On Saturday of 1st week, I travelled to the unfamiliar setting of St. Mary’s Church. Having been used to classical performances in the more intimate location of college chapels, I was surprised by the warm architecture, larger auditorium and more importantly, the packed-out audience. The program boasted two particularly impressive pieces of music totalling nearly two hours in length – all the more impressive as they are both technically difficult pieces to play.
What was clear from the beginning of the Beethoven was the strength of the string section. Led by Emma Lisney, the first violins convincingly carried the melody and in rare instances, the entire orchestra. When there were mistakes, the conductor, Joe Davies, was so effective at bringing the orchestra back together that unless one actually knew the Beethoven well- would struggle to identify any actual errors.
George Needham, the soloist for the Beethoven truly shone out as the star of the show. Beethoven’s Third is known for its difficulty, yet Needham managed to excite the audience with his controlled style of play. What’s more, he overcame the common issue that usually plagues University level soloists: that of staying in time with both the Conductor and by extension, the orchestra. It is particularly commendable that Needham was so attuned to an orchestra that I can only imagine had a limited number of full rehearsals due to the early Michaelmas date.
Joe Davies, who I know primarily as a singer, also managed to put on an impressive performance. He is no fresher to conducting and has in fact conducted various successful events in Oxford over the last academic year, including being in charge of the Oxford University Chorus. With this performance, perhaps his most ambitious, I was particularly astonished by his ability to maintain a steady and strong performance through two complex pieces with a larger than usual orchestra and his conducting of the entire Mahler symphony from memory.
Contrasting to the Beethoven, the Mahler was a far more lyrical piece of music in which the story of a child’s view of heaven is depicted. The orchestra fortuitously projected the image of excitement and naivety which is often associated with young children. Despite its difficult polyphonic melody, the orchestra were able to work together, forming a pleasurable performance to listen to.
What makes Mahler’s 4th Symphony special is the inclusion of a Soprano soloist in the fourth movement. Sofia’s beautiful voice over the top of a well warmed up orchestra carried an air of extravagance – much needed to bring the symphony to a close. Her timing was impeccable and her rich vocal tone blended perfectly with the orchestra. At points I felt her voice didn’t carry enough – probably to do with my badly positioned seat and the large concert hall – but there were certainly moments where I felt that she was unfairly overpowered by the Orchestra.
Overall, a strong performance- especially considering the limited time the Orchestra would have had together to practise. I look forward to whatever Davies, and the rest of the performers, will bring us next!