At this time of year, there’s only one sound that matters in Durham, and that’s brass. Bands from around the North East and from other mining communities pour into the city’s narrow streets on the second Saturday of July for the annual Miners’ Gala. Over the last few years the Gala day has also marked the start of a growing brass festival, attracting bands from around the world and offering a mixture of street performances and concerts, such as last night’s recital by quintet Onyx Brass as they bring their "Tour de Brass" to the region.

Onyx Brass: Tour de Brass © Robert Workman
Onyx Brass: Tour de Brass
© Robert Workman

Brass chamber music may sound like an alarming oxymoron, but Onyx Brass’s programme showed off the mellow warmth that brass instruments produce so beautifully. A Canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli that opened the concert showed this off to great effect, with subtle, soft-toned trumpets, and lots of space for the sound to spread around the generous acoustic of the chapel at Auckland Castle.

Gabrieli was one of the first composers to write for brass ensemble, and at the other end of the concert, we heard two of the most recent pieces from the many works commissioned by Onyx Brass over their 21 years, both by composers from the thriving world of British jazz. Kenny Wheeler’s 1 for 5 and Jason Rebello’s Inevitable Outcome (receiving its world première) both mixed jazz idioms with classical brass writing. In Wheeler’s piece, a lyrical trumpet melody sang out over swinging counter-rhythms, with hints of the higher, more forced sound of jazz trumpets in the second half. Rebello’s spikey melodic jumps and staccato runs ended the concert with an explosive flourish.

Between these two chronological extremes of music written for brass came a number of arrangements created for Onyx. The clean lines of Baroque counterpoint transfer particularly well from the keyboard to ensemble arrangements and perhaps because an organ aims to imitate other wind instruments anyway, Bach’s keyboard works sound particularly good when played on brass. The chorale prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland was enriched by the lovely shape given to each note, particularly by the trumpets and horn. Shostakovich wrote his own set of 24 fugues, in response to Bach’s and the Fugue in A-flat played tonight, with its fanfare-like theme and broken chords also lent itself well to brass, although the crisp articulation, right down to the tuba, that made it so effective, can’t have been easy to play. All these also made good use of the contrasting sounds of the standard B-flat trumpet and the brighter timbre of an E-flat trumpet.

Onyx Brass © Robert Workman
Onyx Brass
© Robert Workman

Onyx’s arrangements treated the group’s trumpeters rather like ice-hockey players – letting them take turns in short bursts while the other rested. The group also like to include one piece in their programme without any instruments so that everyone’s lip muscles get a break, thus Tim Jackson’s title Anything But turned out to mean “anything but brass”. We had a fugue on varying vocalisations of the word “me”, a silent tableau, ape noises and finally a setting of Spike Milligan’s “Teeth” accompanied by the jarring sound of clacking teeth. Jackson’s other work on the programme, Shakespeare Suite, drew expertly on the harmonic world of the renaissance, setting four melodies written for the original Globe production of Romeo and Juliet. Andrew Sutton opened the third song, “Griping Grief” with a delicate horn solo, and the final song, “Old hare whore”, with its stealthy accelerando and crescendo, was lots of fun.

Amos Miller introduced Couperin’s Les Baricades Mistérieuses with infectious enthusiasm and the warmth of Onyx’s performance, must have won the piece some more fans this evening. The soft sounds of the brass instruments brought warmth to the Couperin’s startlingly inventive harmonic twists. As in the Gabrieli earlier, a good tempo and strong sense of rhythm counterbalanced the mournful sound that comes from soft brass, so that the music never became funereal.

The arrangements of keyboard music teased out into clear individual lines worked well for Bach, Couperin, and Shostakovich, but I was not so convinced by the Intermezzo and Ballade from Brahms’s op 117 as both pieces seemed to lose their essence in the transformation. Two dances from Copland’s ballet Rodeo went in the other direction, reducing orchestral music to five parts and thanks to Copland’s own economic scoring, this worked brilliantly. Corral Nocturne conjured up the spaciousness of the American plains, with a homely lilt and a pure, simple legato. Hoe-Down was a show-stopper that really should have ended the concert, not the first half; crashing vibrant chords, that must surely have had more than five notes in them, alternated with a dizzying swirl of trumpets successfully imitating fiddles, accompanied by thigh-slapping, foot-stamping and whoops. They made it sound like a party I really wanted to go to.