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Oxford University Orchestra: Great Success in Italy

The flagship ensemble of the university, alongside conductor Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, thrills Italian audiences during its tour. The programme, from Sunday 10th to Saturday 16th of March between the cities of Milan, Bergamo, Cremona, Bologna, and Parma, included five orchestral concerts (one in collaboration with the choir of the University of Bologna), a rehearsal open to school students and a chamber music concert in a care home.


The Oxford University Orchestra at the end of their last concert in Parma. 


The Oxford University Orchestra (OUO), made up of talented students of various subjects (from Music to Mathematics, Chemistry to History), performs every term under the guidance of a professional conductor in the seventeenth century Sheldonian Theatre. Since 1958, the ensemble has tackled some of the most demanding pieces of the symphonic repertoire, including great classics but also equally brilliant and lesser-known musical works. For the second time in its history (the first was Japan in 2019), the orchestra embarked on a tour abroad. This time, the chosen destination is northern Italy (Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna).


During the week-long tour, the 62-piece orchestra performed the beautiful melodies of Brahms’ Second Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (a tribute to Shakespeare and the city of Verona) and Ruth Gipps’ exceptional Second Symphony, never performed in Italy before this tour. The orchestra also presented the world premiere of Sŏlum, a new composition by Italian composer and Oxford alumna Giulia Monducci, commissioned specifically for the tour on the theme of environmental sustainability. The piece, inspired by the research of Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva, was well received for its “dissonances that amaze the listener, envelop them and weave around them an unexpectedly reassuring plot full of emotional suggestion” (La Provincia di Cremona). The collaboration with the Choir of the Collegium Musicum Almae Matris of the University of Bologna was also of great success, the orchestra tackled Edward Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands Op. 27.


Milan, Sunday 10th of March at 6pm, Aula Magna, University of Milan

The tour began in Milan, where the orchestra performed to a sold-out Aula Magna. The orchestra were a guest of Orchestra UNIMI’s concert season dedicated to the centenary celebrations of the University of Milan. The concert was well received for the “compactness of the ensemble yet maintaining great transparency in the Brahmsian orchestral writing” (OperaClick).

The Oxford University Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet in the Aula Magna, University of Milan. Photo by Marta Cervone.


Milan, Monday 11th of March at 4pm, Casa di Riposo per Musicisti G. Verdi

The tour continued with selected chamber ensembles (a wind quintet, a flute quartet, and a string octet) who performed for the residents of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti G. Verdi, the historic Milanese care home for retired musicians and opera singers founded by Verdi himself (who is buried there) in 1896. The performances were warmly received by the audience and the performers were offered a guided visit of the magnificent neo-Gothic building following their performance. Bassoonist Conrad Spencer (Music, Jesus College) commented that “Playing at the care home was a rewarding and enriching experience – not only did we get to perform to a receptive and appreciative audience, but the opportunity of visiting a place so steeped in history was a great honour”.


Bergamo, Tuesday 12th of March at 8pm, Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore

The second symphonic concert took place in the magnificent Basilica di S. Maria Maggiore in Bergamo’s ‘Città Alta’. The orchestra embarked on a day trip to the City of Culture 2023 making their way to the upper town either by funicular or walking up the world-heritage Venetian walls that surround the medieval village. The concert, a few days ahead of the commemoration week, was dedicated to the victims of Covid-19 which, as the President of the city council pointed out in a speech at the start of the concert, particularly affected the city of Bergamo. The notes of Tchaikovsky and Brahms resonated in the place where opera composer Gaetano Donizetti is buried, decorated with wonderful frescoes, and, in the words of cellist Johan Orly (History, Christ Church College), “the most beautiful place I have ever performed in”.


Cremona, Wednesday 13th of March at 10.30am, Teatro A. Ponchielli

An intense day in which the orchestra engaged in a double performance at the seventeenth-century Teatro A. Ponchielli in Cremona: an open rehearsal on Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet to school students in the morning and a concert in the evening. In the morning at 10.30am, the orchestra performed to an audience of middle and high school students as part of the project ‘Oltre I Banchi’. The young audience demonstrated great enthusiasm and asked many questions to the conductor and the musicians. An aspiring young conductor was also invited to the podium.

Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey explaining Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet during the rehearsal open to students at the Teatro Ponchielli in Cremona. Photo by Salvo Liuzzi.

Cremona, Wednesday 13th of March at 8.30pm, Teatro A. Ponchielli

The evening concert was acknowledged  for the passion demonstrated by the orchestra: “the British orchestra showed good resilience as well as enthusiasm and serenity from every pore” (Cremona Sera). In a review by a local high school student, the concert is described as “extraordinary, an experience that made the strings of the soul vibrate and accompanied the audience on a journey through a rich panorama of musical emotions. The programme, masterfully curated, offered an eclectic range of compositions, ranging from contemporary to classical, thus guaranteeing an unforgettable evening for music lovers of all genres and all times” (La Provincia di Cremona). On top of the varied musical programme, performing in such a beautiful theatre was an incredible experience. As flautist Amy Fry (Music, Lincoln College) says, “playing in such a beautiful venue was a surreal and once-in-a-lifetime experience. I feel extremely lucky to have had this opportunity”.

The Oxford University Orchestra performing at the Teatro Ponchielli in Cremona. Photo by Jessica Donadio.


