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REVIEW: Oxford University Orchestra Michaelmas Term Concert

Sophie Littlewood reviews the OUO Concert (conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig) which took place at the Sheldonian Theatre, 15/11/19

Last Friday, we were treated to a whistle-stop tour of one of the most controversial figures in music: Wagner. The Oxford University Orchestra showed once again their technical prowess, under the masterful hand of Jan Latham-Koenig. The concert started with the Ride of the Valkyries, with the famous leitmotif played out in an impressive display of orchestra ensemble. The brass stood out amongst the crisp strings, but soon warmed up to embrace the drama of the music, complete with virtuosic percussion. Next, the only non-Wagner piece of the night: Adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, complete with Wagner Tubas. The rich harmony and lyricism was matched by the full-bodied timbre of the lower strings and strings in a display of almost excessive romanticism. The orchestra breathed as one creature, but almost edged towards aimlessness – after all, this was a piece in anticipation of Wagner’s death – but the orchestra pushed through with energy towards a false climax that almost seems to beckon in early Schoenberg. After an excellent flute solo, we however were instead treated to a delicate ending with only a hint of conclusion.

The last two pieces before the interval were both from Lohengrin, Wagner’s opera of medieval romance and the famous “Here Comes the Bride”. First up was the Prelude to Act III, which opened with impressive control and a delightful solo from the leader, Katalin Oldland. The melodious wind perfectly matched the high strings that would have otherwise been a little too high-pitched. There was nothing to complain about here, as Wagner knew how to make use of an orchestra and OUO knew how to respond. That being said, the next piece, the Prelude to Act III, provided a much-needed change of pace. The orchestra embraced this opportunity to give a dance-like performance, complete with excellent control from the wind section.

After the interval, it was time for the revolutionary Tristan und Isolde, which no tour of Wagner would be complete without. The orchestra played the concert arrangement, the Prelude and Liebestod, of which the opening “Tristan chord” was no doubt recognised by every music student. The performance was truly excellent, even despite the unfortunate addition of a very contemporary drumbeat from directly outside the Sheldonian during the quietest moment. Thankfully, this remix moved on in time to hear the harps. The penultimate piece was Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, another opera of the Ring cycle. The Wagner Tubas were on full display, and the orchestra exuberantly embraced the drama. At points it felt as if Latham-Koenig was fighting to keep the energy up, but his efforts paid off as the tension, compounded by the excellent oboe and clarinet performances, was matched by superb percussion, vibrant snare and triangle included. Finally, Der Meistersinger. By this point, the orchestra was truly on top form, and started the way that Valkyries should have, an hour ago. The excitement of the detached strings and chirpy woodwind built as the drama moved across the orchestra. Wagner’s musical genius was evident as the two melodies intertwined in a delightful dichotomy, and finally rose to the glorious unison finale. All in all, a great end to a great concert.

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