After their successful first concert of the year back in December, and hot off the heels of a recent schools’ concert in the Gala Theatre, this term the Palatinate Orchestra under Adam Laughton presented their concert in the grand setting of Castle Great Hall. Entitled ‘An Oriental Odyssey’, this concert sold out over a week before the concert, and expectations were high.

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They began their programme with Jean Sibelius’s Spring Song, a piece which you might not normally characteristically associate with Sibelius; full of energy and joy, it is quite a marked contrast to the composer’s late symphonies, works which are full of melancholy and drama. Immediately, the orchestra set the tone well, with a particularly wonderful cello solo from Jack Hudson. Something which came across not just in the Sibelius, but in the programme as a whole, was the tight-knit string playing. Strong and full of energy, it made a great impact. As the piece progressed, we heard regal contributions from the brass, and some lovely woodwind solos, although occasionally the wind’s higher registers came across as a bit shrill. Nevertheless, Laughton brought out the best in his players for a great concert opener.

Russian fantasy then took over, as we heard Sergei Rachmaninoff’s tone poem, Isle of the Dead. Inspired by the black-and-white version of the painting used for the concert poster, it is not hard to see what sort of an impact the image had on Rachmaninoff, as we heard a work which was wonderfully brooding and uneasy throughout. The orchestra kept itself restrained when needed, although in some of the climaxes midway though, it slightly felt like they did not reach their full potential. One slight moment when a lovely violin solo was rather drowned out by its accompaniment was unfortunate, but we had other excellent solo contributions, notably a smooth oboe solo by Jade O’Connor. After the music finally broke out of all restraint, Laughton controlled the final shrinking away expertly as the piece died away from its drama.

After an interval which included some rather excellent canapés (something groups should definitely consider for future concerts in the Castle!), we moved to France for Claude Debussy’s exotic Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra, for which we were joined by DUPO clarinettist Izzy Trotter. Curiously, this performance used a tenor saxophone, although the work was written for alto saxophone. Typical of Debussy’s orchestral style, the work segwayed through various moods and emotions, with the saxophone picking up on each of these traits in turn. The orchestra responded wonderfully to Debussy’s music, and very much felt at home in this type of music. Trotter was an excellent soloist, with some wonderfully soaring melodies and full commitment to the piece. It was a splendid work which I certainly had not come across before but was delighted to discover; the only unfortunate thing was that it slightly seemed like the saxophone was not entirely in tune with the orchestra, as a couple of moments sounded slightly odd with regard to the tuning. Ignoring that, an excellent performance.

For the finale, DUPO turned to Carl Nielsen, a composer who had his 150th anniversary last year, and is rarely performed in Durham, so it was good to hear his Aladdin Suite, a set of seven movements extracted from his music for a theatre production that, due to disagreements, sadly never had the music as an accompaniment in the end. The Oriental Festival March began very confidently, with some excellent brass contributions. Moving through Aladdin’s Dream, and a lovely Dance of the Morning Mist, we reached a Hindu Dance which gave the wind a chance to shine. Laughton brought out the best in his orchestra in the Chinese Dance, with plenty of excitement and verve. After a fascinating depiction of a Market Place in Ispahan, we reached the extraordinarily vibrant African Dance, which showed off again the tight string playing which had been such a fixture of the concert. The timpani at the very start were just a bit overpowering, and as the music got more and more raucous, it almost felt like it was about to lose control, but the piece was a wonderful finish to the concert, with a suitably deserved round of applause.

DUPO set the mark high with this ambitious programme, and pulled it off very well. There were a couple of slightly off moments, but nothing that seriously detracted from a successful concert, which certainly seemed to delight the audience.

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