This concert – taking place in the Great Hall at University College – showcased the work of both the chamber and symphony wings of Durham University Palatinate Orchestra this term. The first half was performed by the Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Alex Bromwich, and featured works by Elgar, Copland, Samuel Barber and Gustav Holst. This half also had an excellent narrative touch, with Elgar’s Chanson De Nuit and his Chanson De Matin sandwiching Barber’s little-known orchestral work Horizon – telling the story of the end of an evening and the beginning of a new day. The audience were seated around tables in a relaxed manner with refreshments, and this added something to the relaxed metropolitan style of the concert (just imaginable from the medieval splendour of Durham Castle).

Elgar’s Chanson De Nuit in particular showed off some very lyrical string work and, despite some pitching issues, the ensemble overall was confident and accurate, allowing the director to craft some beautiful dynamic direction which really brought out Elgar’s stately sense of space. Barber’s piece, too, was very expressive, beginning with a note of mystery and very quietly in the strings. Despite this quietness, the players did not allow the trepidation of the introduction to enter into their playing, which was clear and assured throughout. The tables turn halfway through this piece, to reveal a wonderful lyrical character to the strings, which hold the main theme in octaves over a sparser woodwind accompaniment. The strings do not overpower the ensemble and this allows for an assured sense of closure when the piece returns to the static quietness of the introduction.

Copland’s work, Quiet City, featured Ryan Bunce on solo trumpet, and Freddie Hankin on oboe. Bromwich led the orchestra adeptly in this piece, phrasing transitions into solo material particularly well to bolster the soloists. There was also a great deal of confidence in transitions, particularly into the march section, where the strings exhibited a sound almost akin to a breeze in the last few chords, delicate and breathy without losing any of the intense body of sound.

The Chamber Orchestra’s half was brought to a fitting close summing up a great monument of city life in Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite. The opening jig, with its unstable metres, spoke of an organised chaos that was perfectly rendered by the orchestra’s clearly articulated rhythms, while the presto movement that followed gave the lower strings the chance to show off in a bold flourish before the closing chord. This piece also had some excellent (and very resonant) plucked strings in the third movement, supporting some solo passages from section leader Ben Bucknall. Shortly before the end of this movement the opening chords returned, but bowed, and this octave passage was very unified over a bass which maintained a precise pulse and a rhythmic kick moving into the finale. A beautifully fluid texture unfolds with some imitation, and featuring quotations of some well-known melodies. The highlight of this movement though was that rising figure in the solo violin just preceding the last chord, a final flourish.

After an interval, we escaped into something more pastoral in Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto, Op. 31, for string orchestra and solo Clarinet. The opening discords in the strings were very striking, and generally very resolute, although there was some hesitance in the strings during the clarinet’s first solo phrase. Soloist Charlie Criswell had great presence and his phrasing was particularly pleasing, giving the impression of song that Finzi’s works are so well known for. The soloist was particularly entrancing in the unaccompanied section – commanding absolute silence from the audience – and the ‘stripping down’ of the string texture preceding this was not jolty at all. There were some very challenging passages with particularly angular leaps which the soloist navigated adeptly. A highlight was the orchestra at the beginning of the second movement, with spaced-out chords and an icy timbre in the strings that created a tangible sense of vastness.

DUPO rehearsing for their upcoming concert alongside DUCS in Durham Cathedral

Finally, the audience was taken from the spaciousness of rural England to the uneasy, urban sound world of the slums of Chaleston, South Carolina in Robert Russel Bennett’s arrangement of a Symphonic picture from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin. It was a chance to see the full forces of DUPO Symphony all on stage, and from the outset they achieved a great, balanced sound. After the introduction, the immortal theme of ‘Summertime’ emerges, with those swelling repeated chords made very engaging by the Adam Laughton’s clear phrasing of the strings. The main melody was exchanged between the orchestral sections seamlessly. There were brilliant contributions from Tom Knight on banjo during ‘I’ve got plenty of nothing’, along with agile countermelodies in the woodwind section. The brass were allowed to emerge above the texture at times, particularly their outbursts in ‘you is my woman now’. A highlight in this work was the way the orchestra morphed into something more of a big band style during ‘It ain’t necessarily so’. It was enjoyable to hear the brass and percussion used to full effect as the strings receded.

From that last discordant cadence at the end of this arrangement, it was safe to say that this performance was a great success. And it was refreshing in particular to see so much thought put into the programme, with a clear and engaging central theme to the performance that gave context to the works. The orchestra also incorporated the works of Durham finalist and poet Katie Byford, whose words interspersed the programme items. This collaboration was unique and really gave an authentic and new context to this performance. The orchestra also showed versatility and a command of all kinds of musical styles from the 19th and 20th centuries.

This performance was a resounding success, and anyone wanting more would be hard-pressed to beat DUPO’s combined concert with Durham University Choral Society on Saturday 11th March in Durham Cathedral. Find out more here: https://www.musicdurham.org/event/spiritofpeace/