Arriving onto the floor of the Sheldonian Theatre to prolonged cheering, it was clear that the OUPhilharmonia, conducted by Marcello Palazzo, were promising us a party. Indeed, the programme contained two ‘party pieces’: the rhythmic, jazz-infused excitement of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, a relative rarity in the concert hall among his works, and an excuse for three instrumentalists to get together and, put simply, have fun.
However, its musical potential reaches far further; from lyrical, sweeping themes, and a sensitive and seeking slow movement, Beethoven’s work requires it all. The Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan, violin; Tim Gill, cello; Mary Dullea, piano) engaged as soloists, clearly knew each other and their musical styles well, leaving room for each other to finish phrases, passing themes with ease. Indeed, from cheekily holding on to some grace notes, or joining in with the orchestral tutti, a Beethovian spirit of fun remained at the forefront. Fun though it was, the performance never really seemed to engage, and the energy the piece promised failed to materialise.
The unforgivingly dry acoustic of the Sheldonian had much to answer for here; it did mean that disparities in intonation, and the difficulty of keeping such a large orchestra light in what is one of Beethoven’s most aboundingly joyous pieces, were issues that became unfairly highlighted, causing the performance to feel slightly pedestrian at times. While each of the Fidelio Trio played with an enviable clarity of tone, occasional missteps proved that the gap between the performance, and the sought-for perfect synergy between three soloists, conductor and the orchestra was one that was difficult to reach.
If there was ever a piece to blow away such problems, it was Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from 'West Side Story', and opening the second half of the concert, OUPhil provided a performance to match. From the opening attack, they were an ensemble in step. All held their breath as the string soloists performed an utterly sublime passage in Somewhere. Mambo never quite fails to get the heart racing, and OUPhil injected energy and humour into a performance that certainly excited the audience. Heroics in the brass section made for utterly thrilling passages as Palazzo juggled Jets and Sharks, ending in a peaceful and breathtakingly sensitive Finale.
Respighi’s evocative symphonic poem Pines of Rome closed the concert. The luxurious orchestration, requiring six percussionists, six offstage brass players, piano and celeste - not to mention the full force of the OUPhil’s already large forces, was shown off to an engrossing effect. We were plunged into Respighi’s Roman world, from childhood exuberance in the Villa Borghese, to a majestic, compelling string unity which signified the religiosity of the ancient catacombs.
All stopped in the third movement, set in the quiet peace of the Janiculum Hill. David Verran’s dreamlike clarinet solo floated, warm and lulling, over luxuriously nostalgic strings as time seemed to slow, transporting us into the Roman heat. Closing my eyes, I was there. Opening them to hearing Respighi’s chosen recording of a nightingale, embracing us all as it seemed to fly across the Sheldonian rafters, I was half-convinced I really was.
The distant beat of the bass drum disrupted this pastoral idyll, as the music layered, the orchestra gathered, and with the offstage brass (Respighi calls for six buccine – horns used by the Roman Army – though these are seldom used, here substituted with modern trumpets and trombones) placed in the centre of the Sheldonian’s Upper Gallery, the breathtaking finale was not just heard, but felt in the theatre. Respighi wants us to imagine the Via Appia, the site of past Roman glories. Yet, as the beat intensifies, the brass gathers, and the orchestra rallies, I can’t ever help but imagine a rather different march on Rome: that of Mussolini’s, only two years before Respighi’s 1924 composition...
Ominous yet grand, triumphal but disturbing: an evening of superb music and musicality.