The Durham University Classical Ensemble have had an amazing year. The Classical Ensemble fills a gap in the Durham music scene, exploring new and perhaps more niche repertoire that suits the players and also working towards historically informed performance practice. DUCE’s concert on Friday evening in the Town Hall embodied this ethos, with  an exciting and dramatic rendering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No.1, and Haydn’s Creation Overture. As my own overture to an appraisal of the performance itself, I shall briefly address issues specific to this Classical Ensemble.

The historically informed performance movement has moved from the fringes of musical performance practice to being adopted (at least partially) in the mainstream. Conductors such as Sir Roger Norrington lend some of the more obvious elements of historical performance – such as the absence of vibrato – great prominence, and look to offset this expression with particular stylistic phrasing. Performances of this nature, though, do perform on modern instruments.

DUCE’s own interpretation of this practice is one that roughly conforms to this usage. Conductor Chris Waters’s insistance that there should be no use of vibrato across the orchestra was generally adhered to and was effective. Its execution, though, creates more difficulties than it solves; intonation left something to be desired, and stylistic phrasing is required in order to add expression and shape to the phrases. This being said, the performance as a whole was impressive and the issues around performance practice were a distraction from an otherwise excellent concert. The audience was well attended, so well, in fact, that there were additional chairs added at the back of the already impressive venue. The downside of this was that the chairs were packed so tightly together that it wasn’t overly comfortable for some of the audience.

Charlie Criswell’s delivery of the Weber Clarinet Concerto was a thing of beauty. A work known well to wind aficionados, this concerto was performed with as much panache as the soloist’s waistcoat and demonstrated great dexterity and musicality. The finale of the concerto, a movement riddled with humour and mystery saw Criswell break free of his slightly nervous first movement and confidently – though steadily – enjoy this scherzo. The orchestra accompanied with an intelligent sensitivity, under Waters’s ever-attentive baton.

Beethoven’s Ninth was where this orchestra really excelled, showing exciting and informed playing. Orchestra and conductor worked as one, giving a clear sense of their understanding of the work as a whole.  The second movement in particular showed courage and real energy in tempo and articulation. The orchestra’s ensemble was good, and demonstrated a good rehearsal process, abley assisted by leader Rob Cavaye. Beethoven’s Ninth is a work not to be taken lightly, and the performance by Waters and DUCE was serious in its approach, and generally effective, and at times exciting, in its execution.

Overall, this was clearly an emotional performance for the singers and instrumentalists. DUCE’s conductor, Chris Waters, is to be commended for his instrumental role in the success of the Classical Ensemble, which has also involved conducting from memory and learning the harpsichord to direct the orchestra effectively. Hopefully DUCE will continue to develop as an ensemble in the 2018/19 academic year.