Checkie Hamilton reviews the OUSinf concert held on the 19th of November 2021.
The programme for the Oxford University Sinfonietta’s concert was certainly eclectic, promising two new compositions written by Oxford undergraduates, a piece by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly and finishing with Beethoven’s Symphony no.7. In a successful divergence from the world of church music, the concert was conducted by Kentaro Machida, organ scholar at Merton College, who was particularly impressive in the Beethoven. His choral background was evident, however, in his decision to conduct without a baton.
The concert got off to a stormy start with Reuben Tendler’s ‘Wind on Trowell Moor’. The programme notes told that the work depicts ‘a struggle between a cyclist, aiming for the top, and the meteorological conditions.’ The sense of the cyclist’s uphill climb was conveyed by incessant ascending string figures whilst an atmosphere of tension and struggle was created throughout by an active timpani part. However, the generous acoustic of the University Church meant that some clarity was lost, particularly in the woodwind.
This was followed by Toby Stanford’s prize-winning work, ‘Tumbleweed’ which depicted the journey ‘of a young, curious tumbleweed on her adventures through the desert, carried on the back of the wind.’ Anyone who is under the impression that the desert is a sparse, dull and desolate place has obviously never heard this piece! The work opened with high-tessitura second violins which were promptly joined by the rest of the strings and muted trumpets as ‘the tumble…wakes up in the desert sun’. Before the audience had time to contemplate how a tumbleweed could be ‘young and curious’ they were plunged into an eventful tone poem of the journey through the desert ending with a brass crescendo driving into a rapt silence.
The first half of the concert was brought to a close with dances by the Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly. Kodaly is perhaps better known for his method of music education than his compositions, however this charming work is proof that his music should not be so easily overlooked. The focus on melodic material provided a contrast to the first two works and the cheeky syncopated rhythms got our toes tapping. Kodaly showcased the woodwind section with solo material, including a particularly well executed clarinet cadenza performed by Katherine Lewington.
After the interval, Beethoven’s Symphony no.7 stood in distinct contrast to the predominantly programmatic preceding programme. The symphony was charged with energy from the opening chord; however, this excitement came at the expense of some of the quieter dynamics with the movement remaining between a comfortable mezzo forte and fortissimo throughout. The orchestra rediscovered their full dynamic range in the second movement which had a particularly impressive sense of ensemble in the lower strings with their pulsing, rhythmic ostinato. Unfortunately, as the dynamic increased, some tuning problems became evident throughout the movement. The accuracy and clarity of the rapid staccato passages that opened the third movement were impressive, particularly in the woodwind. The trio was taken at an unusually steady pace, which although creating the sense of grandeur, acquired a certain tediousness on its repeat. The brakes were off for the final movement which was not only played at a rapid pace but also with accuracy and excitement. Overall, an impressive end to an enjoyable concert.