Following Durham University Classical Ensemble’s musical feast of a winter concert back in December 2016, their Springtime musical exploration of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was eagerly anticipated. Ryan Bunce artfully leads the orchestra – and the audience – through a magical evening of Baroque and Classical music, in only his second outing with DUCE.

The opening flurry from Prelude from the First Music of Act I of Purcell’s Suite from the Fairy Queen started the concert, setting the scene for the rest of the evening. After a slightly unsettled start the orchestra drew into good ensemble playing and produced some fine melodic lines, capturing the style brilliantly. Although the harpsichord was sometimes briefly lost within the texture at times, this did not detract from an excellent opening performance. The ensemble really settled into its own in the lively and playful Hornpipe that followed, making an excellent start and taking full advantage of the acoustic of the hall.

The Rondeau from Second Music was superbly executed, artfully lilting into the Act II Tune, which displayed good style, and a good double bass line shining through with clarity. Act III’s Dance for the Fairies concluded this collection of light and airy tunes with not a little grace and poise. The Prelude from Act V provided a little more of a challenge than the previous Dance, marking something of a change of mood. The pizzicato sections were handled well, with good balance and style. The Chaconne concluded Purcell’s contribution to the evening’s concert, with confident sounds from the ensemble, good control, and a well-balanced sound.

After the first foray into Midsummer Night’s Dream, the audience were introduced to Telemann’s Suite in A Minor for Flute and Strings, capably led by solo flute Claudio Llinares –a full-time post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Computational Cosmology in Durham University.

This opened with a stately Overture, demonstrating by turns the excellent ensemble playing of the orchestra and the soaring melodic lines of the solo flute as he elaborated on the fugato introduced by the strings. The balance throughout was extremely good, drawing to a delightful close – although perhaps there could be space for more of a reflective finish with a slightly longer, lingering silence, before launching into the first of the dances.

Les Plaisirs introduced the first duet of the evening, with Claudio being joined by James Ayre on cello. Both showed excellent skill and worked together superbly throughout this fast-paced movement, giving the audience a taste of great things to come later in the Suite. This lead into an excellent, stately rendition of the Air à l’Italien, in which space was allowed for the solo flute to explore variations on the initial theme. The flute-cello partnership was rekindled in the second half of this movement, and both performers coped extremely well during some technically difficult passages which lead to some delicate flute and ensemble work to close.

The Air gave way to a pair of Menuets played with grace and poise by both the orchestra and latterly the solo flute in the second, who beautifully emulates the style initially laid down. A lively Réjouissance followed – opened powerfully by the strings – which after a few unsettled moments established a confident interplay with the solo flute behind its opening clarion call. The animated middle section of this movement gave way to a controlled close, leading into a strong opening to the first of the two Passepieds which followed, where again the flute and cello duet featured prominently.

The Suite was rounded off with a stately Polonaise, with the strings introducing a luxuriant melody which was picked up and elaborated upon by the solo flute. Claudio truly excelled in this final movement, with his graceful and flowing melodic exposition contrasting the halting, detached accompaniment to build tension, before relaxing into the smooth ensemble interjection to close this fantastic work.

I feel this Suite was a true tour-de-force, and offer my congratulations to Claudio for his delightful and well-executed interpretation. I must also congratulate James for his contributions on cello, and indeed to the whole ensemble for an uplifting performance of Telemann’s work.

The evening’s theme was revisited once more in the final work preceding the interval – Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. More chairs were drawn up to accommodate the sizeable wind section which now joined the orchestra onstage to close the first half. The Incidental Music opened with a strong start into the Scherzo, introducing evocative running woodwind lines recalling the story on which the famous play is based. While at times more could have been made of the texture as the musical focus moved throughout the orchestra, the ensemble was otherwise crisp and controlled, with great attention to detail. The darker colours of the following Intermezzo immediately created a more contemplative, brooding mood which was sustained with excellent musical shaping right through to the uplift into the major key, led by the bassoon and supported by the strings.

The Nocturne followed with a brave opening from the French Horn, settling well into good support from the wider ensemble, which helped to build and maintain the underlying energy and mood as the movement progressed. Once again the orchestra’s control was on display throughout, and the flutes and violins cut through the texture nicely to resolve towards the end. More could have been made of the dissonant chordal features to aid contrast in parts, however this minor detail did not detract from what was an exemplary performance. Bravo!

The first half was rounded off by the Wedding March, which after a somewhat tentative bridal fanfare from the trumpets, got off to a rousing start. It seemed this well-known tune was a bit of a favourite of DUCE! The expanded dynamic range achieved here projected an air of confidence, and also allowed the ensemble to produce more nuanced textures and achieve greater stylistic expression. A spirited end to the first half!

The entirety of the shorter second half was devoted to Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, and quickly settled into a strong opening of the first movement, Allegro di molto. The intensity was established from the outset, interspersed with delicate interjections from the flutes and latterly upper strings, and sustained throughout. The tender woodwind features offered the audience a brief respite from the intensity of the preceding sections before launching back into the vigorous string passages to the close.

The Andante movement opened comfortably – and perhaps could have been quieter and more brooding– leading into a wonderful woodwind feature led jointly by the oboe and flute. The mood is captured beautifully, with tender entries from strings and harmonious progression leading to a disciplined, elegant close.

The Menuetto is composed of three variations to a main theme which was introduced in a confident full-sounding opening, with a strong bottom end forming the bedrock on top of which the rest of the ensemble sat. The contrasting middle variation, with its slow theme in the clarinets and bassoons accompanied by arpeggios in the strings, proved something of a challenge until the cello entry provided a focus for the ensemble to gravitate towards. The ensemble found renewed confidence in the final variation, sweeping away any difficulties in the preceding section.

The Allegro con fuoco closed the night, beginning with a well-rehearsed, agile and strong opening. The entire movement was played with an energy and drive which was maintained even throughout the quieter passages to preserve the mood and anticipation that was built up during the course of the music. Good blending with the woodwind also aided in this endeavour, and the pizzicato sections from the strings were exquisite. It was clear that the orchestra enjoyed playing this as they drew to a robust and energetic close.

The long, loud and extended applause from the audience at the end of the evening served as a true testament to the hard work put in by the members of the orchestra, and of course by their conductor Ryan Bunce in realising their artistic capabilities. With only two more opportunities to see this fine orchestra in concert before the end of the year, it will be exciting to see what challenges they turn their hands to next, and what delights await future audiences.