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OUO at the Sheldonian review: ‘Spectacular throughout’

The Sheldonian Theatre was treated on Saturday of 4th week to a display by some of the University’s best musical talent. The Oxford University Orchestra (OUO) is host to some of Oxford’s most gifted classical musicians, and this concert certainly demonstrated that. Boasting a varied and challenging programme, I was excited for the performance, and the Sheldonian Theatre always feels a fittingly grand venue for such occasions.

D’un soir triste, Lili Boulanger

‘Triste’ is certainly an apt way to describe the concert’s opener. It felt a slightly odd piece to begin with, given its slow and rather depressing nature. It risked sucking the life out of the hall before the concert had even really had a chance to get going. However, given what they were working with, it was very well executed by the orchestra, who dragged out the piece’s ominous melodies to perfection. All in all, while D’un soir triste was my least favourite piece of the night, it certainly did not detract from the overall experience, in large part because the orchestra played it so beautifully. From the start they had set the standard for the night, one which they managed to successfully maintain throughout the subsequent pieces. 

Kauyumari, Gabriela Ortiz

Almost the perfect antithesis to the opener, Kauyumari is full of energy and dominated by a lively percussion section. An innovative and modern piece, it has an incredibly interesting story behind it, written mid-pandemic about the Huichol people of Mexico’s yearly pilgrimage into a hallucinogenic cactus called ‘Peyote’. The orchestra did this story justice, capturing the piece’s complex rhythms masterfully, an impressive feat which was testament in large part to the efforts of the percussion section. Seeing them scurry about between the different auxiliary instruments required to flesh Kauyumari out was almost as exciting as the piece itself, and added brilliantly to the sense of urgency present throughout. Simultaneously, the rest of the orchestra did very well to keep up with the pace set down by the percussion. As a piece that gets faster and faster as it goes on, by the end it leaves all onlookers stunned by the speed at which the orchestra  manipulated their instruments, especially because they made it look so easy. It was a refreshing uplift following the opener, and its dramatic end re-energised the audience before heading into the interval. 

Second half: An Alpine Symphony, Richard Strauss

As the highlight of the programme at a glance, I was intrigued to see how the University Orchestra would take on and handle a piece as grand and magnificent as Alpine Symphony, especially given the size constraints of both the venue and the orchestra itself. I was lucky enough to go with a friend last month to a performance of Alpine Symphony by the National Youth Orchestra at the Barbican, a natural point of comparison for the OUO concert. Of course, that concert was on a scale that dwarfs the Sheldonian, but I still had high hopes that the University Orchestra could fill the space and do Strauss’s epic justice. They did not disappoint. 

An Alpine Symphony is beautiful largely because the listener can follow its story incredibly easily. As the name suggests, it follows the ascent, and subsequent descent, of an Alpine peak. The orchestra’s performance captured the story particularly well, and I thought the sections of the peak and the descent were particularly expertly performed. As mentioned above, another key requirement of Alpine Symphony is an Orchestra’s ability to fill the space in which they are performing, and this was achieved impressively in the section where our traveller is caught in the middle of a storm. One of the crucial moments occurs when we experience the first few drops of rain following the ‘calm before the storm’, and this part was excellently carried out through the interaction of the clarinet and the piccolo. The subsequent descent was also perfect, drawing the concert as a whole to a calming close.

There were a few moments where the performance felt a tad rough around the edges, such as the section where the off-stage brass came in, which happened slightly out of time and appeared to throw off the entire orchestra for a short period. Another even more minor gripe occurred in the section where our traveller comes to a cow meadow, in which I felt the cowbells which signify the cows grazing were too loud, making them slightly jarring, and as a result a section which should be calming became slightly uncomfortable. However, both of these were relatively minor and  well-recovered from, meaning that overall, they did not detract from a performance which was spectacular throughout. Given the confines of the space and the size of the orchestra, it was a superb showing of Strauss’s masterpiece.

All in all, the concert was an incredibly impressive performance from a very talented group of young musicians. Whenever I go to an event of the likes of Saturday’s concert, I am reminded of the extraordinary level of talent we are lucky to bear witness to in Oxford. Hopefully, the university recognises this and continues to invest in improving and updating its practice and performance spaces. The new 500-seater concert venue set to be included in the new Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities is a start, but to continue to attract top talent the University needs to work tirelessly to drag its facilities into the 21st century.

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