The Durham University Orchestral Society’s Symphony Orchestra performed as successfully as ever in their Michaelmas concert at the Elvet Methodist Church, surpassing the already high expectations of their many followers. The programme of Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky was performed with admirable empathy for the composers’ intentions, and with the confident flair of any orchestra worthy of a high reputation.
The concert opened with Saint-Saëns’ Danse Bacchanale, taken from the third act of Samson and Delilah. From the seductive oboe solo at the start (played with immense musicality by Freddie Hankin) to the furious drive of the finale, the orchestra reminded us of why they are held in such high stead – their energy was infectious, as was Alexander Mackinder’s direction from the conductor’s podium in his second engagement as conductor of the orchestra (the first being the commemorative Somme 100 concert on the 4th November).
Following this brief but effective opening to the concert was the highly anticipated concerto, the solo opportunity of which is given to one member of the orchestra each term. Tonight was the turn of Jessica Bryden, a third year cellist who performed with astounding serenity and poise as she took on Saint-Saën’s acclaimed Cello Concerto No. 1, described by Shostakovich as the finest cello concerto ever written.
The emotional journey of the concerto is no mean feat to convey in its entirety, but Jessica’s evident comfort behind the cello made it look fantastically easy. From her first exposed entry at the very outset, through the various arpeggiated and double-stopped passages which demonstrated her technical ability, she consistently performed with such emotional engagement that her performance can be described as no less than sensational. This is also a testament to Mackinder and the symphony orchestra supporting her, who were restrained enough to allow her to shine through as any accompanying orchestra should, but who also took over in the tutti sections with the same vigour and passion as the soloist herself. It was evident that each felt comfortable and confident performing with the other, which is a chemistry that not all soloists can boast of having with their orchestral counterparts.
The second half consisted of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a compellingly dramatic work which was done full justice under Mackinder’s watchful baton. The dancing lilt of the opening passages were well-conveyed by both the strings and the wind, the interactions of whom were a consistently strong feature of the second half. The orchestra swept itself into a fittingly dramatic fury for the fortissimo passages, led stylishly by Sergei Batischev as this year’s leader.
The orchestra maintained its vitality through both the slower second movement, which began with a hauntingly beautiful horn solo from Tobias Baetage, and the more playful third; a testament to Mackinder’s energetic and captivating style of conducting. The sudden changes from this more playful Tchaikovsky to a darker character were handled tastefully by the orchestra, sweeping the audience up and reminding us why this symphony deserves its reputation as one of the finest in the repertoire.
The final movement of the Tchaikovsky was a spectacular conclusion to the orchestra’s thrilling programme. The strings are to be commended for their restrained yet energised staccati passages which were largely well synchronised with the wind melodies that soared above them. The false ending (a charming reminder of Tchaikovsky’s lighter side) was fantastically convincing, though none of the audience fell victim to it this time. The way in which Mackinder and his orchestra maintained their focus and drive right up to the end of this dramatic and dynamic symphony was commendable. For this, the trumpet section must also be applauded as they faultlessly commanded the final march to the end of this relentless and thrilling final movement.
The concert was a triumph, though no less was expected of this highly acclaimed group of young performers. It was fantastic to see that the hard work put in by the orchestra, Mackinder and Bryden paid off in their powerful and absorbing performances of both Saint-Saën and Tchaikovskys’ works. I look forward to what the Symphony Orchestra will bring in the new year, as they maintain their reputation as one of Durham University’s premiere musical ensembles.