Checkie Hamilton reviews the OUO concert held on the 21st of November 2021.
This term’s OUO concert promised an ambitious programme of four lesser-known works, with two pieces composed by women and the entire programme written by composers born post-1900. The room was packed to the gunnels despite a glimpse of the phrase “avant-garde” in the programme notes, two words more at home in a sparsely attended back-end concert hall than Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre.
The concert began with Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames Overture, a work which won a competition to be the Coronation Overture for the new Queen of England in 1953. It opened with a well-controlled trumpet announcement, followed by bubbling woodwind, evoking the mouth of the great river. Despite the significant additions of orchestration throughout the piece, the essence of the Thames River was never lost due to the repetition of ascending and descending thirds throughout the movement which created a sense of development as the river flowed through the piece. The final rendition of this motif echoed the grandeur and depth of the Thames in its majestic performance on the timpani.
This was followed by Ruth Gipps’ Symphony No.2. While this work is a one movement symphony, it is split into eight different sections with distinctly contrasting moods which were brilliantly conveyed by the orchestra, from the nationalist, military fourth section to the lyrical violin solo that opened the seventh section. The programme notes described how the work displayed the influence of her teacher and mentor Vaughan Williams and this was evident in the second section with a folk-like, pastoral violin melody, brilliantly performed by Amy Moynihan.
Malcolm Arnold’s Variations on a Theme by Ruth Gipps created an effective segue into the second half of the concert. The main theme, a pastoral oboe solo was capably played by Ewan Millar at the beginning of the work and could be heard in various contexts throughout the piece from an excitable trumpet and string rendition in the first variation to an urgent pizzicato string version in the fourth variation. The variations were bookended by another rendition of the theme on the oboe in the sixth and final variation.
The final work, Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No.2, was a particularly impressive end to the concert. The programme notes told that ‘Arnold’s life was one notoriously pervaded by alcoholism, severe depression, and suicide attempts, and the interpretative distance from his biography to the music of the third movement is short.’ This was certainly conveyed in this performance with the sul ponticello violins creating a harsh and unsettling sound and augmented intervals in the woodwind giving a sense of being suspended between tonalities. The tolling of a tubular bell was effective in evoking a sense of impending death. After hearing the third movement of this work, it was hard to believe that the same tormented composer could have written the following, final movement. A cymbal crash launched us into the fourth movement, followed by a cheeky, energetic clarinet solo brilliantly performed by James Garagnon. There were some issues with the string ensemble in the final movement, but this was a minor flaw in an exceptionally well-performed programme.