The Nave of the Cathedral was packed for this, the final performance of this incarnation of DUOS. The audience was treated to two shorter pieces (Finzi’s Romance in E flat major, Op. 11, and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2) from the Chamber Orchestra, followed by Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, performed by the full Symphony Orchestra.
Finzi’s piece, written for just strings, began with an ethereal opening chordal texture which, despite the small forces, didn’t seem at all lost in the large acoustic. After the texture built up, some pizzicato double bass material was used sensitively to reveal the massive reverb available in the space under the lantern tower. There were some wonderful ‘crunchy’ passages of contrary motion and suspensions within the texture, and it was from this dense (but not muggy) texture that violin leader Hayley Lam emerged with a wonderful solo line that stated one of the first melodic motifs. The piece builded to reach a peak, before dissipating with many passing modulations, in typical fashion for Finzi’s orchestral pieces. Even in this section of rubato and gradual decrescendo, there was no sense of the strings ‘drowning’ in the large space, and a sense of intensity remained even until the delicate ending.
Next, the rest of the Chamber Orchestra joined their colleagues on stage to perform Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. The opening movement began with a low solo flute which is very ominous, and was sustained over periodic chords and silences. Although the strings initially seemed to struggle with the high tessitura, this very delicate passage was very well executed in all other parts given how exposed all the parts were. The lower woodwind parts loomed at the rear of the orchestra while muted trumpet melodies sounded forlorn. An engaging variation between very polarised and very dense textures was paired with swelling dynamics and rubato creating tension in the development section. After this point of climax there was a very pregnant silence, which director John Reddel prolonged wisely to suit this larger acoustic. As the second movement began, there were noticeably more complex rhythms and shifting metre, and the orchestra had a visibly more intense focus in response to this. It was great to see different instrumental timbres and soloists brought to the fore, along with some more energetic pizzicato passages.
After the interval, it was the turn of the whole Symphony Orchestra, this time performing Mahler’s large four-movement symphony. Another ethereal opening, with a stratospheric violin 1 pedal note, begins the first movement. This first movement features a great deal of impressive orchestral writing that Is interpreted well by conductor Alex Mackinder, with block-chordal broken chords in the horns, joined by the brass and slowly growing into more textured, spacious writing that leads into the more upbeat, developmental section of this movement. The offstage trumpets in the beginning of the work were geniously placed in the organ loft, giving a distant quality to the sound and just the affect I’m sure Mahler would have appreciated. The ‘cuckoo’ (excerpt from the opening theme motif) is shared around the woodwind sections and is a very emphatic driving force. Although more articulation would be nice in the march section at the end of this movement, the limitations of the space, and the spaced-out nature of the ensemble’s placement, were limiting factors. The second movement – being a stylised waltz – had a more regular metre that enabled much more clear articulation and unity across the ensemble. There was a sense of growing agitation towards the end of the scherzo section and, moving into the trio, some lovely moments (such as falling 3rds) in the flutes against a plucked bass and meandering violin melodies kept the sometimes extremely prolonged dominant harmony expectant and interesting. Plenty of rubato was cleverly deployed, and this made the movement feel like it was concluding and created surprise when unexpected modulations delayed the eventual repeat of the scherzo. The director should be given credit for working with these harmonic features and taking advantage of the expectation they cause.
The third movement featured really unstable tonality, and despite this, combined with often dissonant string parts, it is impressive that the orchestra stayed so perfectly in tune throughout. The other particularly impressive part of this movement was that, as director Alex Mackinder took the orchestra through different metres and tempi (following the changes between the funeral march and Jewish funeral and wedding dances) these transitions were entirely seamless. The ensemble was clearly very well-rehearsed, and no-one tried to ‘hide’ in this large space, as is sometimes the temptation. Finally, the closing movement had a great deal of excitement – from the tumultuous opening ‘scream’ and percussive ‘hammer blows’ to the looming timpani pedal notes that heralded a return back into the fast march section in the middle of the piece – but particularly worthy of note was actually the slow section. With its ever-more intense string ostinatos and rising sequential writing, this section resembled an idyllic body of water that was full of powerful undercurrents as the texture beneath bulged and grew, before again dissipating to peaceful tranquillity. The outbursts in the brass and percussion that heralded the onset of more energetic middle section were very well timed, and when the theme returned, even the quieter, gestural contributions from muted brass and clarinets lost none of their immediacy. Finally, the transition into the final chorale featured some well-co-ordinated ornamentation in the strings, and in the final extended coda passage there was great diversity in the way the various themes were expressed. The final chorale stood over an ominous pedal note in the timpani again, and this time the brass section stood up – a very creative idea that helped hammer home the fact that this was the final re-statement of the opening theme material, as well as punching those ‘fanfare’ chords right down the nave of the cathedral. A massive ritardando and excitable, tremolo strings vamping some heavily chromatic harmony underpinned these final chords. At the end, the applause erupted somewhat earlier than expected, and the remnants of the triumphant final chord were still bouncing off the stone vaulting as the applause mingled with it.
Overall, this evening was a tremendous success. It is always very exciting to see an ensemble fill Durham Cathedral for a concert, and DUOS managed to prepare some challenging repertoire in a challenging, but very rewarding, space. A very age-diverse audience enjoyed the performance too, and it was wonderful to see many families with young children in the audience. The Orchestral Society have had a very successful academic year and this was a fitting finish. The Mahler suited the ensemble and depth of sound magnificently and all should be very proud of what they achievent. We look forward to hearing them perform next year under their new executive committee.
The music isn’t over, however! Durham Festival of the Arts continues. To find out what’s on next, visit http://www.dfoa.co.uk/.