Following their stunning French-themed Michaelmas concert, my expectations for DUPO’s evocatively titled ‘Mystical Travels’ concert were set high.

First, the Chamber Orchestra, led by Millie Harding, opened the concert with Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The opening bars were suitably eerie and intriguing, achieved by sustained pitches in the strings. At first this felt a little tentative and the intonation took a short while to settle and balance, but nevertheless the orchestra created a sense of anticipation and direction. The piece soon developed into a faster section, which felt more grounded. This featured gorgeous melodic flourishes in the flutes, representative of birdsong played by Giselle Lee. I did feel that a few players were a little too bogged down in their music and could have taken their performance to the next level by opening up with some more ‘eyes up’ playing.  This however did not affect the quality of sound produced by the musicians. During this opening piece, conductor Harry Lai exhibited a great level of maturity, keeping his calm composure and clear-cut style of conducting throughout.

Overall, the Chamber orchestra managed to colourfully paint the musical sea-scape inspired by the poem on which Mendelssohn based his overture – a charming opening to this concert.

Next, the audience were treated to Mozart’s Oboe Concerto with soloist David Hedley. As a solo instrument, oboe is a sonority that personally don’t I particularly warm to, but in the hands of Hedley I found that my mind was completely changed. From the outset, Hedley delivered a note-perfect performance, with a clear and crisp tone that was maintained throughout. In the first cadenza, Hedley’s impeccable phrasing and timing kept the audience right on the edge of their seats. The second movement provided complete contrast, with Hedley’s cantabile-like tone and impressive breath control and soft vibrato, I felt as though I was sitting in an opera house rather than a concert hall. This was concluded with another stunning virtuostic cadenza. The finale promised even more fireworks as Hedley skilfully navigated his way through the seemingly never-ending cascades of notes. He played at impressive speed, but without jeopardising his tone, articulation or musicality. Overall, this was a truly marvellous and polished performance form Hedley. Although Hedley took centre stage, the orchestra held their own, successfully providing a solid accompaniment that was perfectly balanced against the oboe. Lai is also to be congratulated for smoothly guiding both soloist and orchestra without so much as a hiccup.

For the second half, the full DUPO Symphony Orchestra took to the stage with Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, this time under the baton of Hugo Jennings. This opened dramatically, with perpetual semi-quaver motion of the strings creating tension before the full force of the orchestra took on the patriotic theme. In juxtaposition, the Ballade was chorale-like in nature, with gentle clarinet and bassoon entries. The violins, led by Becky Taylor, delivered a rich and lush melody by playing high up on their lower strings, which was a particulary great moment. Finally, the Alla Marcia made for another change in tone, spritely performance. Perhaps the violins could have aimed for greater rhythmic clarity in their vast dotted rhythm passages to enhance the excitement of this last movement. However when the full orchestral force was unleashed, the exciting climax of the piece was achieved with great musicality.

Next on their mystic tour, DUPO arrived in Russia with the Dance of the Persian Slaves from Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanschina. This was a great choice and gave the programme an intriguing oriental twist. Jennings did a remarkable job at drawing out the dark Russian soul exemplified in Mussorgsky’s writing. This was particularly evident in the lushness of the strings, led by Becky Taylor and the hypnotic undulation of the solo clarinet moments, played by Josh Ward. Despite a few sticky tempo changes, this piece really was a passage into the mysterious character of Russian ‘otherness’.

To conclude the programme, the symphony orchestra tackled Dvorak’s Noon Witch: a symphonic poem with dark and twisted mythological origins. The orchestra characterised each character, mood and setting beautifully, making for a dramatic performance. A special mention must go to bass clarinettist James Petley and bassoonist Thomas Feild, who were tasked with representing the Noon Witch herself. This duet was majestically ominous and really drove the musical story forward. The piece gradually unfolded to its climax, where the trumpets and trombones, led by Harvey Stevens and Rob Little, were forcefully employed to bring this epic poem to its conclusion. The sheer enjoyment of the orchestra during this final piece was palpable and this was without doubt the highlight of the concert.

Congratulations to DUPO for another stunning concert, particularly to President Franklin Taylor-Moore and his executive committee for pulling this event together, and to conductors Lai and Jennings. DUPO seem to be travelling on an upwards trajectory this year, which promises even greater concerts to come.