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A Joyous Spotlight of an Underrepresented Work: An OUPhil Review

Oxford University Philharmonia’s recent concert was a thrilling display of the talent and versatility of its players. It highlighted how lucky we are in Oxford to have access to such high-quality student performance. Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony – the centrepiece – was paired with Schubert, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky to create a powerful programme which showcased the great sound the orchestra made, filling the Sheldonian with it as the audience watched on, rapt.

It kicked off with Finlandia, Sibelius’ nationalistic evocation of his Finnish homeland. The huge sound of the brass and timpani which began the piece was impressive, closely matched by the strings in their richly coloured melody which followed. The opening was made yet more convincing by the strong sense of corporate rhythm which pervaded, however some of the woodwind’s entries left some subtleties of intonation to be desired. Nevertheless, the piece gradually built to an exciting climax in which the audience was pulled into the flow of soaring melodies and evocative harmonies. The Finlandia hymn in the woodwind was genuinely beautiful, and they were soon joined by a small choir singing its melody to the hymn ‘Be Still My Soul’. Though their sound - well-balanced with the orchestra - added an extra dimension to the piece, the diction and timing was not as clear which prevented full immersion in the ethereal character their inclusion could have created. It begs questioning the choice to include them entirely, especially when the programme states that Sibelius himself remarked singers were not needed; indeed, they just sat in the gallery for the remainder of the performance and did not feature in the second half of the concert at all. However, Finlandia was a strong start to the programme, highlighting particularly the brass and percussion sections and whetting the appetite for more music to come!

It was followed by Tchaikovsky’s Garland Waltz from Sleeping Beauty which lilted along beautifully in elegant contrast to the brute force of Finlandia. The wind played sensitively with a gorgeous sound, clearly warming into the space. The strings played musically and accurately, showing their individual virtuosity and skill not just at the front but into the back desks too. This may be to do with the striking gestures of James Norton, OUPhil’s newly-appointed conductor, who conducts with his hands rather than a baton. This allows him to communicate nuances of phrasing in lots of detail to great effect, which the players clearly respond well to. Coming from a choral background, James’ style of conducting is rare in the orchestral world but lends his interpretations a precision which is often lacking from orchestras; perhaps Oxford’s orchestral scene has much to learn from his novel style.

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony was a bold choice to end the first half. The piece was well controlled and ebbed and flowed pleasantly, highlighting the great tone colours created by each section of the orchestra: powerful brass, delicate woodwind and sensitive strings. Special mention must be made to the woodwind soloists throughout the symphony, including the standout performance of clarinettist Angus Williams whose masterfully controlled dynamics and breathing in the second theme of the second movement left me moved, before passing deftly to oboist Francesca Lamberti who handled the theme with equal sensitivity. The orchestra generally followed the contours of the music well, though sometimes the music lacked a certain sparkle in the detail; this is something it would be lovely to see OUPhil develop further. However to achieve such an ambitious programme in a mere five weeks is something the musicians should be extremely proud of. Not only are such famous pieces challenging to get technically perfect, but they also present a physical and emotional challenge to sustain such pent-up energy throughout. The communication of this energy suffered slightly towards the end, perhaps because the programme featured much of the same so there was little respite for the players, and indeed it would have been interesting to see more than one underrepresented work included to highlight something even lesser performed. Nevertheless, the first half was a tour de force of OUPhil’s dexterity and musicality: a pleasure to listen to. And we still had the second half to go.

Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony is a work I’m ashamed to admit I was not overly familiar with, but OUPhil’s performance converted me irrevocably and unequivocally. The highly characteristic American sound brimmed with energy throughout which was well controlled and highlighted the many talented individuals of the orchestra with regular solos. The first movement instantly transported the audience into her sound-world, from richly orchestrated moments with a movie-star sound, familiar yet folky, to the intimacy of quieter moments. Partway through the movement, the texture reduces to a lone clarinet which left the audience spellbound as soloist Matt Jones guided their attention expertly with a gorgeous tone and commendable musicality. The movement also featured assertive trumpet solos performed with a beautifully clear tone by Ryan Bloxsom. The music was compelling and brought the audience into Beach’s enthralling sonic narrative with a triumphant start. The second movement was a warm contrast, like a break in the clouds where the sun shines through, beginning with a soaring horn solo played by Ben Colleran leading into a playful woodwind chorale. James left the players to shine, knowing exactly when to back off allowing the woodwind to play seamlessly together, led by oboist Louis Benneyworth in an intimate chamber music-like texture (though it was sad to see only one bassoonist, resulting in a loss of the depth of a full section). Following this, the virtuosic fiddle melodies were handled effortlessly by the strings, creating a danceable rhythm and infectious groove. In another break in the clouds, the texture later stripped back to horn and clarinet solos once more, followed by a beautifully phrased cor anglais solo by Tom Kirby in which the teamwork between the oboists was obvious, allowing their musicality to shine through. The movement built to a climax of the distinctive siciliana folk tune, ebbing once more into solos before a sparkly ending driven energetically by the strings – surprising after the elegant beauty of so many solos, but a great segue into the third movement which started dramatically. In this movement, we were treated to further solos showing off the excellent string section: high time they had their moment to shine too. Leader Michael Fu’s violin solos were beautifully controlled and highly expressive, suiting his sound perfectly and demonstrating his talent as a soloist as well as his exceptional leading of the orchestra. This was followed by principal cellist Grace Farrell’s tender solo, poignant and sensitively phrased. Special mention must also go to Sanjay Gudi, whose bass clarinet solos added a beautiful new colour to the movement. Its tensions and releases were handled deftly and I was utterly taken into the world of the symphony, sonically transported. If I hadn’t been before, by now I was certainly convinced by this gem of a piece and its performance; the sombre ending of the third movement, with its soaring violin notes and winding down of tempo, had me genuinely moved. All to be launched into the explosive beginning of the fourth movement! The evocative and exciting music was paired with positive and accurate playing from the orchestra in a thrilling end. Its soaring melodies over beautifully falling harmonies were convincing and musically powerful, bringing the concert to a triumphant close, far from the shaky start of the concert.

Beach’s symphony is a tremendous play on musical space, from the tiny to the huge, coloured by spectacular moments of light and shade. The orchestra handled these deftly; from intricate solos to powerful tuttis, it is clear they enjoyed playing the music. It is clear James enjoys conducting it too: although the first half may have been less solid musically, I am so glad the Beach was prioritised because OUPhil suited the contrasts of the piece far more than the more canonical music of the first half. The programme was ambitious with two symphonies and two additional well-known, large-scale works, especially in a shorter rehearsal period than usual (only five weeks due to exams) but the quality of the performance got better and better throughout. Not only did OUPhil convert me into a lover of the Gaelic Symphony, but I was also converted to a lover of the orchestra too! The standard they achieved, demonstrated especially in numerous solos highlighting virtually every section of the orchestra, was impressive. Perhaps more imaginative programme choices in conjunction with a judicious attitude towards picking pieces realistic to learn in the time available may develop them even further, but ultimately I greatly look forward to seeing what they do next!


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