Bologna, Friday 15th of March at 8 pm, Teatro Auditorium Manzoni

The tour itinerary continued in Bologna where the orchestra, hosted by the Fondazione Teatro Comunale di Bologna, shared the stage with approximately one hundred choristers from the Choir of the Collegium Musicum Almae Matris of the University of Bologna performing From the Bavarian Highlands by Edward Elgar. The almost one thousand spectators in the audience demonstrated great enthusiasm for the students of the two oldest universities in the world, performing in the magnificent setting of the Teatro Auditorium Manzoni, a former cinema of the 1930s. Even if brought together in just two days of rehearsals, the strong harmony between the two ensembles made the performance nothing short of electrifying. In the words of horn player Callum Scott (Engineering, Somerville College): “it was such an incredible experience and privilege to be able to play alongside a choir with such amazing tone colours. This was made even more special in the Manzoni where we performed, which carried the sound to everyone watching”.


The Oxford University Orchestra performs Edward Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands with the Collegium Musicum Almae Matris Choir at the Teatro Auditorium Manzoni in Bologna. Photo by Giuliana Tumino.



The Oxford University Orchestra performs Brahms’ Second Symphony at the Teatro Auditorium Manzoni. Photo by Giuliana Tumino.


Parma, Saturday 16 March at 8.30pm, Auditorium Paganini

The grand finale of the tour took place in the concert hall designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano – a former sugar-refining factory – in collaboration with La Toscanini. As in all the other concerts, the warm applause was greeted with an encore: the famous Intermezzo from Fedora by Umberto Giordano, a small tribute to the rich Italian opera tradition.

Greetings at the end of Ruth Gipps’ Second Symphony at the Auditorium Paganini in Parma. Photo by Fabio Boschi.


On top of the busy concert itinerary, the tour was also an opportunity for the orchestra (many of whose members had never been to these places or even Italy) to discover the beauties of this country. There was no shortage of opportunities to explore monuments and taste delicacies of the area. In Cremona, the visit to the Violin Museum was splendid, while in Parma the orchestra was welcomed for a private visit to the Teatro Regio. Harpist Isabel Samuel (Medicine, New College) tells us that “one of the most beautiful moments was climbing to the top of the Duomo of Milan and seeing the spires turn pink at sunset”.


The success of the tour owes much to the support of generous donors and locals. We would like to thank our media partner Classica HD, who told the story of the orchestra through an interview with Tommaso Rusconi (Music, Jesus College), the new Milanese manager of the orchestra, as part of the programme ‘Mestiere e Teatro’ curated by Paolo Gavazzeni, which was streamed on Sky. We would also like to thank the sponsors Braida, Ruggeri, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, and Millutensil, as well as the British Chamber of Commerce for Italy (BCCI) and the municipalities of Parma and Bergamo for their patronage. Finally, we are pleased to have collaborated with our charity partner, the Lega del Filo d'Oro, who has been with us in Milan and Parma and has given the opportunity to some deaf-blind people to attend the concert in the Aula Magna of the University of Milan.

OUO Ambassadors travel to Washington, D.C. on an outreach tour.


Immediately following their week in Italy, seven OUO string players, still guided by conductor Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, travelled to Washington, D.C. for an outreach tour. The OUO members collaborated with Afghan refugee musicians living across the United States. Three of the Afghan musicians visited D.C. in 2013 as part of a tour with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), and during that tour collaborated with the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras (MCYO) and the Holton-Arms School. OUO violist Alice Sprinkle, an alumna of both MCYO and Holton-Arms, participated in both of those events in 2013, and helped facilitate this OUO tour to bring Afghan music back to those institutions. Recently, music has been banned in Afghanistan by the Taliban, therefore the opportunity to introduce young people to Afghan music was profound.


During their week in D.C., the OUO musicians participated in two Afghan-focused workshops with MCYO ensembles, including a performance with East County Strings, MCYO’s outreach programme for middle school students. There was a workshop and performance at Holton-Arms, and an additional workshop with the College Park Youth Orchestra. The OUO string players also performed Respighi’s Double Quartet for the University of Oxford Society of Washington, D.C. The group also enjoyed sightseeing, including a private tour of the U.S. Capitol and a stroll through D.C.’s famous cherry blossoms, which were in peak bloom during the tour.

OUO Ambassadors with conductor Cayenna Ponchione Bailey. From left to right: Anneka Vetter (viola), James Murray (violin), Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, Alice Sprinkle (viola), Cecilia Loughney (violin), Rose Hodgson (violin), Jemima Price (violin)

The Oxford University Orchestra


Since 1958, the Oxford University Orchestra has provided world-class opportunities for the most talented players at the university and enjoys great public acclaim among the university community, the people of the Oxford area, and beyond. As the flagship ensemble of the Oxford University Music Society, it selects its instrumentalists from the best the university has to offer, including many former members of the National Youth Orchestras of Great Britain, the United States, New Zealand, Wales and Scotland, and finalists of the celebrated BBC Young Musician competition.


The orchestra includes members from across the university community: from undergraduates to staff; music students and those reading other subjects; British and international students; and members from any socioeconomic background. Primarily self-funded through ticket sales, the Oxford University Music Society, and generous philanthropists and private donors, it is committed to presenting ambitious programmes which challenge and develop its players as well of being of considerable cultural interest to its audience. Every term, the orchestra performs in Oxford's seventeenth century Sheldonian Theatre. Recent programmes have included works such as Richard Strauss's An Alpine Symphony, Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The orchestra has collaborated with conductors such as Daniel Harding, Sir Roger Norrington, Natalia Luisa-Bassa (principal guest conductor), Peter Stark, Jan Latham-Koenig, and Ben Palmer. Among its artistic supporters, the orchestra is proud to have the patronage of great performers such as Steven Isserlis, Midori, and Ian Bostridge.


To hear OUO in action, join us on Friday the 17th of May 2024 at 19:30 at the Sheldonian Theatre for an evening of orchestral jazz, including favourites such as Gershwin’s An American in Paris, in collaboration with the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra (OUJO) and conducted by Ed Liebrecht. Get your tickets here.



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