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Rite of Spring and Scheherazade: OUO Concert review

Checkie Hamilton offers her take on OUO’s Hilary Term concert, conducted by Natalia Luis-Bassa and featuring Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

With Russia currently at the forefront of the headlines, it felt prescient that this term’s OUO concert presented an all-Russian programme. Unlike last term’s concert which showcased lesser-known works, predominantly by female composers, this term OUO opted for familiar, although challenging pieces, performing Stravinsky’s riotous ballet, The Rite of Spring, followed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite, Scheherazade.

The choice to perform familiar repertoire perhaps added an element of pressure to do justice to well-loved works and this would certainly have been felt by Will Kidner who was tasked with opening the concert with the iconic bassoon solo that kicks off Stravinsky’s pagan ritual. This haunting folk tune was capably delivered, although perhaps a little quietly. This seemed to set the tone for the work which although demonstrating a virtuosic mastery of complex rhythms, was slightly deficient in drama and effect. There were moments of brilliant string ensemble, notably in the opening movement with unity in the unexpected accents. Natalia Luis-Bassa kept the orchestra under control with understated, rhythmic conducting. Furthermore, the work places a spotlight on the wind section, and impressive solos were heard throughout, in particular from the E flat clarinet and the alto flute. There were moments of ensemble issues, for example in the Sacrificial Dance and there were instances in which tuning was neglected, particularly amongst the horns. Given the number of covid-related absences and last-minute replacements across various sections of the orchestra this was an impressive performance of a very challenging piece.

The second half of the concert transported us to the Middle East for Rimsky-Korsakov’s take on The Tale of Arabian Nights, Scheherazade. The indulgent string melodies and lyrical figures stood in distinct contrast to The Rite and its unpredictability. The orchestra seemed to finally capture its dramatic potential in this half of the concert with effective evocations of Arabian scenes and a sense of the exciting tales recounted to the Sultan by Scheherazade. The work began by the lower brass introducing the Sultan’s theme with gusto, proceeded by the Sultana Scheherazade’s much more tender theme, effortlessly performed by Violetta Suvini on the solo violin. In their own rendition of the Sultan’s theme, the violins lacked clarity in the ornamentation. There were impressive, controlled clarinet solos throughout the work, performed by Katherine Lewington, in particular the scalic figures in the third movement. A phenomenally rapid flute solo was excellently performed by Annabel Liu in the final movement. The concert came to a serene finish as Scheherazade is finally lulled to sleep by an exquisite high tessitura violin solo.

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