DUCE produced an astounding performance of a popular programme, in their first concert without a founder member among them.

We begin with Mendelssohn’s stormy Hebrides Overture, inspired by his visit to the island of Staffa in Scotland in 1829. Despite a slightly shaky start, what followed was a wonderful rendition of the classic. Sometimes the phrasing was a little over-laboured, but the passion and energy from debut conductor Rob King was fantastic. Silky smooth woodwinds matched the spirited energy from the strings and brass.

This concert was the best performance by DUCE that I can remember’

Extracts from Handel’s Water Music, Suite No. 1 were next. Beginning absolutely together, they immediately produced precisely the character required for this regal music, with the French overture’s ‘notes inégales’ technique well-played. The energy of the orchestra was great, with terraced dynamics excellently conveyed and gradual crescendos and diminuendos very well-judged. Difficult string playing was occasionally a little out of time, but the ferocity of playing was more notable. The Air produced wonderfully balanced and satisfying suspensions in a softer mood than what followed, the well-known Hornpipe movement. The interplay between trumpets and horns on either side of the stage was excellent, as was the sheer engagement among all players conveying the proud and stately atmosphere of this music, as if King George I was really listening, as he did from his royal barge on the Thames back in 1717.

The brilliance of the Handel continued into Vivaldi in the second half. Short and sweet, but again showcasing fantastic energy from the whole orchestra, including a spritely duet by Millie Harding and Megan Hathaway, all spurred into action with Rob at the helm.

Finally came Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major, ‘London’. The first movement’s declamatory introduction grabs any wavering attention in the Hall. As the music builds in tension, DUCE display their ability to contrast powerful forte chords with sensitive melodies passed around the orchestra. Occasionally I would have liked more volume from the timpani, but this was a great start to the work, no question. The slow second movement took a little time to settle together but still expressed a calming, gentle temperament well. Next came the Minuet and Trio, in which the orchestra brought to life a completely different sensation: invigorating mania. The Trio was of a much calmer nature, but soon returned to the jarring changes of metre of the Minuet. The onset of the famous Spiritoso finale’s mysterious opening drone and melody, based on a Croatian folksong, was a sign of the excitement to come, and DUCE did not disappoint. On excellent form as throughout the concert, they expertly conveyed the variety of moods present in this movement, with verve and passion, and rightly were received warmly at the conclusion by the audience.

This concert was the best performance by DUCE that I can remember, and I strongly encourage you to attend the next of their historically informed performances on Friday 13 March 2020, at St Oswald’s Church.

Edward Walters