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An Impossible Universe - OUPhil TT23 Review

‘We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.’

Ray Bradbury

There were many ‘impossibilities’ confronted by the Oxford University Philharmonia in their concert performing The Planets. Selling out the Sheldonian Theatre mid exam season while tackling the colossal feat of Gustav Holst’s The Planets were just a couple, yet on this chilly spring evening, the orchestra sold all its tickets to an eager audience waiting to witness its impossible act.

Following the tentative string opening to The Oak by Florence Price, the orchestra offered a glimpse into the richness of African-American spiritualism that inspired Price’s under-represented musical output, carefully navigating sections of soulful lyricism. From gripping harmonic tension to heart-wrenching melodic fragments, the orchestra remained faithful to the poignant shades of colour Price so cleverly portrayed in her tone-poem, displaying discipline and clear understanding.

Departing from The Oak’s reflective disposition, the throbbing pulse of ‘Mars’ – the first movement of The Planets – pursued a fortississimo climax worthy of an inter-galactic battle. Alice Knight, OUPhil’s principal conductor, led the orchestra with lock-step coordination while the trumpet and euphonium engaged in increasingly terse interjections. ‘Venus’ ushered in much-needed tranquillity. Indulgent violin and oboe solos, ringing celesta and harp chords, and yearning clarinet and flute melodies led to a suspended dominant minor ninth chord met with serene indifference. Dancing straight into ‘Mercury,’ the violin, oboe, flute, celesta, and clarinet passed around a twirl-like melody, before returning to whimsical punctuations that characterised the movement’s beginning.

The frenzied strings and woodwinds in the grand opening of ‘Jupiter’ allowed the brass, particularly the horns and the trumpets, to shine in their bold pronouncements. Of particular note was a stately melody by the horns, woodwinds, and strings, followed by an unmistakably heart-wrenching tune that the orchestra – in perfect unity under Knight – delivered with dignity. This certainty preceded the insecurity of ‘Saturn,’ which hurtled the audience into ruminative soundscapes evoking the vastness of space. Although the comical enthusiasm of ‘Uranus’ appeared to recall the dance-like ‘Mercury,’ it remained grounded in brooding tinges of surrealism, marked by impressive flute, piccolo, and clarinet flourishes.

The mystical, undulating melody opening ‘Neptune’ offered no answers, and the orchestra convincingly portrayed the meditative openness, permeating even the choir’s final utterances. Perhaps, amidst the many impossibilities OUPhil accomplished, the greatest was this – they successfully invited the audience to ponder the impossibility of our existence in a universe of impossibilities, a question so fundamental and yet so rarely considered.

For that, the audience was universally grateful.



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