As usual, The Durham University Hill Orchestra provided us with a vibrant mix of repertoire at their first concert of the academic year. Traditional repertoire was paired with more popular film music, and of course, some Christmas carols to get us in the mood for the festive season! With the Orchestra being non-auditioned, with a strong emphasis on inclusivity and enjoyment, choice of repertoire is key to allow for a well executed as well as enjoyable concert. Conductor Ryan Kerr, together with the executive committee, got this just right for this concert, tackling some challenging repertoire and giving an incredibly pleasant experience.
The concert was given a rousing opening with George Frideric Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. The opening movement was attacked with great confidence, providing our first glimpse of the impressive playing to come. The string section tackled some tricky quaver writing well, although it sometimes took time for the players to warm into tempo changes and slicker transitions between sections could be desired. There were some intonation issues at the start of the second movement but the players soon warmed up and overall gave a riveting rendition of this celebratory piece.
The orchestra then provided us with a stark contrast, playing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus. This work is scored just for string orchestra and so the orchestral wind and brass players left the stage, leaving behind the marvellously large force of strings. The choice taken by Kerr to present a string only piece to conclude the first half was a bold one, not least because amateur orchestra string sections can often leave a lot to be desired. This was certainly not the case here, with the string players providing what I believed to be the highlight of the concert. The players all blended beautifully and this attractive ballad complemented the preceding piece perfectly. Great credit must be extended to Concertmaster Anna Bailey who gave a stunning violin solo, singing over the rest of the orchestra effortlessly and playing with gorgeous tone quality bringing out the melodic line so elegantly. Further note should also be given to principal cellist, Hugh Bird, who provided us with a beautiful cello solo to bring the first half of the concert to an attractive close.
Following the interval, sufficiently stuffed with mince pies, I returned to my seat, eager to hear the rest of the concert, which certainly did not disappoint!
The second half was opened with some film music, a staple of the Hill Orchestra’s repertoire. Michael Kamen’s Suite from Band of Brothers was well executed and very enjoyable for the audience and the choice of something perhaps a little less known was effective. At times the intonation could have been more carefully adhered to, but some tuning issues are to be expected and it did not at all take away from the performance.
We were then presented with the music I had been long awaiting, the Christmas carols! These traditional pieces were well played by the orchestra, although the audience members could have been more confident in their singing! I was of course relishing in the Christmas spirit, belting out the descants at every possible moment! The decision to play Christmas carols with audience participation was a fantastic addition to the concert and where keeping the orchestra and congregation together could be tricky, Kerr kept the carols upbeat and did not let the music lag.
The concert was closed with a riveting rendition of Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia. The famous brass opening was attacked boldly, whilst still maintaining a good tone quality and without coming across too harsh to the listener. The initial string entry was a bit shaky in intonation but the players soon got their ear in and coped with the faster, more complex sections with dexterity and ease. Finlandia was a fantastic choice of concert finale and really left the audience impressed by the standard of playing.
Though a few minor hiccups were had, all in all the Durham University Hill Orchestra gave a fantastic concert. The Orchestra has gone from strength to strength in the last few years and I am confident that they will continue to flourish under new conductor Ryan Kerr. As his debut performance as conductor, Kerr must be immensely proud. This was a fantastic concert and I urge fellow music lovers to come along to their next concert on the 9th March 2017.