For their first offering of the academic year, the Durham University Orchestral Society’s Symphony Orchestra delivered a programme that could confidently be called a “European Grand Tour”. Music from the Czech Republic, France, England and Russia brought the audience a wide range of sound worlds and styles, with certainly something to suit almost any taste.
The concert opened with Alexander Borodin’s Overture from his opera ‘Prince Igor’, a work that never saw completion in the composer’s lifetime. Lewis Wilkinson, a third-year Music student making his conducting debut with the orchestra in this concert, led them through a fine and well-prepared performance. The string playing in particular was very tight, and all the details were brought out well. There were a couple of moments of slight tuning issues in the wind, but this was a negligible aspect of a polished start to the concert.
The Orchestral Society offers students the chance to perform concertos throughout the year, and tonight we were treated to Ernest Chausson’s ‘Poème’ for violin and orchestra. This piece is very rhapsodic in nature, with lots of sections and contrasting moods. Clementine Metcalfe, a second violinist in the orchestra, rose to the challenge of this complex piece admirably; she showed from the outset a firm grasp of both the technical and interpretative difficulties of the piece, and Wilkinson was a very supportive conductor, with the orchestra providing an excellent accompaniment to the soloist, as well as shining in their own moments. The performance, unsurprisingly, drew a large round of applause.
Afterwards, the orchestra launched into what could be one of the most difficult and challenging set of pieces they have attempted, the Four Sea Interludes from the opera ‘Peter Grimes’ by Benjamin Britten. The opera tells the tale of the fisherman Peter Grimes who, after the death of two of his young apprentices, is driven to madness and ultimately drowns himself. The Four Sea Interludes are, in the opera, scenes changes, and represent the waters of the North Sea at different times of day. The first movement, ‘Dawn’ contrasts the ethereal with the sonorous. The orchestra made a fine job of Britten’s complex writing, with the higher strings shimmering away in contrast to a wonderfully rich and warm sound from the wind and lower strings. Moving, almost unnoticeably, into ‘Sunday Morning’, we had the chance to hear the fine horn section of the orchestra, as well as some playful winds. ‘Moonlight’ was despatched with great subtlety, before a sudden and very obvious move into the final Interlude, ‘Storm’. The orchestra was able to capture the full ferocity of the stormy North Sea, and two particular mentions must be made: firstly the wonderful deep sonorities of Oliver Milton on contrabassoon, and the violent but incredibly effective timpani playing by Jonathan Whittaker. This violent ending to the first half led to some very welcome hot and cold liquid refreshments, as well as the odd biscuit.
For the second half, we returned to Eastern Europe for just one piece, Antonin Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, famously titled ‘From The New World’. The four-movement symphony was written not long after Dvořák arrived to take up a post in New York, and shows lots of nationalistic influences, especially the use of quasi-native and African American music.
The orchestra brought out the full dynamic contrast of the opening movement very successfully, with some clear and expressive conducting from Wilkinson. You could tell that the symphony was the favourite for a lot of the players, considering how much they looked like they were enjoying themselves! There were a couple of balance issues, particularly in one flute solo, but otherwise a great start to the second half.
The second movement is incredibly well-known for good reason, and we were all able to fully appreciate its beauty with Hannah Dixon’s sublime cor anglais solo weaving its way above sympathetic and warm strings. We also had the chance to hear a brief duet for two of the principal string players, Holly Scutt and Sarah Fretwell, which only added to the sublimity of this movement.
The third movement brought out the best in everyone, with fiery playing from the strings and brass in particular. Finally, we reached the climax of the symphony, its dramatic and exciting finale. Wilkinson brought all the details of the orchestral writing wonderfully, and in particular two mentions must be made: Jonathan Whittaker on timpani once again employed the full power of his instruments to great aplomb from audience members, and the horn section in particular at the beginning of the piece were on fine form. It even caused one audience member to be quoted afterwards as saying “Those horns though.”
A magnificent start to the academic year for DUOS, with excellent playing and leadership all round.