conducted by Abi Groocock, opened with Westward Ho! by Edwin Firth, in which some very interesting dialogue within sections was, unfortunately, constrained by problems of metre and some parts ‘running away’ with some beautiful material. The second addition was Dave Collins’ arrangement of the popular song Poker Face, in which the melody at times struggled to break through a dense chordal texture. However, this lack of articulation did not last long, and a surprise spoken interjection from the whole ensemble and director was a good indicator that the audience were permitted to enjoy themselves. From this point in the set confidence seemed to set in for the band, and great control was shown in Dennis Wright’s Deep Harmony, where the highlight was a broad, powerful ensemble sound in the chordal section. Some classics closed this set: Gordon Mackensie’s 1914, which set the well-known wartime songs ‘Take me back to Blighty’ and ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, and Goff Richards’ arrangement of Breezin’ Down Blighty. There was a real sense of enjoyment from all the performers by the end of the first half, and the audience were visibly enjoying the repertoire, which was a good mix of familiarity and ‘something new’.

In their opening piece, a Gershwin medley, the small size of the Royal Armoured Corps’ ensemble certainly helped it achieve excellent rhythmic accuracy along with very lyrical song melodies. Indeed, the strength of an ensemble this size is the very easy communication achieved between sections, and the blend was very good given some absences from sections. The lone flautist coped surprisingly well with the larger sections, and the ‘hammer blow’ percussive chords towards the end of this piece were unexpectedly powerful. A wonderfully expressive arrangement of the Star Trek soundtrack by Michael Giacchino exhibited strong dynamic control. Finally, the ‘Irish Tune from County Derry’ and ‘Doyen’ were both recognised by the audience as popular folk pieces and, being quiet and slow, demanded a great deal of technical control and concentration.
After this, in spirit of true collaboration, the concert band and brass band joined the Royal Armoured Corps on stage. The Festival Overture and Music for a Festival that closed the concert featured wonderfully blended sections given the varying abilities and experience of the performers. A great deal of co-ordination was needed with such a spread-out ensemble (the brass were split into the two transepts of the church) and the size of the ensemble was overwhelming. This spacing, despite causing some understandable timing problems, proved a very exciting listening experience from the centre of the nave. The final set did not just rely on sheer ensemble size, as some of the best articulated rhythms and most accurate sectional melodies were found here. Evidently, a great deal of rehearsal time was spent on these pieces during the day’s masterclass. Perhaps the easy command from the Corps Band’s director reflects this ensemble’s experience in challenging performance contexts, something that the University ensembles seem to have adapted to well in this case.

Overall, this performance was a very successful training and collaboration activity, but also a very well-prepared concert, which attracted a refreshingly varied audience who clearly enjoyed the programme immensely. It was at once inclusive and of a very high quality, and the music itself was a great meeting-point between recognised classics and lesser-known repertoire. Congratulations should go to ensemble Presidents Emma Morris and Niamh McConville for organising this concert, as well as to the Band of the Royal Armoured Corps for some brilliant collaboration. We now look forward to December to see these ensembles perform in their respective festive concerts.