Review: Unibrass 2013

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Last weekend boasted the return of the UniBrass competition in which 14 Universities fought to see who really does deserve to blow their own trumpet. Lancaster hosted the third annual contest in the Great Hall and this year ranked in seventh place according to prestigious adjudicators David Childs and David Horsfield. UniBrass was hosted by student Max Stannard, broadcast by LA1:TV and streamed with a live Twitter feed between pieces in County Bar.

After a Lancaster quintet performed the national anthem, Oxford opened the contest with a lively set consisting of music from James Bond, Chicken Run and Hootenanny. But it was their concluding song choice “Gangnam Style” and the conductor’s corresponding dance moves which turned the most heads to see the judges’ reaction. Oxford perhaps showed overconfidence in their set list, with the conductor claiming “we could have done no better” before walking off the wrong way and the University ended up in twelfth place.

Keele were second to play. With the inclusion of a guitar, the band created a very full sound with their contemporary interpretation of Beethoven and original piece “5th Avenue”. Southampton won the unofficial “early start” contest, but still had enough energy for a lively set in which the conductor “dragged” players from side to side with his baton. Newcomers to the competition the University of Manchester performed a set of three well-rehearsed pieces. They came second and won the prize for best march.

After a short break, Lancaster saw their historic rivals stroll into the hall whilst playing “Just a Closer Walk”. York’s final piece, taken from “the Last of the Mohicans”, was accompanied by a stop-motion video of Lego Indians in battle which was created by their 2nd cornet player using only photographs. Despite Leo Conroy only having conducted the band since January, York’s set was extremely polished and granted them third place.

Warwick do not have a music department and yet nearly 50 players turned out for their first attempt at a UniBrass victory which included a cornet solo “Children of Sanchez” in which several Mexican hats were thrown into the audience. Let’s hope they enjoyed themselves because they will host the contest when it moves from Lancaster next year. This reporter cannot remember much about Durham who were next, which probably says a lot as they came last.

After a lunch break, Huddersfield took to the stage in pink polo shirts (or “salmon” as was debated on Twitter). A xylophone duet won the “best solo/feature” award and due to its hilarious slapstick nature probably helped them win the “most entertaining performance” award too. The entire set was outstanding and deservedly, Huddersfield were named winners of the competition.

Then it was time to cheer the home team. Conducted by Christopher Osborn, Lancaster opened their programme with an arrangement of Queen’s “I Want it All” which involved a Mexican wave around the band whilst playing. Another highlight was the “Stardust” trombone solo by James Campion. Lancaster seemed happy with how they had performed, which made seventh place somewhat disappointing compared to last year’s third place.

The music department at Birmingham is over 100 years old, and yet apparently they still do not know the “rules” of brass bands. There was a large uproar from their competitors in the County Bar when it became apparent that Birmingham had brought a French horn player. A Twitter debate ensued with some people expressing outrage at the presence of the instrument, while others noted that most of the bands had at least one trumpet which is also not a traditional brass band instrument. However, it was stated in the rules that trumpets were allowed in UniBrass.

Despite introducing themselves in Welsh and breaking the percussion equipment before they started, Bangor’s performance was well received. Opening with the upbeat swing tune “Sing Sing Sing”, their set was dedicated to Dr. David Evans, a music teacher from the University. “Without him, our band wouldn’t exist” said Meurig Jenkins, the conductor.

A second Welsh band followed Bangor but had something even more patriotic to offer than introducing themselves in their mother tongue: Cardiff’s entire performance was based on the theme of Welsh postcards. How apparent this would have been had they not pointed it out is debatable at best, but it didn’t matter – for the most part their challenging set sounded effortless. The judges seemed to think so too, granting them a respectable fourth place and their conductor Martin Humphries the “best student conductor” award.

Hull, the newest of the bands, performed “The Smile” which contains a unique and intriguing passage in Morse code. However some of the cornet players split several important notes throughout the set (including the first note of one of their pieces), which could have been what stopped them ranking a high position.

Oxbridge provided the book ends for UniBrass, with Cambridge closing the contest. Perhaps the random allocation of slots wasn’t for the best in this instance, as Cambridge’s performance was not the grand finale one might have expected. Maybe they knew it, as when compere Max asked a member before the performance “are we going to go on a journey?” the response was “I don’t think so.” Their attempts at being entertaining only stretched to a cuddly “owl” mascot, which did not save them from coming second to last.

After a short break, the results were announced. “Gracious” is not the word to describe Huddersfield’s victory, but their chants could be put down to the fact they were in the bar since 2:30 enjoying the custom made “Bit O’Brass” beer. This continued that night when all the bands got together for a large social featuring music from Betrunken Würst Bavarian Band and Lancaster’s very own Trombone Players’ Gentlemen’s Club.

The following day, Lancaster and any of the bands who stayed in the lecture theatres overnight took part in free workshops throughout the day from four industry professionals.

Simon James

Any excuse to write about Oasis really.

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