On March 9, the Hill Orchestra return with another thrilling and eclectic programme of Borodin, Fauré and Beethoven. This concert is given in support of national charity Youth Music, who invest in music-making projects for children and young people in challenging circumstances. By way of a preview, Hill Orchestra members Matthew Prudham and Matthew Toynbee have collated the following programme notes, highlighting that this is a concert not to be missed!

Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia is a ‘tone poem’: a form of classical music which is a kind of aural equivalent to a painting. When listening to this piece, you can clearly imagine the scene it creates. There are three key themes: first, the Russian theme introduced by clarinet, representing a group of Russian soldiers; second, the travelling theme, played by the lower strings, evoking the “clip-clop” of hooves of horses and camels; and finally the Russian troops, who are musically represented by a sinuous oriental theme, played first by the cor anglais. Towards the end of the piece, the Russians and Arabians meet, their two themes being played in sublime counterpoint. Finally, the Arabians leave, and only the Russian theme is heard over the silence of the Central Asian steppe.

Fauré composed and named his Dolly Suite after daughter of his mistress, nicknamed Dolly. The association with children has lasted over the years: the Berceuse can be recognised as the theme tune for the BBC radio programme Listen with Mother. The Berceuse that opens the suite is a gentle lullaby, with wind tenderly accompanied by muted strings.  Mi-a-ou, named after Dolly’s attempts to pronounce her brother Raoul’s name, is a sprightly, playful movement. This is in sharp contrast to the beautiful, lyrical lines of Le Jardin de Dolly, which follows. The Kitty-Valse is, confusingly, a portrait of the family’s dog (called Ketty), and is a gently flowing waltz, interrupted by a syncopated trio. The fifth movement, Tendresse, is both tender and violently passionate, and sounds much more modern than the rest of the suite. Finally, the suite ends with Le Pas Espagnol, a Spanish dance with rhythmic vitality and exciting percussion.

You quickly realise from the first four, aggressive notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that this will be  a whirlwind of human emotion. The first, most well-known, movement is centred round the four-note motif, with the frequent use of dramatic pauses to heighten the drama. Whilst you are taken through a journey of dynamic contrast and constant key change, the drive of the music carries on and on until the thunderous climax of the movement.

The second movement, meanwhile, is a much calmer, sedate affair, including some rather beautiful question and answer patterns between different parts of the ensemble. It is also our conductor Ross’ favourite movement of the whole symphony, and indeed the most challenging due to its key signature, frequent harmonious dialogues between few instruments, and deceptively slow tempo. The third movement immediately picks the pace back up with its rampant, staccato passages. Watch out here for the frequent use of pizzicato with the strings, and the few moments where the wind and brass actually have an opportunity to take centre stage in this mostly string-dominated movement. The final movement picks up immediately at the end of the third movement in a much more jovial spirit and at an even greater speed. The movement is characterised by continuous scalic patterns in the strings, loud block chords from the orchestra, and dialogues again between sections of the ensemble.

Overall, Beethoven’s Fifth continually toys with both the audience and the orchestra. Beethoven is relentless in creating new musical ideas that appear throughout his work, employing dynamic and tonal contrast so effectively in order to produce a piece that is effortlessly dramatic and simply astonishing.

Catch the Hill Orchestra at St Oswald’s Church on March 9, 7:30pm. Tickets are available here: https://www.musicdurham.org/event/hillepiphany/