Durham’s second oldest orchestra prides itself on a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere for any who wish to be involved.  It is lovely that this extends to their concerts and engagement with the local community. The Hill Orchestra’s Epiphany offering comprised varied and ambitious repertoire of Borodin, Fauré and Beethoven.

Borodin’s In the steppes of Central Asia is an evocative and colourful piece. Through the concert it was noticeable that players enjoyed engaging with motives that put them in the drama of the piece, so this programmatic piece was a good addition to the programme both for the enjoyment of the audience and players.  The woodwind solos were delivered well, particularly by Caitlin Atkinson on clarinet, and Ellie Wilson on horn.  Intonation was slightly lacking in the more exposed tutti wind sections but improved by the end of the piece.  There was a good sense of ebb and flow in the dynamics.

Fauré’s Dolly Suite was delivered with character. The strings become gradually more confident as the movements progressed, but some tuning issues remained throughout.  The brass and flute sections had a lovely tone – perhaps helped by there being more flutes than celli and violas combined.  Even so, the flutes should be credited for a lovely and coherent sound, at times really bring magic into St. Oswald’s Church.  The conductor, Ross Norman, is clearly an encouraging conductor with understanding and talent.  It would be great to see him grow in confidence and be able to look up from the score some more.  This follows true for the orchestra, who too could benefit from more conscious ‘eyes-up’ playing.  Some phrase and movement endings would be made far richer with cleaner ‘offs’, and improvement that the orchestra can easily implement for the summer term.

Beethoven’s Fifith is a case study in difficult conducting in this respect, however Norman handled the difficult and iconic beginning well. It was perhaps a shame that the movement started quite slow, given the energy and anticipation that this piece cries out for.  But this may have been a wise decision on the part of the conductor, given some tricky runs and tight entries.

Nick Knight gave us a brilliant oboe solo. The celli and violas, at only three members per section, did well to push forward the first movement’s closing section, and again in the Scherzo.  Credit to leaders Matthew Toynbee and Rachel Boyd Moss for this.

The second movement seemed much more confident than the first.  Perhaps it was the reduced pressure of less famous material that helped release the orchestra to make some great sounds. Conductor Norman confessed this to be his favourite movement of the four, which may have had some influence. Some of the interaction between motives was lost to incohesive playing, but the pizzicato sections of the third movement showed how together the orchestra can be.  It was a shame that a lovely bassoon solo by Ella Standish was slightly lost to balance issues, but St. Oswald’s can be tricky in that respect.

The Hill Orchestra makes some great music accessible to players and audience members who would not otherwise engage with orchestral repertoire, and Friday was no exception.  It is fitting, therefore, that they channelled their efforts to raise funds for Youth Music, who support music making projects for underprivileged young people.  Their concerts are relaxed and informal, and the occasional faux pas of clapping between movements is absolutely fine.  While players would usually be discouraged from displaying signs of having made a mistake, in the unassuming context they have created a shared knowing smile serves to bring the audience along for the ride and into the music making.