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The University’s Symphony Orchestra is one of those under-appreciated gems whose abilities sadly go unnoticed by most students. Whilst it may be the case that few reading this are connoisseurs of classical music, that shouldn’t exclude one from taking in the aural extravaganza of EUSO, an experience unique amongst their contemporaries at Exeter. In case you’re still sceptical, let me tempt you further with what I experienced at their Winter Concert.

We begin matters with John Williams’ timeless suite from ‘Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone’. Upon the death of the introductory applause, we are whisked to lands afar, and with a flourish of celeste and Pithers’ characterful style, EUSO reconfirms their ability to draw one into their rich tapestry. Aiding to this, it became immediately clear how each leitmotif was being played with a joy that can only be found when the ensemble is able to connect on a personal level to their task. Fitting too, is the fact that J.K. Rowling graduated within this very hall, a factor only serving to further entwine the bond between music and musician, one which simply enhanced the truly bewitching results. From the poetic wind sections, to the laser-sighted percussion, to the whirlwind of strings, it was a rendition which did the University’s most treasured alumni justice, and one that would make even Severus Snape smile. 

EUSO reconfirms their ability to draw one into their rich tapestry

Elgar’s Cello Concerto followed. The very last notable piece ever composed by the man, its introspective and elegiac nature made for an interesting counterpoint to its airy and moving predecessor. Further contracting with its predecessor was its method of performance. Whilst Harry Potter requires ones attention to be transfixed onto the orchestra as a whole, the Cello Concerto requires a soloist to take the lead. Step forward cellist Théa-Rose Mumford.

As a body, the Orchestra was able to afford the Concerto the accompaniment it deserved, gracefully manoeuvring itself to accommodate the solo performance, and combining to generate the aural power needed to do Elgar justice. The hushed entrance and the fateful tread of the tutti main theme created a powerfully portentous soundscape; nimble-fingered and dazzlingly effective, with enough finesse to grant itself an affordance as more than just the accompaniment, but also as part of the driving force of this work.

However, what made this performance so engaging was the method of its approach. Many take Elgar as they would with Vaughan Williams, focusing on developing grace and serenity over other factors. To play him is to walk through a countryside, or so goes the common view. The problem is that this commonly overlooks the finer details of the work, the drive and aggression which lies amongst the requiescence. This problem was never obvious during Mumford’s performance, her playing was able to exude both grace and fury, as she ensured that Elgar was made her own, striking the cello with scrupulous ferocity, before metamorphosing such acts into ones of finesse. The end result emerged as one closer in interpretation to Sol Gabetta or Jacqueline du Pré’s performances than Yo-Yo Ma’s, and the better for it. It took on a character of its own and enforced an identity upon it that was both full-blooded and dignified; passionate yet cerebral, and slotted in perfectly to an orchestra filled with both individual talent and fidelity. You can find countless performances of Elgar’s Cello Concerto wherein the soloist simply performs the score, instead of adding to it. Not here, and that is why it was so striking.

her playing was able to exude both grace and fury, as she ensured that Elgar was made her own

Brahms’ First Symphony closed out the proceedings, with the Orchestra again delivering a skilful performance. Combining a strong sound palette with a style that conveys both the wintering and the warmth of Brahms’ work, the Symphony is conjured forth with trademark clarity and esoteric wholeness, where woodland horn effects to an extraordinary dissolution, and bows pound furiously against strings. The clean, open sound of the orchestra’s superb winds also helps aerate textures, whilst the horns maintain the wonderfully Germanic texture Brahms intended all of those years ago. Whilst the performance perhaps lacked the singular identity of the Concerto, it nonetheless provided yet another demonstration of the raw talent within Exeter’s student body, and how seamlessly each of them slot into their respective roles, emerging only when called upon and sinking back into the body at a wave of Pithers’ baton.

With one final roar, the concert draws to a close, and our voyage back in time abruptly catapults itself back to the present. Applause follows, and rightly so. Time after time, the Orchestra has undertaken tasks behemoth in scope, and succeeded. Out of all of the student ensembles which abound Streatham Campus, the Symphony Orchestra is perhaps the one I would recommend the most. For the splendid blend of talent, musicality and character on offer, it is an opportunity not to be taken lightly, and one you should indulge in whenever the chance arises.

EUSO are currently looking for Violin and Viola players to join the Orchestra for their forthcoming Spring Concert. Repertoire will include Sibelius No. 5 and extracts from John Williams’ ‘Star Wars’ suite. If interested, please contact Megan at mlm216@exeter.ac.uk.

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