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REVIEW: UCPO Lent Term Concert

A pleasing performance of a well-chosen programme

The UCPO’s Lent Term Concert provided a programme of well-chosen works which, while slightly conservative in stylistic scope (ranging only from early- to mid-Romantic repertoire), showcased the orchestra’s capability with a variety of styles.

The performance began with Borodin’s extremely popular short symphonic poem In The Steppes of Central Asia, which has lyrical challenges at its fore. The orchestra was generally equal to these challenges, and the clarinets and the flutes were especially worthy of praise for their beautiful handling of the primary theme. The horns had some trouble with this melody, but this did not detract particularly from the performance. Also excellent was the crispness of the extended pizzicato sections, a technique which was executed very satisfyingly at several points, including in the other works of the evening. This particular performance lacked some confidence and sharpness in comparison to the two subsequent performances, and this perhaps reflected the relative inexperience of the conductor (Matthew Gibson), who extracted a promising performance from the orchestra nonetheless.

The second work of the evening was Schubert’s wonderful Symphony No. 8 ('Unfinished'), whose entry in the (excellently written) concert programme provided some interesting theories as to why the work remained unfinished at Schubert's death. However, my personal theory was sadly not included; I reckon that Schubert looked over the two movements he had written and thought ‘this is such magnificent music – another movement will only detract from it, so I may as well leave it as it is’. This performance was the best of the three, and the evident confidence and experience of the conductor (Stephen Fairbanks) extracted fantastic playing from all of the sections of the orchestra. The opening section was exactly as sharp and precise as it needs to be and built up to the dramatic moments with thrilling vigour and drive, whilst always remaining impressively controlled. The rapid violin semiquavers were well defined, and while the cellos struggled slightly with the melody line at points, the melodic playing was otherwise very good all round. The highlights of this piece (and also the others either side) were the louder more emotionally towering moments, which were delivered with great confidence and style. The quieter more tender moments sometimes lost the pulse slightly, but this is not an unusual or unforgiveable issue.

The third work of the evening, which made up the entirety of the second half and perhaps comprised the ‘centrepiece’, was Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. While the playing of the individual sections in this piece was not always totally comfortable, when they all came together the total effect was greater than the sum of its parts. The collective manipulation of dynamics was impressive, achieving both the gradual and the sudden changes highly satisfyingly, with only a few passages dragging as a result of flatness of dynamic. While a drawback of the performance of the Schubert was that the melody was sometimes lost amongst the accompaniment, in the Beethoven the extent to which the conductor (Laura Dunkling) managed to get the melody to be passed around and to stand out from the accompaniment was impressive, and the orchestral tremolos and pizzicato sections provided the perfect accompaniment. The flutes’ and horns’ performance of the melodies in this piece were particularly pleasing. Similarly to the performance of the Schubert however, the slower quieter sections were notably less together.

Although it’s an unusual thing to point out, the physical printed programme for this concert is worth mentioning. The pieces were outlined well (though depth of historical description was apparently preferred over musical analysis), but I was also particularly delighted to learn about the results of a survey of the biscuit-preferences of the members of the orchestra. Unsurprisingly the chocolate digestive was the most popular, while more unusual suggestions like pink wafers and lotus biscuits also made it into the mix.

This was an enjoyable performance, and the sparse audience did not do the orchestra justice. They deserve a better showing at their next concert, which will be in the Easter Term. I highly recommend attending.

4/5 stars