As Music Durham’s only non-auditioned orchestra, the Hill Orchestra prides itself on being sociable and welcoming. Tonight’s concert on the 3rd of December at Elvet Methodist Church wholeheartedly embraced the ethos of Christmas generosity by taking donations for three foodbank charities from the impressively large audience. The orchestra always felt in safe hands under the clear and exceedingly competent direction of conductor Samuel Read, aided by the orchestra’s leader Alice Speed.

The concert began with Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ ‘Eventide’, a piece characterised by interweaving dissonance and undulating intensity. The opening settled down gradually, as muted first violins floated with poise and delicacy at the top of the texture. From a visual perspective, the violins would benefit from focusing on bow direction being consistent throughout the section, and there was some questionable intonation from them at times throughout the concert, however the orchestra expertly captured the subdued mood of the piece.

‘The players’ visible confidence and enjoyment heightened the jovial and playful atmosphere’

Delius’ ‘Sleigh Ride’, originally written for piano in 1887, was perhaps the concert’s most light-hearted piece. The players’ visible confidence and enjoyment, particularly in the string section, heightened the piece’s jovial and playful atmosphere. Furthermore, crisp pizzicato and dotted rhythms were effectively contrasted by the slower but equally well controlled legato sections, and an outstanding flute solo made it a truly memorable performance.

‘the whole church was filled with a perfectly balanced and blended sound, making for a wonderful, triumphant atmosphere’

Next was ‘Nocturne’ by Gerald Finzi, a little-known 20th century British composer particularly noted for his choral works. The listener is drawn to hear the climax in the middle section as being somewhat reminiscent of a carol. During this forte passage, the zenith of the piece, the whole church was filled with a perfectly balanced and blended sound, making for a wonderful, triumphant atmosphere – undoubtedly a highlight of the concert for me. The piece wound down gradually as the texture thinned, finishing as it started with just the lower strings (cellos and basses), which exhibited exemplary dynamic control during both of these passages. The cyclicality of the piece made for a satisfying ending to the first half; I applaud the programming.

The second half was devoted to Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s ‘Carol Symphony’, a celebration of carols in four movements, written to be played continuously and uninterrupted (attack), although this wasn’t fully accomplished. The first movement ‘Adeste Fideles’ saw proficiency in the strings throughout the fast semiquaver passages at the start, whilst the brass were strong on the melody line, shining through the texture, and transitions between different sections of the orchestra were smooth. Similarly, in the second movement, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, the exchanging of the melody line between parts was effective, and the woodwind section was tidy throughout, despite difficult runs. The ‘Romance’ that followed was beautifully atmospheric, with the keyboard (originally harp) solo conjuring images of delicate snowflakes brushing the ground. Intonation during the First Noel was perfectly secure and this facilitated the tranquil tone. There were some very minor issues with timing and togetherness during the section which followed, but overall exquisite playing all around. Leading into the final movement, a foreboding and mystical atmosphere was successfully created before ‘Here We Come A-Wassailing’ served as the upbeat finale to end the concert on a high.

I’d like to thank the executive committee and all those involved in the orchestra for putting on such a splendid performance. Next term, on the 15th of March, the Hill Orchestra will be performing repertoire celebrating female composers – definitely a date to put in the diary!

Catherine Whittle