Band-gor- Unibrass 2020
I’ve never regretted leaving uni. It was jut one of those things that wasn’t for me. However…I so wish I’d had the opportunity to take part in UniBrass. This year was my first experience of the contest and it will definitely be included in my calendar for the foreseeable future. I was incredibly impressed and I take my hat off to Phoebe Swallow (Unibrass Chairperson 2020), the Unibrass Organising Committee and the Unibrass Foundation Trustees, as well as Brass Bands England and Bangor University and anyone who I might have missed who played a part in organising this fantastic competition. UniBrass is celebrating 10 years this year and long may it continue!
So, on Friday night myself and the Other Half made our way to the land of sheep, dragons and male voice choirs. It was my first time in Bangor and I have to say, I would rather like to go back- it’s rather nice! As this was my first time at the contest, you would be forgiven for thinking I didn’t know what to expect, but I’d heard enough stories to be incredibly excited for the weekend ahead. My expectations were high.
What I wasn’t so enthusiastic about was getting up before 10 am on a Saturday. God help me when I have to be up at 6am for the Area next week! I was a human version of Storm Ciara, face like thunder, stomping around the hotel room, blustering expletives and wailing about how early it was. I don’t do mornings. Thankfully the other half is smart enough to hand me a brew and retreat to a safe distance until I’ve fully woken up and the storm clouds of grumpiness have passed.
I eventually cheered up, we hopped in a taxi and began our short journey to Bangor University. Excitement started to build. That was until we got to a roundabout less than 5 minutes away from our hotel and a rather loud popping sound emitted from the car. The clutch had gone- beltin’! Fortunately we were rescued by another taxi driver, who wasn’t too far from us. The weekend literally started with a bang(or)…sorry.
I have to say, I’ve been to worse contest venues! Both the hall and the theatre at Bangor University were gorgeous and the University itself isn’t too shabby! I felt like I was at Hogwarts. I half expected Moaning Myrtle to appear in the lavatories in the Pritchard-Jones Hall!
Although I was there to watch as many bands as I could, there was one band in particular that I was rooting for- Lancaster University, who were playing in the Shield Section. Despite my brief time at the RNCM, I now find that I suddenly have far more of an affiliation with Lancaster. My brother is a current student there, although he went down the sports root, being a keen footballer, rather than choosing a proper hobby- silly boy! Two friends, who I’ve known for years are alumni of this university, as is the other half who is also an alumni of the band. Finally the Soprano Cornet player for Lancaster University, Julian Shield, happens to play fourth man down for Freckleton. If you’re reading this, did you really think you were going to get away without being mentioned? Julian was the featured soloist in Lancaster’s programme and I was very much looking forward to his performance….we shall come back to this shortly.
Whilst Julian is sweating about what I’m going to mention about his performance, let’s look at Durham University’s programme. I would like to congratulate the conductor, Isaac Conroy, and whoever else played a part in the creation of their programme, I thought it was inspired and very musically creative. For me the highlight was transitioning from the cornet feature, First Light by Ben Hollings straight into Peter Graham’s Shine as the Light. It was like they were just two separate movements of the same piece. It worked absolutely beautifully and I was utterly blown away by that idea. It goes to show that choosing an entertaining programme doesn’t have to rely on gimmicks or novelty items. Clever programme choices are far more effective in my opinion, especially when they work as well as Durham’s programme.
Now it was Lancaster’s turn with their Broadway themed programme. After we had ‘breezed down broadway’ with their showy rendition of this popular brass band medley, it was time for their Soprano Cornet feature- Memory from Cats arranged by Alan Catherall. It’s always nerve-wracking watching your friend play a solo, we looked more nervous than he did! I will never admit it to his face (can’t be having our fourth man down getting too big for his boots, can we?!) but he absolutely SMASHED it and that last crescendo into the conclusion of the piece (again, I will not admit this to his face) had me in tears. It takes a lot to melt my cold, dark soul, but Julian (who will now, I have decided, henceforth be known as Grizabella) did extremely well.
We made our way into the Pontio Arts Centre Building to listen to some of the bands from the Trophy Section. There was certainly a lot to commend in all of the performances I heard but there were a few particular highlights.
I really enjoyed Salford University’s programme and I am so glad they took the title. To win such a difficult section (beating two music conservatoires) on their first outing at UniBrass is no easy feat and I hope the band is incredibly proud of their efforts. The standout moment for me was Kyle Lawson’s performance of The Paragon which, despite being a very technical piece, had so much musicality and just seemed effortless (I definitely wasn’t jealous…not in the slightest…absolutely not…I’m totally fine). It certainly was a kick up the backside to dig my Arban back out.
Balkan Dances by Ettienne Crausaz, which was part of Nottingham University’s programme is a piece I’d never heard before and I am OBSESSED. The highlight in this piece is when the soloists step to the front of the band and offer up these slightly funky, rhythmic solos, especially the flugelhorn solo played by George Newbould- take a bow mate, that was boss.
Nightingale Dances by Matthew Hall is one of my favourite pieces of all time, particularly because of the flugel solo. I can sense a theme here. It’s a good thing I’m not an adjudicator. Clearly it only takes a piece to have a flugel solo and the word ‘dances’ in the title for me to be a fan. Either that or I’m having withdrawal symptoms from giving my flugel some time off to focus on cornet. This solo is only a small section, but it’s so suave. The RNCM band gave a fantastic performance of this piece, full of energy and the flugel solo was played by this year’s British Open Solo winner, Bethan Plant, so as you can imagine, it was pretty awesome.
I do love a night out, I also love banding so the UniBrass social was just a fantasy made real for this band geek! Imagine at least 100 banders in a room, bopping along to a bavarian-style Oompah Band playing The Dambusters…I’m not kidding. I was half expecting Death or Glory or The Floral Dance to be played at some point. It was all very surreal, but in the best way- I was in my element. I will admit, at one point (after a few pints had been consumed) I suddenly found myself on the steps of the stage, head-banging, to the point I nearly gave myself whiplash and almost fell of the steps simultaneously, to Bohemian Rhapsody….in front of the entire crowd at the social. The contest itself impressed me enough to want to come back, but this moment set it in stone. UniBrass, I’ll see you next year.
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