Durham University Orchestral Society’s Epiphany term concert featured both its Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Reddel, and Symphony Orchestra under the arm of Alex Mackinder – under one roof at Elvet Methodist Church. DUOS is used to attracting large crowds, and tonight was no exception. Every row of the church was full, with still more people arriving just before the concert began, and such a treat was in store for them all.

The concert opened with Ravel’s La Tombeau de Couperin, an orchestral suite. In the opening dance, the oboe solo, played by Freddie Hankin, was full of character and meticulously in time. Mr Hankin had numerous solo moments throughout the evening which were all delivered will skill and beautiful timbre, he is certainly an asset to DUOS and played faultlessly throughout the concert. The character and style continued through the string section in the second dance, with their jollier ornamented dialogue with the soloist contrasting with some beautiful dynamics and shape on those ominous chromatic harmonies. Despite some tentative woodwind entries in the second dance, there was some very confident playing which brought the piece to life, particularly in the illustrative ornaments, almost verging on sound effects, played by the woodwind section. Solo passages from the various woodwind instruments create points of dialogue with the strings, which show off Ravel’s wonderful meandering harmonies to great effects.

After a similarly characterful third dance featuring some refreshingly precise pizzicato strings, Ravel’s famous and flamboyant Rigaudon is the final dance, and here in particular John Reddel’s direction is both artful and unfailingly reliable for the orchestra. Particularly strong is the transition each time to the returning tutti chords, which come each time as a wall of sound joining the various sections of the orchestra back together again in a rousing refrain.  The chamber orchestra continued with Gabriel Faure’s Pavane Op. 50, in which which the strings expressed a remarkably delicate and moving sound – particularly when playing the main theme – and never overpowered the sparser accompanying parts. In this piece, although a technically less demanding work than the Ravel, the orchestra displayed real musicality and warmth making it a truly moving performance which had a powerful affect on the audience.

After this familiar piece, the orchestra moved on to Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 by Camille Saint-Saëns. This piece featured violin soloist Hayley Lam, who is also DUOS’s tour manager. Hayley was breath taking. The piece opens with a characteristic arioso-style introduction, with a sparse accompaniment over which the soloist demonstrated a great range of technique, exploring the whole register of the instrument, with a particularly impressive and well-projected lower register. The orchestra communicated very well in this section, following the soloist and taking cues from her as the dramatic rubato of this opening section demands. In the rondo section, the orchestra achieved a great amount of interest, even in the more understated accompanying styles. The transitions between tempi were also very polished, and the pulsating dynamics of Saint-Saëns’s score were perfectly employed to bolster and support the soloist as she moved into more agile sections. The return of the rondo theme was always a joy after the great turbulence of the orchestra’s contrasting episodes. The highlight here was certainly that great passage of double-stopping which Miss Lam executed flawlessly. A great deal of applause greeted the end of the first half and rightly so, the concerto was performed with unbelievable skill, musicality and poise – a truly stunning performance.

After this brilliant re-introduction, the Symphony Orchestra took to the stage and performed the magnificent Roman Carnival Overture. This was certainly a dramatic and and enjoyable performance, with special mention needed to the percussion section. However, this was just the warm up piece to the main event:  Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. It begin with brilliant swelling dynamics in the staccato strings, creating a perfectly ominous atmosphere. After this dark-tempered opening, there is a brilliantly lyrical saxophone solo played by Ellie Knott returning the opening theme in the major, and accompanied at first only by oboes. This melody is then taken up by the strings, accompanied by piano. It was a huge shame that John Reddel was restricted to an electric keyboard, especially for this beautiful moment in the piece, but of course the orchestra was restrained by Elvet Methodist Church and we had to make-do. The second and third dances have great contrast, with a great mass of brass sound at the start of the second dance, with very striking crescendos topped with muted trumpets. The dance then assumes a charming waltz character, and although this has some occasional problems in maintaining a regular pulse, the very impressive melodic flourishes in the flutes and oboes fall in precisely the right place and seem to unify the rest of the orchestra. There is then a much more dark and brooding sound in the bassoons in the third dance, which contrasts again with well executed high string chords along with ear-splitting percussion in the orchestral ‘stabs’ at the end of the piece.

Overall, this DUOS perfomance showcases some excellent talent from both new recruits and more established members. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, overwhelmingly impressive in some ares and certainly a highlight of the Music Durham concert series so far. Given the great deal of applause they can drew tonight – both from their peers and local residents – the orchestra has shown with this success that there is a great deal to look forward to in the future.