Preview: Oxford University Sinfonietta

With just a fortnight left of Oxford term, I’ve been looking through the concerts yet to come. One programme which I’m particularly looking forward to is that of the Oxford University Sinfonietta (29th November, Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building). This chamber orchestra typically blends music from the early classical period with more contemporary compositions, and this concert is no exception. Ranging from Mozart to Ligeti (with Prokofiev and Pärt for good measure), the eclectic programme promises an exciting evening.

First on the programme is one of Mozart’s most famous works, his Symphony No. 31 (‘Paris’). A three movement work which lasts barely 15 minutes, the symphony was Mozart’s first to introduce clarinets (albeit cautiously in the low register).  From the opening brass chords, the bright D major first movement exudes confidence with a flurry of scales and jaunty rhythms. The lyrical Andante glides between different key areas, the glossy veneer disturbed by various interuptions. The bustling string passagework of the first movement returns in the Allegro Finale, the dynamic energy carrying the music through minore digressions and chamber passages to the horn calls of the triumphant conclusion.

A jump from the 1770s to the 1960s takes us to Ligeti’s ‘Nouvelles Aventures’ and ‘Ramifications’. Both pieces are written for unusual combinations of instruments: the former for three singers and instrumental septet, the latter for a twelve-part string ensemble (seven violins, two violas, two cellos and a double bass).  Ligeti’s writing will certainly test the OU Sinfonietta performers. The wordless vocal part of ‘Nouvelles Aventures’ and the chaos of white noise in ‘Ramifications’ produce an unsettling atmosphere. ‘Ramifications’ is a tour de force of extended technique, with half of the strings tuned a quarter-tone above the other. Apocalyptic chaos follows sparse textures and vertiginous violin notes teeter before plunging into a deep registral chasm.

Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 1 comes as a shock to those familiar with the simplicity of Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. A two movement assault beginning with a blaring trombone second, the first movement ’Canons’ is an exercise in contrapuntal rigour. Hurried woodwind staccato and rigid ostinati create a 10-minute kaleidoscope, exposing each and every player in the ensemble. ‘Prelude and Fugue’ opens with violin a capella meditations punctuated by the woodwind, before motoric rhythms drive piece onwards. The end is abrupt, the preceding frenzy followed by a sustained violin second which echoes in the ears of the listeners.

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The final piece of the programme sees a return to more familiar territory with Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 ‘Classical’. Harking back to Haydn in its traditional 4-movement form, Prokofiev imbues the work with his characteristic dry humour. The spiky harmony and jaunty rhythms of the work show the influence of Prokofiev’s time at the St Petersburg Conservatory. After a light-hearted Larghetto and the unpredictable tonal diversion of the Gavotte, the Finale brings the work (and the concert) to a virtuosic close.

This is certainly a programme which will test the mettle of the Oxford University Sinfonietta. With such a refreshing range of repertoire (the Pärt and Ligeti rarely heard), it’s definitely a date in my diary.