With the Gala Theatre making a comeback this year regarding student productions, after a string of musical theatre, a cappella and opera performances, DUOS made the shrewd choice of joining in with what turned out to be an excellently crafted concert. Welcomed into the building by many of the organisers, one could not hope to miss the electric, sunset orange programmes, with the artwork expertly designed by Sofia Greaves.
As the first thirteen performers settled into their seats and began tuning, there was time to take in the visual perks of the stage, including the vibrant red chairs, the excellent cut of the conductor’s jacket, the sumptuous velvet dress of the First Violin Clemmie Metcalfe and the single golden clarinet Peter De Souza.
Of course, from an organisational point of view, beginning the concert with the smallest ensemble and working up makes sense, and in this case was improved by the calm, but delightfully controlled entry into Appalachian Spring. The piece is understood perfectly as a description of the American plains, which only added to the welcoming environment of the concert. It was clear that the ensemble barely noticed the 300 strong audience, staring intently at their conductor, Joe Schultz, who occasionally stared back and shook his head as if breathing in the crisp prairie air. There was the occasional shaky sustained note from the bassoon and some oddly placed high clarinet notes, but neither did any harm to the mood.
After a brief interlude to bring on the rest of the 46-piece chamber orchestra and a box for the conductor, the Mississippi Suite followed, with perhaps the clearest thematic structure of any in the concert. Beginning with slowly plucked strings, interjected with childish outbursts from the brass and the piccolo, as well as strategically dropped drumsticks, the first movement embodied the prepubescent source of the river. Oliver Milton’s bassoon made a comeback with some fantastic vignettes throughout the second movement and the melancholy sentiment and cor anglais solo shone in the third. Mardi Gras, the fourth, ended the suite with a classic orchestra-style party and once again superb dynamics. Frantic bow work contrasted beautifully with the first movement, indicating the rush into the Gulf of Mexico.
El Sombrero De Tres Picos was the third and final piece of the Chamber Orchestra. During this, I realised how little extraneous noise there was, only hearing three page turns in the whole first half. The decision to elide the movements of this piece, whosever that may have been, put me on the back foot in terms of thematic interpretation, but the overall colour and texture of the piece was enjoyable nonetheless.
Returning after the interval brought us Ginastera’s Estancia Suite: a ballet written to represent a day in the life of an Argentine ranch. The first movement, called The Land Workers, was reminiscent of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs, reflecting the required every-day feel. The second movement was introduced with some fantastic pianissimo from the horns, but the third was set ajar somewhat by some rather disjointed timpani interludes. Malambo, the fourth, brought everything back together and was very nearly my favourite part of the concert. Beginning with an entrancing glockenspiel, I was expecting a similar party theme to the Mardi Gras in the first half, but the atmosphere soon became very tense. A reassertion of the theme came with the entire orchestra stamping to the music in such a frenzied manner that it reminded me of hallucinogens around a campfire. These guys know how to blow off steam!
Enter Marquez’s Danzón No. 2. For a good while during this piece, I thought I was listening to a five-piece flamenco band, such was the ecstatic jive permeating the orchestra. A particularly enjoyable pastime was observing players when they weren’t playing. The trumpet and viola sections especially stood out as having been infected by the beat. Here was when Lewis Wilkinson’s hips entered the fray, hypnotically conducting on their own at points. Given that the piece was inspired by a ballroom, the piano (and the hips) led the way into a slow dance, romantically preparing the mood for an end that had Wilkinson lean away from his instrumentalists, just to withstand the infectious groove.
The concert ended with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Of course, an event of this calibre ideally has music that everyone has heard of, in order to draw the crowd. I believe they weren’t disappointed. A complex, well executed percussion section at the beginning paved the way for yet another dancing beat, which dipped only marginally as they encountered the easier sections. After a brief bow, we were treated to an unexpected encore that periodically had the whole orchestra up on their feet, shouting “Mambo!” at the crowd. Particular vivacity at this point was demonstrated by the stringed bass section, plucking their thick gauge strings with such force I worried for their fingers.
Of course, the fact that West Side Story was being played was not a hidden one, but it took until the opening bars for me to realise that in fact all of the works leading up to this have had a movie-like aura, and that finally, film themes have been around for much longer than films. For someone who does not find a stereotypical orchestral concert attractive, this concert makes it clear that such prejudgement is poppycock.
By Samuel Arrowsmith