Review: Varsity Big Band Battle

COTTIA THOROWGOOD: ‘How exciting to have a Varsity match relying on seducing the audience rather than just securing goals’

Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra Clare Cellars CUJO OUJO Oxford University Jazz Orchestra Phoebe Haines The ADC The Simpsons Varsity

Friday 14th May, 11.00pm at ADC Theatre. 

Oxford University Jazz Orchestra 

Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra

It was enough to see the hordes queuing up to just get inside the ADC last night to feel the anticipation of a good night of entertainment. I remember discovering Clare Cellars and the students packed into every brick corner to hear CUJO play with such bravado before, and was very eager to see them again. This time though, I was intrigued to see how the ADC would serve to host Varsity’s Big Band Battle. Perhaps my hope of some scene like that from The Talented Mr Ripley in Naples, with the sweating bodies, blue smoke and blasting trumpet was a little extreme, but I was rather hoping for at least some sort of onstage ‘trumpet-off’.

Oxford kicked off, and were superb. That very first lunge into the music ex nihilo which seems never quite explicable from the vague-seeming wave of the lead’s arm never ceases to amaze and please me. There was something almost Simpsons-like about the bobbing up and down soloists, despite the lack of purple instruments, but the beauty of it all lay in the ease with which it is all executed. With the band all facing straightforward, the experience as spectator is almost as if a group of students rather spontaneously just picked up instruments and began to jam. But very harmoniously. And with some innate tempo regulation. It was wonderful to see Oxford’s band being lead by a woman, expertly bringing the band in whilst simultaneously twisting back round to stat various solos on different instruments. They really were very good.

But yes, Cambridge. Despite being from Oxford, it seems that as well as punting at the better end, the added consonant in CUJO brought with it that edge that like a lime in a Coke adds a zing, you can’t help but react to. There just was more spirit, more ‘va-va-voom’. Not only were there just more instruments, with extra percussion adding an extra dynamism and dimension to the band’s overall structure, but more solos and of course having a strong vocalist, Phoebe Haines, is a supreme asset. Most of the pieces were performed without any vocals however, serving to create a strong intimacy between band and audience. That is another great thing about actually watching the orchestra, so often hidden beneath stages; the facial expressions. The better the musician, the more contorted the expression and shoulder-shaking there is. Were I deaf I might not even have known what I was missing out on. But it would have been a great deal. 

It has to be said that the ADC was not the optimum venue for what could be an even more dynamic and daring performance. A big hall with less of an audience-performer divide and more interaction between the bands would be so much more a battle, with alternation between the Universities rather than the otherwise less professional switch-over on an already crammed stage. However, this could not detract from what was a vibrant and dare one say ‘feel-good’? evening of spirit from both performers and audience.

The music on both sides was a wonderful balance between resplendent vitality and quality, whilst being so accessible to the least trained ear. And how exciting to have a Varsity match relying on seducing the audience rather than just securing goals. We were well wooed.