The two orchestras comprising Durham University Orchestral Society performed a spell-binding concert to a packed audience in the magnificent Durham Cathedral.
The Chamber Orchestra began the concert with ‘Echoes of Ossian’ by Niels Gade. The dynamic control, warm intonation and luscious legato this ensemble can create was immediately clear with the opening subtle string chords. Phrasing throughout the work was very thoughtful, although occasionally the motion towards climaxes could have been a tad smoother just before arrival. The players clearly had a strong communication with the conductor, Josh Ridley, and were very responsive to his direction. Timing was very good, though I was not convinced of the decision to play arpeggio chords in the violins starting on the beat, as this occasionally came across as being out of sync. Sophie Hill’s clarinet solo hovered beautifully above the surrounding texture and Evan Penn on the horn played the repetitive semiquaver motif passage well.
Next, they played Ottorino Respighi’s ‘Trittico Botticelliano’, a three-movement programmatic work representing three renowned paintings by Sandro Botticelli. A perfect start, with dreamingly energetic strings beginning ‘La Primavera’ (‘Spring’). The excitement in their playing filled the Nave’s echoic acoustic and was captivating. The flexibility in sudden changes in dynamic was tingly to witness and the timing excellent, particularly in the triplets and Tippett-esque irregular rhythms. The final flourish of the strings was incredible; a testament to the quality of both the orchestra and Respighi’s music itself. The second movement, ‘Adorazione dei magi’ (‘Adoration of the Magi’), began with a famously unusually extensive and beautifully played bassoon solo by Olivia Peacock. The flute I felt could have been even more dreamy and in awe the first time but was fabulous the second time round. The crescendos were very well judged and the confidence of the players very satisfying. Josh was very attentive to the balance, ensuring that the 1st violins didn’t overpower the woodwind solos, and allowed the sound to breathe in the silences, particularly vital in this venue. The first half concluded with ‘La nascita di Venere’. The beauty of the previous movements was not lost in this most passionate of pieces of music. I felt that the last note could have been even quieter before ending, but apart from that it was an exceedingly moving performance. This is one of the few times in Durham that I have been riddled with goosebumps listening to an ensemble perform.
Following the interval, the Symphony Orchestra took the reins, beginning with the rarely performed ‘In Memoriam’, by Arnold Bax. Intonation generally was great, although the fifth could be a little brighter in the violins, especially at the very start and end. The unison strings displayed great passion, matched by Alex Mackinder’s great enthusiasm in conducting, and the tense crescendos to explosive climaxes were very powerful, especially in the brass, though a few did lurch a little just before the zenith. There was some lovely phrasing of Bax’s lyrical melodies, releasing just at the right point, though sometimes I needed more legato from the woodwind.
The final work was the much-anticipated ‘Enigma Variations’, by Edward Elgar. In the first variation, representing Elgar’s wife, I thought the opening melody in the violins was too loud and thus lacked some of its affection. Double bass resonance was powerful and dissonances were well-balanced texturally. In the second, the scurrying by the violins, representing exercises on the piano by a friend of Elgar’s, were fantastic in character, albeit occasionally a little out of sync. The melody weaved beautifully through the orchestra. In the third, the energy was great, and the woodwind phrasing wonderful. The energy was sustained in the fourth with the irregular rhythms and concluded very dramatically and ferociously with a powerful subsequent pause for silence. The fifth demonstrated flexible interchange between witty motifs and more serious, legato playing. The mellow tone of the violas was brought into the light in the sixth variation. Variation seven matched the fifth in the ability to switch between different dynamics and moods, with riveting energy in the Dvorak-like folk rhythms. In the eighth, the flutes perfectly characterised the laugh of the secretary of the Worcester Philharmonic Society, with amusing articulation and dying away in dynamic. The concluding ritenuto was well-judged.
Now we arrive at the timeless ‘Nimrod’, variation nine. Unfortunately, for me it began too detached, although this improved. Climaxes were very well prepared and the movement’s commemoration to the strongest of friendships was beautifully conveyed. Horns in particular were very warm. The tenth variation was wonderfully flirtatious by the strings and woodwind, and the bassoon rose above the texture beautifully. Variation eleven was perfectly in sync with fantastic pace and bewildering whirlwind descending scales in the strings. In the twelfth, the passion in the cellos was wonderful, although the legato wasn’t quite as smooth as they are capable of (as demonstrated in the unison string legato). The cello solo was wonderful, despite a slightly under initial note. The timpani could afford to play a tad louder in the quieter sections of the thirteenth variation, although elsewhere was faultless. The bass drum was very controlled by Rhys Rodriguez. The sense of longing and romanticism was very heartfelt. The finale expressed fearsome energy with a great tempo, accurately wielded by Mackinder, contrasting with the legato of the second section. Horns were fabulous, although a felt the woodwind could have been brought out a bit more when they are in action.
To conclude, the principal orchestras of Durham University have proved their outstanding quality and have benefitted from ‘DUOS Week’, which sought to tackle this repertoire in six solid days with the aid of conductor Peter Stark and other professionals leading sectionals. I wish the best of luck to Josh Ridley in his future after Durham, to Alex Mackinder in his renewed conducting role next year, and to all players, wherever their destinations in the coming year.