Durham University Palatinate Orchestra’s Christmas Concert was one of the most eagerly anticipated of the term. The setting was Durham Town Hall, a grand venue, with an equally grand repertoire to match. With a varied program that included Wagner, Bizet and Shostakovich, the orchestra demonstrated their ability to perform a diverse and challenging range of pieces. With tonight being the orchestra’s final concert of the term, there was high expectation, but they did not fail to deliver. Not only did tonight’s concert prove what a proficient ensemble the Palatinate Orchestra are, it also highlighted the many individually talented members within it.

The concert opened with the Prelude from Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’. The gentle start from the string sections was followed by a controlled increase in dynamics, successfully led by conductor Adam Laughton. He continued to build the lyrical and dynamic momentum, which culminated in an effective opening of tonight’s event. This was a small indication of what was to follow in the later pieces. When the whole orchestra came together they demonstrated their ability to not only communicate well with each other, but with the conductor also. The dynamic sensitivity was remarkable, especially considering the difficulty in performing this Prelude. One is not only faced with the intrinsic challenges of the music and Wagner’s extensive expression marks, but the fact that this is a well-known piece makes the appearance of mistakes less forgivable. However, forgiveness was not needed, as the orchestra delivered a confident and powerful opening.

Liebestod, from the conclusion of Wagner’s opera, is often performed after the Prelude and one can understand why after hearing tonight’s rendition. James Petley’s soft and lyrical tone of the Bass Clarinet, gave the beginning of this section an atmospheric feel. This was accompanied by the string sections, who once again, demonstrated their ability by skilfully playing delicate, yet effective tremolo. Furthermore, one was most impressed by the control of the crescendo and immediate diminuendo, which provided an effective end to Wagner’s epic composition.

The second work in tonight’s repertoire was Bizet’s ‘L’Arlesienne Suite 1’. The powerful and roaring opening from the string section in the Prelude, contrasted nicely with the lyrical and gentle response from the woodwind and brass section. As the piece began to build up, Rhys Rodrigues on percussion, demonstrated high levels of rhythmic and metrical skill. The cellos unanimous version of the melody was smooth and expressive. Helen Butcher did a commendable job leading her section, allowing all the cellos to work and blend together so well. However, the highlight of this first movement was Laura Buckingham on Saxophone. Her solo sections had an elegance to them; demonstrating her warm tone and impressive phrasing.  This was accompanied by contributions from Anna Beamont on the Harp, who exhibited technical and skilful playing.

The success of the first movement from Bizet’s work gave anticipation for the rest of the sections that were to follow. The Minuet, allowed the first violins to demonstrate their proficient playing during the fast, arpeggio passages. This section ended with great communication between the woodwind and strings. The Adagietto movement gave the orchestra the opportunity to expose its sensitive side, demonstrating that they are capable of playing soft and tranquil sections, as well as loud and lively passages. Carillon, the final section of Bizet’s suite, had a vibrant opening with effective horn playing during their ostinato sections, successfully led by Zoe Wardell. While there were moments of beauty throughout this movement, the real highlight was the climax at the end of the piece. The build up to this monumental ending had powerful tremolo from the strings and saw an increase in tempo and dynamics, all of which was auspiciously guided by Adam Laughton. His final down-beat led to the precise stop of the orchestra, which not only demonstrated Laughton’s ability as a conductor, or the skill of the orchestra, but their ability to communicate and sync together. This was an impressive ending to an impressive movement, suite, and first half.

The second half was dedicated to Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. The orchestra embodied the playful quality that is so apparent in this movement. Particular note should be given to William Rigby, who demonstrated skilful playing on the piccolo, especially during the rhythmically faster sections. However, the star of this movement was first violinist, Nina Kumin. Her impressive solo passages were technically brilliant. Her confidence and ability as a player was apparent throughout the whole night, and she not only successfully led the first violins, but also the orchestra.

The opening of the second movement demonstrated the capabilities of the clarinet section. Josh Ward opened with a lyrical melody, with a counter-melody soon heard from Samantha Spruce. Charlie Criswell then took the lead melody, and at this point it became apparent just how skilful the clarinet section is. Each player executed their line perfectly, and their musical conversation set the atmosphere for what was to follow throughout the rest of the movement. It was also in this section that the Palatinate Orchestra’s specialty was cemented. Their dynamic control and ability to build tension and momentum is remarkable, and it is certainly a distinguishing feature of their performance tonight.

The third movement saw the impressive trumpet playing from Ryan Bunce. He demonstrated good breath control and power, especially when playing the higher notes. Overall, this section was perhaps one of the more difficult moments of the Symphony, but there was rhythmic and metric precision between all players. A seamless transition to the fourth movement saw a strong brass opening and an eagerly anticipated bassoon cadenza. The spotlight was on Maddy Lyons for this difficult passage. Despite some occasional broken notes, the melody was lyrical and Lyons certainly captured the dark and remorseful tone of this section. The bassoon solo suddenly turns into a more rhythmic passage, which gives way to the final movement of Shostakovich’s work. In this section the orchestra once again demonstrate their ability to build tension, as the rhythmic vitality of the melody rises. The increase in tempo had the risk of getting out-of-hand. However, this was not the case, and Laughton successfully led the orchestra to a climatic ending of the Symphony, and the concert as a whole.

Overall, the Palatine Orchestra’s concert in the Town Hall was a great success. The orchestra demonstrated their capability of performing repertoire from a range of style and periods. Although there were many brilliant elements, their dynamic sensitivity was a definite strength tonight. Particular note should be given to Adam Laughton for leading the orchestra through challenging repertoire. His eccentric, dynamic and energetic conducting clearly resonates with this orchestra, and his connection with them is apparent in tonight’s successful concert. However, Nina Kumin who lead the orchestra, demonstrated remarkable violin playing. Her skill, confidence and leadership was just as impressive as the concert itself. With Kumin and Laughton leading the orchestra, it is of no doubt that they will inevitably produce more successful concerts in the future. One is particularly excited for their Joint Castle Concert on 5th March!