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REVIEW: OU Sinfonietta – HT20

Katharine Voake reviews the Oxford University Sinfonietta concert which took place on Friday 28th February 2020, conducted by Joseph Beesley

The programme for OU Sinfonietta’s concert on the evening of Friday the 28th of February promised to be very exciting: the premiere of a new composition by second year music student Jonty Watt, followed by the fantastic and rarely performed Grace Williams violin concerto, with internationally renowned violinist Madeleine Mitchell as guest soloist, culminating in Beethoven’s superb “Pastoral” symphony. Conducted by Joesph Beesley, this was certainly a very interesting selection of pieces, but some of the performances left me feeling underwhelmed.

First up was a fantastic performance of Jonty Watt’s “Apogee” – this piece more than held its own against the next two masterpieces on the program, indeed producing the most memorable performance of the evening. The OUSinf played at its best, delivering a controlled, precise, and colourful performance. From the first incredibly delicate and quiet bars of the piece, the players produced an utterly absorbing atmosphere, and conveyed to the audience that wonderful, concentrated feeling that they were all really listening to each other. The acoustics of the University Church of St. Mary’s suited the extreme range of dynamics in the composition too – the orchestra brought out the versatility of the space, the setting almost becoming intimate during the pianissimo passages, and imposing during the fortissimo passages played by the full orchestra. Refined, unsettling, oscillating between glacial sounds and rich, warm lyricism, “Apogee” was a startling sophisticated composition which it was incredibly exciting to hear for the first time.

Next, a performance of Grace Williams’ violin concerto with the celebrated violinist Madeleine Mitchell. I was particularly looking forward to this performance – Grace Williams was a Welsh composer who studied under Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in the 1920s, and whose works have recently undergone somewhat of a revival of interest due in part to musicians such as Mitchell herself, who has recently recorded an album of her chamber music with the London Chamber Ensemble.  It was therefore a shame that much of the subtlety of Mitchell’s playing was lost because it was submerged under the full sound of the orchestra. It was a delight to hear the orchestra play with such vigour, but this was unfortunately at the expense of Mitchell’s nuanced performance. Mitchell played with great sensitivity and understanding, and whilst this shone through in the second movement of the concerto, where there were more solo passages for the violin, I wish I could have heard her more. Despite this issue of balance, both the orchestra and the soloist performed admirably, and it was great to hear a live rendition of this rarely performed work.

If Jonty Watt’s “Apogee” and Grace Williams’ Violin Concerto were new pieces for most of the audience, then it was very fitting that the evening should conclude with one of the most famous and widely beloved symphonic pieces, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. It is difficult to judge any performance of this work fairly because it is a piece we are all so familiar with it. I for one have grown up listening to Karajan’s legendary 1953 recording of the work with the Berlin Philharmonic, and could not help comparing the OUSinf’s performance with the rendition I knew so well. I thought the first movement was played at too sluggish a tempo, and after the intermission some of the concentration which had been so tangible in the first half of the concert seemed to have waned.

However, there were still some passages which were played with remarkable freshness, and the orchestra came into its own again from the second movement, consistently beginning crescendo passages with a gentleness which was very moving. The musicianship of the individual players was (as was to be expected!) of a very high standard – the various short solos throughout the piece were played beautifully (the bassoon and flute solos particularly stood out). I was completely transported in the final movement of this piece: the cuckoo motif section was spellbinding, and the “storm” section was played so convincingly, and with such panache, that I could feel the pew tremble beneath me as the music reverberated throughout the church.  There were moments I felt the orchestra did justice to the music, and others I did not, but the evening concluded triumphantly. The fact there was an actual rainstorm occurring during the concert made the softly lit church an even more intimate setting than usual, and there is something blissful about being transported by music whilst looking up at the church’s azure, painted ceiling. All in all, a very enjoyable concert which introduced the audience to some fantastic unfamiliar music.

Image: Grace Williams (Composer)

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