Music in Durham

DUPO’s Picture Gallery

DUPO Symphony and Chamber orchestras paint vivid musical pictures in a concert bursting with colour and passion.

If I hadn’t taken a quick photo to go with this review of last night’s concert at the Gala Theatre by the Durham University Palatinate Orchestra, there would have been no shortage of choice to illustrate this review of a programme inspired by paintings. I could have picked J.M.W.Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ which inspired a piece of the same title by Cecilia McDowall, or the little girl in Diego Velasquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ who may be the princess of Maurice Ravel’s Pavane, or any of the paintings by Viktor Hartman that were preserved forever in his friend Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Which to choose?

I failed to get a programme before the start of the concert, but even if I hadn’t known what the first piece was, McDowall’s musical steam train was so vividly brought to life by the DUPO chamber orchestra, I think I could have guessed. The lower strings started off, just a rumbling in the distance, added to by flutterings in the winds and chords that mimicked the unmistakable overtones of a steam whistle. Conductor Michael Kohn kept up a steady chugging energy across the orchestra that didn’t drop even through the quieter, more atmospheric passages of McDowell’s music.

Moving onto Ravel’s Pavane, I was delighted that Kohn and DUPO avoided falling into the trap of thinking that the ‘for a dead princess’ part of the title means the piece should be gloomy. As Ravel himself made clear, it’s a dance for a princess who is only dead because she happened to live several centuries ago. After a slightly shaky start, DUPO gave us an elegant, nicely-paced dance with some gorgeous phrasing in the strings. I enjoyed being able to hear every line of detail across the orchestra as it built up to a sensuous climax.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture is a picture in itself and if the playing wasn’t quite as polished as we’d enjoyed earlier in the McDowall, it was more than compensated for by the way the players threw themselves into it. This was a really exciting performance, made more so by the calm that Kohn created between each wave, and as in the McDowall there was some thrilling trumpet playing from Jude Holloway and Leo Vernaglione.

Last week, DUPO teamed up the the Opera Ensemble as part of Durham University’s student music gala concert in the cathedral and they enjoyed this collaboration so much that the chamber orchestra revisited this for their encore, with tenor Caleb Mock joining them on stage for an orchestral arrangement of Franz Schubert’s spooky fairytale Erlkönig. The double basses provided the terrifying thunder of horse’s hooves and Caleb Mock was an excellent storyteller, with good German and bags of characterisation.

During the interval, DUPO’s full symphony orchestra squeezed onto the Gala stage, opening the second half with a piece and composer that were new to me – Aldemaro Romero’s Fuga con Pajarillo, based on a waltz-like dance from his native Venezuela. This was nicely played under the baton of Jude Holloway with intricate syncopations well-handled by the strings and a sultry swing from the brass. A pizzicato section suggested Latin American guitars and when the strings returned to their bows, they had a lovely solid sound and they convinced me that this is a piece I’d like to hear again. [UPDATE I’m listening to a recording while getting this ready to publish and loving it again]

For Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition the orchestra helpfully projected paintings onto a screen at the back of the stage to guide us on our stroll through this imaginary art gallery, Trumpet player Eloise Demay shone throughout, beginning with her relaxed and lyrical introduction to the first Promenade theme, before being joined by a glowing brass section. Pictures at an Exhibition allowed DUPO’s wind and brass players to shine – notably Matt Smales and Niamh Connellan in their bassoon and saxophone duet for the Castle, horn player Tom Tomlinson in his Promenade moment and Smales again in Baga Yaga.

Jude Holloway and DUPO provided plenty of character and colour throughout with my highlights including the light, chattery winds as the children chased around the Tuileries gardens, the gorgeously rich strings in Goldenberg and Smulÿe and the brooding atmosphere of the catacombs. I feared that the Oxcart had started too loud to leave much room for the slow-burn crescendo, but in fact the orchestra proved that they had plenty in them as the sound swelled to its glorious peak and died away properly to nothing. Baba Yaga’s Hut on Fowl’s Legs was great fun, with exciting precise playing, thunderous cellos and the percussion going at full whack. There was more of this in DUPO Symphony’s encore, an absolutely epic, no-holds barred performance of the finale from Petr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to end DUPO’s year in unforgettable style.

But going back to my choice of paintings, there’s a standout one that I would have picked to illustrate this concert and that’s Mussorgsky’s final image, ‘The Great Gate at Kiev’. The orchestra here burst out into an overwhelming blaze of sunshine and tumbling bells in a passionate performance that held nothing back and that was so full of glory and hope that it moved me to tears.

DUPO Symphony and Chamber orchestras paint vivid musical pictures in a concert bursting with colour and passion.


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