Alas; we are nearing the hinge of the Epiphany term, and the jolly sounds of spring that characterised Durham University Orchestral Society Chamber Orchestra’s concert convinced me to forget, although for only a few hours, about the thawing snow outside the town hall. Indeed, the evening offered a varied and most enjoyable spectrum of performances.
The Wasps overture by Vaughan Williams provided a dramatic preface to the evening. Following cascades of waspish trills during the opening minute of the piece, the first execution of the jaunty theme sounded clean and clear in the bassoon and clarinet. The conductor’s account of the piece immediately proved successfully witty and good-natured; the satirical personality of the music poking fun at, perhaps, the Athenian judiciaries in the Greek political play by Aristophanes that this music was originally composed for. Throughout the piece, the jolly melody is passed around, fragmented and borrowed by the strings, followed by the wind and the brass – played not only in the initial speedy, spirited and biting tune, but also a flawlessly soaring singing style. Players handled the seemingly continual movement through modes skilfully, thus accurately reflecting the spirit of English folk song, an integral influence of Williams’ style. After the serene interlude, wherein the horns stood out in particular, the buzzing trills return to pick up the tempo, ending the piece in a lively manner. Overall, the performance was bursting with vitality, and a promising opening to the evening.
The program was then moved swiftly onto Strauss’ Concerto in D major, featuring the soloist Freddie Hankin on the oboe. The Allegro Moderato presented an expressive rapport between the oboe, solo flute and clarinet accompanied by thoughtfully played string gestures. The music progressed steadily onto a more wistful idea during the Andante; with the same dexterity as in the Allegro Moderato, Freddie careered through this mellow movement, and the delicate accompaniment provided by the orchestra meant that the soloist was never removed from prominence. The cadenza was a highlight here – Freddie demonstrated a healthy sonorous sound that lead onto the playful Vivace where he demanded centre stage through a nearly seamless delivery of notes that came forth in torrents and angular leaps. The oboist certainly evidenced stamina here, thus a few minor slips were quickly forgotten about and compensated for by sensitive attention to detail, warm phrasing and frequent eye contact between Freddie and conductor Josh Ridley. All in all, the concerto was beautifully mastered.
Next on the program came Milhaud’s Le Boeuf Sur le Toit which was delivered stylishly. Having written this surrealist ballet in France upon his return from Brazil, one of the most striking features in Milhaud’s piece is its rhythmic complexity. The piece combines vestiges of Brazilian influences and fleeting glimpses of Tango rhythms with a jazzy French flavour, and the orchestra mastered the rhythmic challenges, syncopation and powerful accents (of which there were many) superbly despite a few areas that lacked tautness.
The orchestra showed off their verve and the wealth of vivid instrumental colours they could muster; with dissonances sometimes kept in the undergrowth, and sometimes boldly declared. The solo sections in the oboe, horn, and flute were winsome; special acknowledgement must go to the trumpet player who made transposing their part with each execution of the theme seem like a painless job. Furthermore, the orchestra controlled modulation without sacrificing buoyancy; I enjoyed the way in which boisterous polytonal melodies and galumphing brass rhythms where played opposition to one another, but such a decorative comic conflict that gave the piece it’s humorous personality.
The final performance of Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta offered its own axis of excitement. An incisive opening cello line was followed by sequential runs in the strings before being reinstated by lucidly in the horns. This was the first of many bright spots throughout the performance. The soloists’ accounts were, overall, technically sound and musically alert, especially that of the clarinet player Sophie Hill, who had the responsibility of representing the traditional Hungarian instrument, the tárogató. Sophie navigated around the twists and turns of her solos and cadenzas beautifully, easily carrying her soaring melody over the orchestra. The five sections of the dance effectively retained their folkloric gypsy-like character, with playing definitely lacking in neither energy nor vivacity, and the relentless dynamic variety was far from pedantic. Instances of rubato were compelling and well composed.
From the sounds of bees to the Hungarian dance, I felt that last night was an evening of accomplished and well received performances by the Durham Orchestral Society chamber orchestra – congratulations to Josh Ridley, Freddie Hankin and the rest of the orchestra for their wonderful playing and hard work. I look forward to their forthcoming engagements which include the fast approaching Parry Centenary Concert on the 10th of March in Durham Cathedral