As we step into the month of December, the music scene of Durham seems to have suddenly exploded into a beautifully hectic frenzy with concerts being put on nearly every single day, and posters being plastered all over every corner of Town. If you have so much as left your house, you will probably have seen the dynamic and eye-catching poster (designed by their Webmaster Charlie Criswell) of Durham University Palatinate Orchestra’s concert, this time featuring their Chamber Orchestra.
In the cosy setting of St Margaret’s Church, a decent-sized audience turned up to the event for an evening of Beethoven, as well as some Bruckner and Glinka. Harry Lai, on his debut as an orchestral conductor, assertively launches the iconic F minor chord of Beethoven’s fiery Egmont Overture to kick off the concert. Albeit slightly lacking in bass strength at the start, the orchestra achieves a lovely balance with distinctive dynamic contrast. David Hedley treated his first solo entry with great care and musicality on the oboe; this was followed slightly hesitantly by the clarinet, and then comfortably by the bassoons who maintained a lovely tone. The strings section seemed to settle more and more into the piece as it progressed, and there was some very satisfying juxtaposition between confident exclamations from the horns and sensitive responses from the violins. Lai, in preparation of the speedy Allegro con brio section, brought the orchestra to a complete halt of slightly awkward length when he gave the players two whole bars in the new tempo; this interrupted the flow of the piece and was, in my opinion, unnecessary for an orchestra of such calibre.
Nonetheless, the final section of the Overture was very exciting to hear and was performed with much simmering energy, which was aided by the emphatic timpani playing by Lizzy Hardy, which remained remarkable throughout the concert and provided the orchestra with much punch.
The second item of the concert was the lesser-known Three Pieces for Orchestra by Anton Bruckner. The opening horn solo of the first piece, Moderato, was carefully and musically executed by Joe Bleasdale despite a couple of minor slips. The sinuous arpeggio passages in the clarinets could perhaps have afforded to be brought out a bit more, but were nonetheless treated with great attention and accuracy. The second miniature, Andante, began with a duet between Hedley on the oboe and Emily Wallace on the bassoon, which floated beautifully above a mellow bed of strings. Commendation must be given to double bassist Peter Hicks, who held his own as a one-man section whilst being rather brutally separated from the cellos and placed behind the first violins due to spatial restrictions of the venue. The last piece, Andante con moto, saw the occasional lack of tidiness in dotted and double-dotted rhythms in the first violins. That said, the orchestra on the whole displayed impressive musicianship and communication. The oboes could further explore the elasticity and breadth in their tone, as well as use vibrato more generously for expression, but the section’s overall performance tonight was of a very fine standard. The small cello section, albeit occasionally suffering from intonation problems, provided secure foundation for the joyful exuberance in the music, brought out by the conductor’s many big and energetic gestures.
Glinka’s whimsical Valse-Fantasie began with much confidence and flair. The string section’s meticulous attention to articulation, which contributed massively towards the great character of this rendition, compensated for the slightly blurry scales at the start. The introduction of the theme by the first violins was echoed wonderfully by the flute and the clarinet, who presented some lovely phrasing but momentarily fell short in intonation. The clarinets and double bass were briefly out of sync in an unforgivingly exposed passage, but this was remedied swiftly while the orchestra displayed consistent style, and finished the first half of the concert in a very charming vein.
The second half of the concert presented Beethoven’s often overlooked 2nd Symphony, which began in a clear and announced manner; the orchestra seemed completely in their element with this work, exuding confidence as most of the movement was tightly held together. Some exposed ornamented passages in the violins could have used some tidying up, but their playing proved to be secure overall. The triumphant atmosphere of the music was propelled by the brilliant trumpet section, whose crystal-clear high notes cut through the texture of the orchestra like a dream.
The second movement opened with a lush wave of strings that was performed with suitable sensitivity, although the tidiness of the turn patterns could, again, be improved; the bow usage of the violin sections could also be more consistent across all desks. Despite a few unfortunate mishaps in some of the horns’ broken chords in the higher register, the accuracy across the ensemble is commendable. The flute section in particular played with beautiful delicacy, and the ever-attentive principal Jeremy Chan’s playing showed much finesse and sophistication throughout the concert. Lai’s conducting, even though very horizontal and lacked definition at times, brought out great emotional depth from the orchestra.
The third movement then started with a refreshing burst of energy that was combined with good technical accuracy throughout. There was certainly room for more contrast in colour, but there was a delightful flow to the music that captivated everyone in the room. The dramatic final movement took a short while to settle down, as the first violins struggled to execute the tricky string crossings cleanly in some very exposed phrases; however, the gush of warmth instilled by the lovely and pronounced cello melody definitely made up for that. The sparkling energy of the music was prevalent in the performance, and the orchestra’s musicianship once again shone through, with the wind section acting as an ever-reliable backbone to all that is happening. The build-up towards the end was nothing less than thrilling, and the concert came to a close with some resoundingly jubilant final chords that led to a long and well-deserved round of applause.
DUPO Chamber Orchestra can certainly be very proud of what they have achieved tonight, as their demanding selection of music was tackled with much care and grace. Congratulations are in order to Harry Lai for having done his first ever concert as an orchestral conductor; it was a very good effort indeed, and he will undoubtedly benefit from all the upcoming opportunities he has to work with such a promising orchestra.