After a successful evening performance before the Christmas break, Elvet Methodist Church was the venue for Durham University Hill Orchestra’s spring concert. This concert had a relaxed atmosphere but the programme was nonetheless an impressive showcase of the ensemble’s abilities. The venue also suited this ensemble’s size very well, and they were able to play further forward and closer together than larger groups, which made the performance intimate and direct.

The first half was opened with Franz Von Suppe’s Light Cavalry Overture, a piece that showed some of the brilliant expressive work this ensemble is capable of. Obviously the striking and famous building tutti chords of the opening were a highlight, and there was certainly a great deal of power produced accross the board. The woodwind chords vamped in the background under some very accurate ostinato melodies in the strings. This opening was followed with a tutti-style march section carrying a great dotted rhythm across all the orchestral parts. This was followed by a thinning-down of the texture, which, despite some pitching issues between the brass and woodwind, was very impressive in the low dynamic. The faster allegro section with shifting chords in the strings and very agile melodic fragments in the woodwind was followed by the often-quoted march-style theme. The flutes were impressive in the slower section after this march dies away. Every reprise of the theme over those fast-moving woodwind chords showed the accomplishment of the string section off very well, and conductor Ryan Kerr led the transitions into different metres very succinctly. The final cadence was hammered home with a great deal of gravitas. The recognisable nature of this piece in popular use gave the orchestra the opportunity to make this intimate performance a unique and compelling one.

Following this was R. Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite. There was lots of counterpoint in the opening folk song, and then the strings generated great excitement with ostinatos over a forceful and well-phrased hymn-tune held by the brass and woodwind. The militaristic style of this piece is well-maintained with clear down-beats from the percussion and accompanying wind sections, and this faithfully reflects the original scoring of the suite for military band. Somewhat tentative orchestral chords accompany an otherwise sublime solo oboe melody, which is immitated by the lower-register strings and wind, and which leads into a brilliantly smooth transition to an allegro triple-time section. A highlight of this second folk song was the very powerful reprise of the main theme. In the final song, the horn solo holds the opening theme. The strings provide great support with expressive use of swelling dynamics and menacing tremolos in the violins. Despite some tuning problems in the last quiet section, there is some sensitive playing at a low volume here. At the end of the suite, the orchestra creates tension well before the final cadence, whipping back into a reprise of the main theme. The orchestral tutti section was particularly thrilling, as there was visually a great deal of intensity and energy from the players, which magnified the sense of a ‘hammering home’ of this theme. Also worthy of credit were the lower brass and woodwind, who often held melodies underneath the ochestral texture, but which were brilliantly articulated but also not overpowering, registering a meaningful presence at the bottom of the turbulent orchestral texture.

After a brief interval followed Borodin’s Second Symphony. The strings ably navigated a large section of octaves with perfect tuning, and there was great sensitivity in the building-up of the texture towards the lyrical second theme in this movement. Despite some tentativeness in the ending of the first movement, there is a rousing return of the theme before the final cadence. The intense sound of the lower brass was also noticeable in this movement, and contrasts with the brilliance of the strings. The pulse is clear and unwavering in the second scherzo movement, underpinned by the articulated pedal point exchanged between parts. There are great plucked chords in the strings in the allegretto section, although the woodwind and brass could have been more confident on some entries in this section when they were more exposed. The return to the opening scherzo is rousing and lively with fragments of the main theme shared between different sections in a visually pleasing wa. A superb horn solo from Jessica Muurman holds the captivating opening theme of the third movement, over some great swelling support from the strings The strings also were dark and threatening in their tremolos. Leader Anna Bailey should recieve credit for taking a very expressive and assured lead in these more nuanced sections. The close of this movement also features a characterful dialogue between the solo horn and a very vibrant solo from William Rigby on Clarinet  In the final section the orchestra has some very sensitive quiet dynamics, as well as navigating some very difficult dance forms with irregular metre and plenty of syncopation. The noticeably ‘eastern‘ sound of this piece is emphasised by the violins and violas with their exotic articulation of the pentatonic theme from the opening. Overall this movement is bright and gregarious and its ending is section is very climactic, the ensemble creating a great deal of tension in the false cadences before whipping back into a reprise of the theme to end.

Overall, this performance showed what the Hill Orchestra can achieve in such a short time, and their repertoire for this performance was well selected and impressive, showing off a broad range of styles and techniques. After this evening’s success, It will be exciting to see the Hill Orchestra performing in the Durham Festival of the Arts this June. For more information on upcoming events, please check the ‘upcoming events’ section of this website.