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A Journey Through Russian Consciousness: An Oxford Millennium Orchestra’s Review

As dappled light graced the upper gallery of the Sheldonian theatre, the Oxford Millennium Orchestra took their seats to play Mussorgsky’s ‘Dawn on the Moscow River’. Joe Davies approached the podium with poise and confidence, the orchestra following suit.


Opening the piece, the violins deftly captured the lightness and wonder of breaking dawn. While there were some initial intonation issues in the strings this did not compromise intent, the orchestra working well together from the outset. A sense of security and comfort was found as the theme was passed from section to section. Tom Dixon’s mellow iteration of the idea truly opened up to expressive dialogue with the strings, a solid sense of character building from this point onwards. The orchestra as a whole capably depicted the awe of such a precious national symbol, the Moscow River keenly in sight at all times of the performance in all its glory.


It was clear to me that significant thought went into programming; a cleverly crafted programme detailed a journey through the nineteenth’s century Russian consciousness. Rachmaninov’s 'Isle of the Dead’ brought a key contrasting facet of Russian identity and development to mind after the Mussorgsky. The two differing concepts were woven together well, the heaviness of the Rachmaninov balancing with the light, brief nature of the Mussorgsky. The orchestra achieved this variation via the strings who obtained an immediate awareness of Rachmaninov’s dark vision; a clear picture of relentless dipping oars into water was cultivated through determination to work as one. Quality of tone with a raw, open sound aided this vision. Excellent intonation and communication within the woodwind section was presented, exposed above this murky, ceaseless string bass. Davies brought the orchestra to its ‘symphonic wave’ (as termed by George Lawson in some excellent programme notes) with great effect. It is common to lose sense of drive in this piece, the unending push and pull in cases fading into monotony, lacking clarity; however, Davies was able to maintain sense of drive with clear gesture, the orchestra seemingly comfortable under his baton. There were some unclear entries in the wind and brass sections during the latter half of the piece where antiphonal build took hold, which, if articulated slightly better could have aided the overall effect of climax. Although, given the absolute unity of the orchestra at other points in performance, this section of the piece presented as perhaps under-rehearsed. There was also a sense that some sections were unused to working together, this presenting as noticeable in the horn section. There was, however, excellent balance across the orchestra as an ensemble suggesting that where coordination was lacking on a small scale, it was recovered within the context of the whole.


After a short interval, the orchestra resumed their seats for the centrepiece of this programme: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Having explored Russian nationalism in its nineteenth century and early twentieth century pre-revolution context in two senses already, the orchestra approached this third piece with the knowledge of the prior two. This accounted for Mussorgsky's depiction of a key national symbol alongside Rachmaninov's consideration of the steel and unity of the Russian national identity that Maria Frolova-Walker has suggested typifies the Russian consciousness. Alex Buckley proudly announced the primary theme, setting off the dialogue that dictates this symphony from the moment it begins to the moment it ends: between the primary theme and the secondary theme, the two halves of fate. The orchestra captured dialogue between these themes well, character contrast being considered with close attention.


On the opening of the Andante cantabile, a well-established string grounding gave way to Tommaso Rusconi who adeptly undertook Tchaikovsky’s famous horn melody. He appealed to its plea with absolute sensitivity. Cameron Hutchinson was particularly skilled in adopting this tone after it had been set while simultaneously drawing it out of its meditative spin. Interacting with Rusconi well, both players were able to transform character together. In amongst dialogue, the rawness of the strings added a layer of contrast to the lightness of woodwind and horn. This moment was a particular highlight of the programme due to its expert capture of the struggle with fate.


While the contrast in the Andante Cantabile was achieved well, I found there could have been further variation during the Allegro Moderato; since Tchaikovsky gives such extensive opportunity to capture every possible facet of the Valse, it felt at times like this opportunity was not taken. However, where character contrast lacked in terms of the broader theme, the woodwind soloists were able to interject with unique voice. Felicity Howard set a distinctive tone for dialogue to come within the woodwind and strings which was continued by Phillippa Kemp, floating above the orchestra with ease. Conclusion of this movement was well executed, setting up the tonic major reprise of the ‘fate theme’ for the finale.


The orchestra achieved the essential sense of resolution and homecoming in this final movement well; however, it was perhaps taken too fast by Joe Davies, the true development of the Andante Maestoso not quite being executed with as clear effect as it could have been. Despite this, the final movement was in many ways a testament to the orchestra’s skill throughout performance in remaining as one. The conscientious beating of the timpani was steadfast, leading the orchestra, without falter, to its final climax with fanfare and resonant hammer blow. The theatre was left speechless before well deserved rapturous applause. The stun of this ending reflected the journey carefully considered and cultivated throughout. I, personally, felt keenly aware of its depth and nuance at its close, a story having been told in full.



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