On the chilly evening of Sunday 5th February 2023, a packed Sheldonian Theatre eagerly awaited the entrance of the distinguished artists of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, the decorated Orchestra-in-Residence of the University of Oxford. For many audience members, it was their first concert of the year, ushering in a season of beautiful music and memories, particularly amidst the OPO’s celebration of their Silver Jubilee. The anticipation of an indulgent Romantic programme was abound in the auditorium.
The concert opened with Antonín Dvořák’s Overture to 'In Nature’s Realm' which presented the audience with an ethereal image of a sunrise over a forest; the strings and woodwinds taking turns to wake from a calming slumber. The radiance of sunlight creeping into the picture was evident with the orchestra’s gentle growth into lush soundscapes, driven by the warm pulse of youthful waltz-like melodies. Dvořák’s inspiration from halekacka (folk yodelling tunes echoing from Moravian valleys in the Czech Republic) gave even the most turbulent instances of harmonic tension a level of sincerity and authenticity. The orchestra was joined by a number of student musicians, competitively selected to perform in the opening work of one OPO concert each term under the OPO Side-by-Side initiative. Seeing young players performing alongside distinguished senior musicians whilst hearing the cohesive wholeness of sound provided an interesting visual dimension to Dvořák’s juxtaposition and unification of nature’s cycles. The orchestra was led deftly to a tranquil end by Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey (OPO’s Conducting Fellow), with trails of nature’s songs glistening under the moonlight.
A warm round of applause and quick shuffling of chairs was followed by the entrance of Leia Zhu, a world-renowned violinist who, at the age of 16, has been appointed Artist-in-Residence with the London Mozart Players. No stranger to large venues, her confidence and command of the audience demonstrated how she has outgrown the label of a mere child prodigy and has since established herself as a mature and steady tour-de-force in her own right. Zhu was ushered in after a measured opening guided by Marios Papadopoulos, founder of the OPO, decorated pianist, and fellow of Keble.
In contrast to Dvořák’s Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major has links to nature which are more subtle. While Tchaikovsky is said to have gained compositional inspiration at the foot of the Alps in Switzerland, the concerto is more strongly characterised by the heart-wrenching lyricism of the solo violin's melodies, as well as Tchaikovsky’s gentle nods to his Russian heritage, and the creeping influence of late romanticism in the passionate harmonies and adventurous virtuosic explorations. In the first movement, Zhu's captivating double-stopped melodies were punctuated by orchestral tutti-like responses, soon being overwhelmed by a dazzling virtuosic display before a cautious reintroduction led very much by the soloist. The second movement lowered the audience into the gripping melancholy and bleak resilience that often permeates slow Russian folk-tunes. The OPO’s maturity and restraint allowed Zhu to flesh out the warmth of Tchaikovsky’s 'Canzonetta' (literally, “little song”), before a quick shift into an almost feverish third movement. Rhythmic pulse was occasionally marked by the orchestra’s urgent interjections but driven also by the violin’s rapid passages. Brief moments of respite gave way to the more lyrical Russian dance-like theme. The orchestra and soloist raced ahead, with the end marked by frenzied violin techniques and a flourish of the fullness of orchestral expression. Throughout, Zhu and Papadopoulos were engaged in a swirl of electrifying coordination, with her astonishing virtuosity and musical maturity perfectly matched by his tight control of the ebb-and-flow of the orchestra.
Papadopoulos appeared again after the interval, heralding the start of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major. Although Brahms did not give the symphony a particular programme, he must certainly have been influenced by the beautiful landscapes of the lakeside resort of Pörtschach in Austria, where he composed the work. The melodies which open the first movement integrated the D-C♯-D motif that permeates much of the thematic material of the symphony. Brahms’ musical genius lies in how the music treaded the fine line between effortless lyricism and over-indulgent sweetness – the orchestra’s gentle interjections allowed for the melodies to grow organically. Brahms’ symphonic treatment of texture and harmony reflected a subtle conservatism that grounds his symphony in structural stability, lending weight to slightly darker passages of harmonic tension, where the OPO brass section truly shone.
The symphony’s second movement began tentatively, with the strings’ soulful expressions marked by hesitance with undulating harmonic contours. The movement was characterised by different shades of cautious optimism, with Papadopoulos inviting the orchestra to find peace in its most pensive moments. This was juxtaposed against the cheery third movement, where an elegant oboe melody danced over triple-time figurations in the strings. With the omission of large portions of the brass section, Brahms momentarily brought the audience into a delicate and deftly-controlled sound-world. Gentle murmurs of a similar, elegant musical twirl amongst the strings and woodwinds were soon interrupted by a propulsive perfect cadence and an energetic theme, rhythmically punctuated by the timpani and brass. The strings continued to play heartwarming subjects in this movement, although with a greater sense of urgency and pace of harmonic rhythm than before. Yet, amidst the grandiose contrasts of the piece, Papadopoulos was careful not to push the orchestra too far, allowing space for the intricacies of Brahms’ melodic treatment to take the spotlight. The descending fourths motif echoed through the movement, perfectly complementing the strings’ hurried ascending subject from the beginning of the 'Finale'. The OPO excelled in building dramatic contrast, keeping the audience at the edge of our seats with thrilling pauses at the most opportune moments of harmonic and textural climax. After a resplendent passage of triumphant melodic pronouncements piercing through golden scalic passages in the strings, the orchestra returns to D major, concluding with resounding unity.
The concert was two hours of radiant and resplendent sunlight and the standing ovation which followed came as no surprise. There is no doubt that amidst the many challenges of the world, there has never been a greater need for more radiant and resplendent nights like these.