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An American in the Sheldonian: An OUO Review

Louis Benneyworth reviews OUO and OUJO's dazzling evening of orchestral jazz. (smooth)

Members of OUO in their seats before the start of Gershwin's Girl Crazy Overture  

    

I am not regularly sweet-talked by an orchestra; there’s a certain ‘aura’ around them — serious, glassy, intense — that makes a concert quite such an intense experience. Oxford University Orchestra’s Trinity concert did not feel any less of an involved experience, but that aura was replaced with joy, flair, and a fair deal of tasteful mischief. The combination of all of these things led to a highly enjoyable evening of music, in which the connection between ensemble and audience was really felt, not inhibited by the often-glassy exterior of such events.  

 

The PA system on either side of the orchestra, and the bumper-sized brass and wind sections (to include a Big Band within it) gave the audience an idea of what was to come, but as conductor Ed Liebrecht stepped up to the podium, he met the audience with an unassuming nod that gave little away. This suspense was not held for very long, and the opening of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Overture was marked by its endless cheekiness, its epicentre being the beaming smiles of the second violinists. A motif as recognisable as ‘I got rhythm’ to open the concert really grounded the audience in ‘Gershwin territory’, and there was a clear sense that much attention had been paid to the sonic style of this era in music; perhaps Liebrecht’s work with John Wilson rubbed off quite strongly here. This was felt through an excellent soli cello moment, and Molly Skeil’s classy trumpet solo, although there was a sense that Liebrecht did not let this music breathe enough, particularly in the slower moments, and this led to some ensemble issues in the strings.  

 

It was evident that this programme had been conceived as a whole, and its unity was felt in the percussion interlude immediately following the overture — a nice touch as movements took place. It was after this that the audience was first treated to OUJO, and vocalists Isi Clark and Phoebe Holmes-Simeon. OUJO really warmed into the setting over their two sets, with their final numbers ’S Wonderful and New York, New York being highlights of the evening for the sheer commitment of the whole band to the sound. Clark and Holmes-Simeon each brought a unique character and voice to the songs they sang, and dealt well with the less-than-ideal combination of the Sheldonian’s acoustic and lack of monitoring, and both were not phased by brief moments of technological mishap. The togetherness of the band was on show in the tight-knit chromatic harmony in the instrumental of ‘Cheek to Cheek’, and an extremely idiomatic and stylish Tenor Sax solo, which evidently tickled the ear of Violist Killian Meißner, who’s look of astonishment in the direction of OUJO said enough about the sense of camaraderie between the two ensembles than words could. Sadly, the placement of OUJO in the room did not benefit the saxophones, who sometimes became lost behind the wall of strings, and suffered a slight lack of nuance in soli sections as a result, although this is a minor quibble out of the control of what is in essence an extremely tight band. OUO complemented OUJO well, with the harmony moving between front and back desks at the start of ‘Cheek to Cheek’ being highly evocative, and Jonathan Hampshire’s wonderfully bombastic Timpani in Let’s Face the Music and Dance being once more indicative of the joy.  

 

Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood Suite presented a double-challenge for the orchestra, both in its complexity and the need for a highly visceral representation of such a familiar story, especially without its visual context. There were moments of real intensity and vigour here, with the second movement being a particular highlight. This was one of duos, with Ella McLoughlin and Isabella Gregory’s Violin and Flute, Hannah Findlater and Hannah McFarlane’s Clarinet and Cello, and Isabel Samuel and Mar Umbert Kimura’s Harp and Celeste creating a true sense of dialogue — moments of clarity within the surprisingly dense harmonic language (particularly for a ‘Love Scene’). The nod to the ‘Tristan’ chord was nicely felt, and the strings were at their best when moving homorythmically in octaves: the effect of this emphasised the kaleidoscopic nature of orchestration during this period, and the tasteful use of vibrato underpinned the stylistic success of the entire concert. The first movement had a sense of nervousness to it, with an unsure start and the strings operating at a different dynamic level to the brass. The scalic passages towards the culmination of the movement were, however, very well executed, and foreshadowed the success of the brass unison passages in the third movement, both showing off the technical prowess of OUO’s players. Evie Brenkley’s haunting Cor Anglais coloured the texture prominently throughout the first and second movements particularly, and Maria Copley’s trumpet solo in the third movement was played with flair. I did feel it a shame, particularly after considering the demands of such a piece, that Liebrecht did not acknowledge the wind soloists at the end of the suite. In fact, there seemed to be, sometimes, a relative ‘neglect’ of the section as a whole throughout the concert, as prominent and often decorative lines occasionally were lost to the robust wall of string-sound. Nevertheless, this was a very convincing performance, and its triumphant conclusion was a fitting end to an impressive first half.  

 

The evocative opening to Loewe’s My Fair Lady Symphonic Picture somewhat caught the audience off-guard, and allowed a sense of ambiguity to give way to what was a highly impressive and dynamic performance. Some stand-out moments include the soli from the Oboe and Bassoon sections, Guy Barwell’s very classy trumpet solo, the real warmth of the second Violin and Viola sections in On the street where you live, the spacious harp solo, and conductor Liebrecht’s rather involved ‘flop’ cue to the firsts. It was in the Waltz, however, where the orchestra and Liebrecht really came into their own, with the rounded pizzicato of the bass section providing a nearly-hypnotic foundation, and the sense of shared breath underpinning the effortless clarity that characterised this performance. There was, at moments, a disconnect between factions of the orchestra in this piece, with the distance between the percussion and conductor being felt towards the end of the movement, and Wouldn’t it be Lovely feeling slightly restrained, not quite reaching its full potential. The rather obnoxious Neapolitan Sixth as the penultimate chord was played with such light-hearted power, and rounded off what was an extremely captivating performance. 

 

Following the second set of songs from the movies, OUO tackled Gershwin’s fabulous An American in Paris, a piece in which the entire orchestra gets ‘put on show’. OUO showed throughout the concert that they are able to master more subtle sections of music, and this truly showed in this performance, with Morris Harper’s Tuba solo being a fitting demonstration of the level of control within the ensemble. Alongside this, the Saxophone and Viola unison section, and the characteristic slides of the Bassoon and later the Violins was hugely effective. Despite a slightly unsettled start, where the feeling was not completely obtained, the issues were rectified by the sounding of the Car Horns, a satisfying third above the tonal language of the orchestra. The texture was often puckered by the percussive nature of the brass sound, and this was welcomed as a contrast to the luxurious smoothness of the strings. Charlotte Ward’s Trumpet solo, cloth and all, was charismatic and subtly done, interpreted in a way that did not attempt to ‘over-jazzify’ it, but rather let the music speak for itself. Despite a couple moments of instability, the blazing horns at the end rounded off a very different kind of orchestral concert, and certainly one that was worthy of an encore, which was enthusiastically received. OUO and OUJO demonstrated their versatility in spades over the course of the evening, and the sense of collaboration made for a special atmosphere in the Sheldonian. For me, the success of the concert came not only in its musical unity but also in its individual nuance: the sheer enjoyment of every member of the ensemble reminds us all that, sometimes, a little musical ‘sweet-talking’ doesn’t go amiss.  

 

 

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