On a beautiful Friday evening in the stunning surroundings of Durham Town Hall, DUCE (Durham University Classical Ensemble) brought their season to a close with a truly fantastic concert. Having been strongly impressed by the orchestra’s showing in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in St. Oswald’s Church back in March, there were definitely high expectations for what they would produce in their final concert of the year. And they did not disappoint! Conductor Bruno Needham, in his final concert with the orchestra, constructed an excellent programme that allowed the entire orchestra to shine in multiple different facets.
Opening with the Overture to Mozart’s timeless opera Don Giovanni, the orchestra hit their stride early with a very good sense of ensemble. DUCE’s woodwind section features some of the finest instrumentalists in Durham, and they showed their not-inconsiderable skill in the opening passages, with highly intelligent phrasing and communication between the different voices. Needham succeeded in managing a seamless transition into the Allegro section, where the shifting harmonic colours were accompanied by sensitive shifts of tone from the string section. At times, the more foreboding parts of the music could have carried a little more depth of sound from the lower strings, but this in no way diminished from the overall high standard of the performance. It should be said at the outset that the highest praise should be given to Double Bassist, Charlie Fletcher, for playing all three works without anyone else in the section of assist him! A daunting task to most musicians, but one that Charlie clearly thrives off.
The centrepiece of the first half was Carl Maria von Weber’s virtuosic Bassoon Concerto, with the solo part performed by effervescent second year languages student, Patrick Norén. An instrument that is largely underrepresented as a solo instrument outside of the Classical and Baroque eras – Vivaldi himself wrote over 40 concerti for the instrument alone! – Weber’s concerto is regarded by many as being one of the finest offerings by any composer. A work that requires highly intricate fingerwork and precise articulation, the task that awaited Norén was substantial.
However, after an initial wobble (likely due to nerves), he soon settled into a very nice rhythm, and played with great style and flair throughout. However, it was a shame that the orchestra did not execute the dotted quaver-semiquaver rhythm that characterises the opening theme precisely, instead making it sound more like a triplet. Although this did not hinder the sense of ensemble – because the entire orchestra did it! – this did prevent the march-like feel of the opening movement from becoming prevalent, and this rhythmic inaccuracy would sadly prove to be a problem elsewhere in the concert. However, Norén’s stage presence and excellent high range more than compensated, although a few rushed faster passages, in which a few notes failed to speak as clearly, slightly hampered him. There was also impressive communication on show between Norén and conductor Needham, keeping the tempo under control throughout and not allowing the movement to run away with itself.
Norén’s performance in the slow second movement, however, was outstanding. Playing with a beautifully lyrical tone, he allowed the music to effortlessly flow from one phrase to the next. Here, there was a much-improved sound from the lower strings in the accompanying passages located at the movement’s heart, which provided an effective contrast to Norén’s again excellent high-range playing.
However, one did get the sense that Norén was also enjoying a bit of respite here, and how he needed it…! The third and final movement was an absolute romp! Norén chose a daringly fast tempo, but he did not waver once. A movement that definitely seemed to reflect Norén’s character, it danced, swelled and leapt around hither and thither with youthful abandon. It was clear to the entire audience that both Norén and Needham were thoroughly enjoying themselves throughout this movement, and the infectious energy was carried along by the orchestra, whose playing did enough to sate the audience’s appetite for musical detail without taking the limelight away from their soloist. Yes, the final runs could have been slightly cleaner, but this is nitpicking at best… Overall, it was a triumph of a performance that Norén should be extremely proud of, and I’m sure his family in attendance, including his grandfather (whose bassoon Patrick now owns!), thoroughly enjoyed it!
Following a deservedly lengthy interval, the orchestra returned accompanied by an extra rank of trombones to perform Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, entitled ‘The Great’. Whilst not quite the leviathan that was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 that DUCE performed to great acclaim in the Town Hall this time last year, Schubert’s 9th is nonetheless a herculean task for an orchestra of this small size. At nearly an hour in length, it as much a test of endurance as it is a test of ability. However, by the end of the entire work, no-one could have been left in any doubt that the orchestra were in their element here!
The long opening movement began with the main theme heard in the distantly sounding horns, before it gradually grows more noble and grand. Although the intonation of the first orchestral tutti wasn’t quite as accurate as it could have been, the orchestra soon settled well. The main Allegro bustled with energy, whilst the oboes’ and bassoons’ chirruping second theme offered a suitable contrast. Especially entertaining was watching the celli’s and the lone double bassist’s fingers scrabbling around, such was the difficulty of the parts, but they were executed to a very impressive standard throughout. Moreover, the powerful return of the introductory horn motif in the full orchestra was a wonderful moment.
The shift from major to minor at the start of the second movement was heralded by Freddie Hankin’s oboe solo, beautifully played. A movement whose gloomy character bears several similarities to Schubert’s later Wintereisse song-cycle, the moods evoked by the orchestra at the movement’s outset were deeply moving. Particularly haunting were the repeated horn notes at the movement’s heart, which called to mind the tolling of distant funeral bells. However, in the more outright tragic moments, I was left, like parts of the Don Giovanni overture in the first half, wanting more weight and gravitas to the sound. That said, the dotted-rhythm that had been a problem in the Weber concerto was executed much more successfully.
The third movement Scherzo was excellently conducted by Needham. Beating one in a bar in triple time is surprisingly challenging, but here Needham excelled, bringing great clarity to his conducting and making it incredibly easy for the orchestra to read and follow. He crafted a lovely sense of line through the fast opening material as well as the slightly more relaxed trio and allowed the strings to sing beautifully. There were also some exposed timpani solos for percussionist Eleanor Pearson, something quite rare for pieces from the classical era outside of Beethoven, which she dealt with well. However, although rhythmically very accurate, the choice to not use harder sticks was puzzling. For a society that prides itself on historically informed performance – with the string players utilising minimal vibrato – it was surprising to not see more authentic (harder) sticks being used. This small change would have allowed much more rhythmic definition and clarity to be brought across, instead of what turned into a slightly muddied sound; I would encourage her (and DUCE) to explore this possibility in future performances.
The extremely difficult final movement carried great joie de vivre from the outset. Containing several different thematic ideas, with intricate textures constantly interweaving with one other, it is a joy for any audience to hear, especially when performed as well as this. The intensity of the playing was infectious! However, there were a few moments where the intonation across the orchestra wavered slightly, and once again the dotted rhythm issue reared its head again, even more problematic in this movement with one of the main thematic ideas being a triplet figure, and so the lack of definition between different ideas was at troublesome at times. That said, the tonal and dynamic contrasts conjured by the orchestra more than made up for it, and the powerful brass brought the work to a terrific conclusion in the movement’s Coda.
DUCE have had a truly outstanding year. I believe the performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 9 last summer was a huge turning point for the orchestra, but the way the ensemble has progressed this year has been fantastic to watch. Under President Jess Muurman’s leadership, ably assisted by Bruno Needham’s stellar conducting, DUCE has gone from strength to strength, and last night’s concert was a wonderful conclusion to their calendar. I cannot wait to see what the next academic year brings for the society; I wish their new President Megan Hathaway – who also led the 1st Violins excellently last night! – and their new Conductor, Rob King, all the very best and all the due success they deserve.