On Friday 11th December Durham University Palatinate Orchestra performed their first concert of the academic year, under the direction of its new conductor, Adam Laughton.

The programme began with Elgar’s beautiful Polonia: A Symphonic Prelude. The lyrical passages were of particular beauty with a brilliant sense of line and shape from the string section, lead with distinction by first year music student Daisy Stones. The drama of the prelude was upheld throughout by excellent dynamic contrasts – the orchestra were able to turn corners and change mood with ease. The tutti passages really showed what the orchestra’s capabilities are, although the brass were sometimes a little strident in their entries. This said, the trumpet section, lead by Tomek Edwards, made good use of this in their final fanfare entries. This was a fantastic start to DUPO’s new season and it was clear that the audience were in anticipation for the rest of the programme.

The music moved from Elgar to Wagner, who was a huge inspiration on the former’s harmonic language. His Siegfried Idyll is an intimate work that requires very few forces in comparison to Polonia. Many of the musicians vacated the stage for this, which, because it was done efficiently, did not detract from the overall professionalism of the concert. The exposed start was a little tentative, but as the entire string section joined the sound was relaxed and mellifluous. There were wonderful solo contributions from the principle wind players, most notably Ellie Knott on flute, Josh Ward on clarinet and Catherine Walker on oboe. The horn section of Zoe Wardell and Rob Hardyman also played wonderfully throughout this expressive piece which concluded the first half.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Sibelius’ second Symphony. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth and as such the orchestra had managed to become part of the official ‘Sibelius 150’ celebrations, it was a shame that this was not mentioned more in their otherwise very informative programme notes. This work is not easy in terms of both the technical ability it demands of its performers and the poignant emotion it represents. Many scholars say that the Symphony was written as a social comment on the struggle for Finnish independence from the Russians. The orchestra, however, really managed to realise the work with great effect.

The first movement was strong from the outset. The rhythmically difficult opening was well handled by the conductor and the movement had a wonderful sense of line. Of particular note was the pizzicato passages in the strings which were wonderfully together and the sonorous quasi-chorale passages in the brass that were beautiful each time they recurred. The second movement starts with creeping pizzicato in the celli and basses after a roll on the Timpani. The lower strings created a brilliant sense of drama with this, especially the leaders of the celli and basses, Jack Hudson and Matthais Werner respectively. The great climax of this movement was wonderfully handled.

It was a real shame that some of the impetus of the third movement was lost due to a more conservative tempo and being conducted in two beats to the bar – as oppose to the usual one. It may be that this was Laughton choosing a tempo he knew his players would be able to manage well, but one wondered whether this orchestra, which is of a very high standard, may have been able to cope with the tempo mark that Sibelius gives. This said, the slower sections of the piece once again brought to the fore DUPO’s fantatsic wind principles.

The fourth movement flows from the third as if out of nowhere, this is the movement that, due to its grandiose writing, is often extra-musically linked with the plight of the Finns against Tsarist rule. Even after a 40 minute marathon the orchestra were able to keep a great sense of style and the shimmering effects of the finale created a bold and regal ending to a difficult work, played with great passion and commitment.

It was great to see DUPO’s first concert of the academic year. It was a shame that not more of the student body turned out to hear this fantastic collection of musicians brilliantly perform exciting and challenging music.

Review: Lewis Wilkinson