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Cameron Hutchinson reviews Oxford University Sinfonietta's Michaelmas Term concert, conducted by Alice Knight.

As is OUSinf’s speciality, their Michaelmas Term concert offered an eclectic programme which certainly did not disappoint in providing something for everyone. Three of the four works in the programme were lesser known, and the engagement in a range of neglected areas of music was impressive. Emilie Mayer is simply not performed enough in proportion to her vast orchestral output, whilst Leoš Janáček’s early works are often overlooked in favour of the more mature and original style seen in his 20th century works. It was fantastic to see the modern work by Oliver Knussen on the programme, as well as an iconic Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphony.

The concert started with Mayer’s Overture in D Minor, and in the tense introductory section, it was evident that conductor Alice Knight had complete control over the orchestra. The heavy articulated chords played by the strings fell into place effectively, yet not too sluggishly. The programme notes commented on the overture’s showcasing of the orchestra's versatility, and it certainly highlighted some excellent playing from those in OUSinf. A particular highlight was Laura Kirkham's dazzling flute solo of semiquaver runs, which was excellently articulated with breath control well-maintained throughout.

OUSinf really managed to capture the late Romantic brooding and melancholic tone of Janáček’s Adagio for Orchestra. From the beginning, there was real character in the orchestra’s playing, both on individual levels and collectively. Both the bassoon solo of the opening, and the cor anglais and horn solos that conclude the piece, exemplified the mood that the piece demanded. The string section maintained excellent balance with the woodwind soloists, ensuring that the timbre of the low double reed instruments could still be heard. During the climax of the piece, the trombones’ deep, imposing notes added to the suspenseful and sombre atmosphere.

The choice to perform Knussen’s Music for a Puppet Court provided some innovation in the typical orchestral structure as before our eyes, OUSinf rearranged their seating positions into ‘two antiphonally placed chamber orchestras’. This new setup certainly added intrigue to the programme and as a result, the audience were treated to a new soundscape created by such seating arrangements. It was fascinating to watch instruments less commonly found in an orchestra - the guitar and the celesta - become the focal point of the orchestra. The percussion section was a highlight in the second movement, providing erratic rhythms and eerie effects which contrasted greatly with the serene imitation of 16th century court music elucidated in the first movement.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 offered a grand conclusion to the concert, returning to familiar repertoire, albeit just as exciting. The first movement’s driving energy was maintained excellently by the whole orchestra and the only respite was the oboe's solo cadenza, which was beautifully performed by Lucy Keeley. The second movement provided yet another opportunity to showcase the balance that could be maintained between the strings and the woodwind though it tended to stay on the upper scale of the dynamic range; it would have been lovely to have even more contrast with the piano and pianissimo markings. Such dynamic contrast, however, was definitely present in the third and fourth movements, and added to the exhilarating climax which the symphony eventually reaches.

In contending with a range of styles, OUSinf executed all elements of their programme with conviction, leading to a thoroughly enjoyable and varied concert.


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