Lancaster – ‘most improved’ band for UniBrass 2015

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UniBrass to some extent reminds oneself of Christmas. It comes only once a year and can be enjoyed by all the family. But the similarities end here. I was lucky enough to stowaway on board the Lancaster University coach down to Warwick to review their impressive performance, where they finished in an overwhelming fourth position out of 17 universities, and also scooped the ‘Most Improved’ award.

For those of you who aren’t brassed off, allow me to momentarily explain what UniBrass is. Founded by Lancaster University students in 2011 as a simple nationwide competition for universities, it has since been hosted at Warwick University’s Art Centre for the past two years.

The reason I attended was due to my love of brass, and had nothing to do with the fact that I live only 20 minutes away from the venue. It also appeared that I had nothing better to do on Valentine’s Day…

The behemoth of a day started at 9.30am with Sheffield University kicking off festivities and ending at 6.35pm with Cambridge University’s performance. 15 other bands also performed, including former winners Huddersfield and Manchester. Lancaster arrived on stage just after 5pm with the hopes of improving on last year’s underwhelming 12th position.

Opening with the festival march ‘Motivation’ by William Himes, all sections of the band worked in harmony to set the uplifting tone, continuing throughout their 20 minute set. The rhythm was set to a backdrop of light drumming, whilst the trombones and tubas took centre stage. This drum ‘n’ brass continued in Lancaster’s second rendition; ‘Colours of the Wind’ from Disney’s Pocahontas. The band were joined on stage by Rosa Hinksman, who provided beautiful vocals to this already impressive performance.

Nevertheless our very own Simon James appeared to disagree. He’d had enough, and ran off stage to fetch a gun. But this was merely for some superficial entertainment during the band’s penultimate piece; ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ by Ennio Morricone. After a minor attempt at sweetening up the judges by conductor Chris Osborn, the band started this iconic musical piece. Whether it was the on (and off) stage theatrics of Simon and Alex Hardgrave’s mock gunfight in the aisles and around the performers AND playing their respective instruments, or just general appreciation of this spaghetti western classic, the crowd were certainly entertained.

This piece was not without its hitches however, with Simon dropping his cornet’s mouthpiece when running for his life from his adversary. Some smart improv (the routine had to be re-choreographed on the move and Simon even stole poor Hannah’s cornet) meant this was overlooked if even noticed at all, and the recital drew laughter and rapturous applause with its conclusion of Simon and Alex drawing their guns for a final showdown, but both shooting the conductor dead instead. I was advised that this is what’s known as ‘Brass Bandter’ in the trade.

After being carried to the side of the stage and draped ceremoniously in an American flag – to more laughter – second cornet player Ashley Wicks took the baton and conducted Lancaster’s finale; North and South, Movement 3: Songs of the Union. His conducting debut started by dropping the baton somewhat irreverently, but game faces were on when the beautiful brass resumed. Upon its triumphant crescendo, the band rose to a deserved ovation from the crowd, with Chris being resurrected to join in the bowing formalities.

Then a nervous 2 hour period awaited the band before results were announced. In front of a completely sober conglomerate of all the 17 bands in the main room, the competition organisers bravely struggled through the excited cheers following every announcement. When the time finally came to announce the awards, the mood in the Lancaster camp was one of hope rather than expectation.

The ‘Most Entertaining Band’ award went to Manchester, but there was not much dispute towards this from Lancaster – their Nelson Mandela themed set was more than enough to compete with ponchos in motion. But the university were not to go empty handed, with organiser Rob Richardson collecting the award for ‘Most Improved Band’, following Lancaster’s meteoric rise from 12th to 4th in the space of a year. Durham collected 3rd place, with Huddersfield closely following behind Manchester into the prestigious 1st place.

With the band high from winning a surprise award and not drunk in the slightest, celebrations continued long into the night with 9 bands all sleeping in the Arts Centre. Lancaster’s performers did not actually realise they had finished 4th for some while after the awards were announced, with only a rumour that it was true floating around the bar. The fact the band were only 3 points off Durham to collecting 3rd place cannot be emphasised enough, and shows the immense progress made in the last 12 months.

Regarding the evening’s celebrations? What happens at brass band stays at brass band.

LA1 TV recorded Lancaster’s performance. Click here to watch.

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