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Maggie Wang reviews Riverdance, the Oxford University Wind Orchestra’s recent concert

On the evening of November 29, the Oxford University Wind Orchestra opened its 2019-20 season with a dramatic and elegant concert of river-themed works, all of which reflected careful preparation and a cohesive, musical ensemble. OUWO, made up of 53 woodwind and brass players and three percussionists, opened its program with a piercing, sonorous rendition of Aaron Copland’s An Outdoor Adventure. The orchestra filled the University Church with clarity and brightness, offering a clearly well-rehearsed contrast between the piece’s grandiose and reflective sections.

The second selection of the evening was the UK premiere of Jacob Beranek’s Pamatnik (“The Memorial”), written in 2018 to commemorate several key events in twentieth-century Czech history. This was performed under the baton of OUWO’s assistant conductor, Lucia Svecova, who led the orchestra with elegance and fluidity. Here, the orchestra displayed sensitivity and control, and the tuba and oboe soloists presented thoughtful, eloquent melodies.

Christopher O’Leary, OUWO’s conductor, returned to lead the orchestra in the third piece of its program. This was Joseph Horovitz’ Bacchus on Blue Ridge, which lightheartedly superimposes the image of Bacchus, Greek and Roman god of wine, on the much-mythologised landscapes of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the eastern United States. The piece is set in three movements—Moderato, Blues, and Vivo—and the orchestra adjusted expertly to the nuances of each style and tempo. Each section showed exceptional rhythmic awareness, and O’Leary’s precise conducting style gave the piece a vibrant, engaging personality. The soloists—bassoon, flute, and clarinet—all performed commendably.

Following the interval, the orchestra resumed its program, again conducted by Svecova, with Nigel Hell’s Thames Journey, which links a series of traditional tunes in a journey from the Thames’s source in Wiltshire to its confluence with the ocean in the south-east. Here, the orchestra, and in particular the horn soloist, created a lilting, wholesome sound that well embodied the spirit of the Thames.

The penultimate work on the program, performed now under O’Leary’s direction, was Gustav Holst’s Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo, The orchestra, led by the low brass, first laid down a slow, stately melodic foundation, then built into a lively, immersive portrait of Hammersmith before returning to its beginning state.

The concert concluded with a majestic performance of highlights from Bill Whelan’s Riverdance, arranged by Johan de Meij. This piece, composed as a tribute to Whelan’s native Ireland, showcased the full range of OUWO’s dynamism and lyricism. Each section helped to construct a triumphant, rousing sound that built into an expansive musical climax. It was a fitting conclusion to an impressive concert. Though there may have been a few uncertain notes over the course of the evening, overall, OUWO displayed tremendous musical and technical skill in a unique and varied program.


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