Mozart’s Figaro and soft-boiled eggs

Oxford’s 2016 New Year concert took place at the Sheldonian, with the City of Oxford Orchestra conducted by the dynamic Stephen Bell. The orchestra accompanied pianist and Cambridge alumnus Tom Poster in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto and welcomed soprano Pamela Haye to join them for Johann Strauss II’s ‘Laughing Song’.

The overture of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro served as opening, revealing the ensemble’s balanced sound. Before leading onto an aria by the same composer, Stephen Bell shared a cooking tip with the audience, proving how wrong it is to think that classical music doesn’t have its place in the modern world.

According to the jovial conductor, the time it took to play the first piece is identical to the time required to cook a perfect soft-boiled egg. This might not initially have been what Mozart had in mind, but it was pleasant to find the atmosphere lightened by Bell’s comments in a venue marked by decades of formal Latin speeches.

Up next was a masterful interpretation of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto. Letting go of the orchestra’s power, this piece allowed the formation to show its depth, with the supporting double bass among the string section. Ranging from candid tunes played by the piano alone to avalanches of sound, this was truly the “treat” the conductor announced it would be, especially when it came to the pianissimo phrase that Tom Poster was able to captivate the audience with.

The second part brought its traditional ‘Waltzes, Polkas and Marches’, insisting a little too strongly on the cymbals for the triumphant airs of Suppe’s ‘Light Cavalry.’ The intimate ‘Marietta’s Lied’ by Korngold seemed almost out of place among such expansive pieces, introducing melodrama and slight imprecisions before moving on to the jubilatory Viennese waltzes.

It is a common criticism of orchestral music that the same pieces, movements and concertos are performed year after year, indicating its fundamental stagnation. Strauss’ ‘Egyptian March’ as well as the inevitable ‘Blue Danube’ closing the programme answered this criticism, whilst the choice of placing Strauss II’s ‘Laughing Song’ and the “Pizzicato Polka” composed by father and son together, in between the two more famous pieces, made the end of the concert refreshing and invigorating. Most importantly it demonstrated that classical music remains innovative, and Tom Poster’s ability to underline delicate aspects of the pieces and Stephen Bell’s energy complemented the orchestra to strike an enjoyable balance between refreshing vitality and well-known tunes during this evening.