Sheldonian Theatre, 8.30pm, February 29th 2008

The Oxford Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Jonathan Williams, gave a programme connecting the 20th century back to the 18th. Indeed, the theme of the concert seemed to be one of elegant lyricism; in the simplicity and beauty of Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Barber’s Violin Concerto one finds an appropriate partner to the grace of Haydn.

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Appalachian Spring, commissioned by Martha Graham for use as ballet music, was abstractly conceived but was given its evocative name shortly before its premiere. The hushed opening with its simple dialogue between strings and woodwinds was delivered with the utmost calm. At the other end of the dynamic scale, the full-bodied peroration of the variations on the Shaker theme‘Simple Gifts’ dismissed any notions of diminutivity that the phrase ‘chamber orchestra’ might have previously inspired!

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, the first of his concertante works (along with those for cello and piano), is also the most overtly melodious. The first movement demands most importantly a fine singing tone from the soloist, and David Le Page gladly provided. Sadly, some of his most daring runs found in the first movement’s climaxes were somewhat swamped by the orchestra’s simultaneous crescendi. In the finale (a short, spiky perpetuum mobile), conductor, orchestra and soloist alike maintained a bravely brisk tempo, and MrLe Page particularly shone in the final moments, where the rapid triplets suddenly shifted to semiquavers for the rush to the finishing line.

The 104th and final Haydn symphony (known as the ‘London’ symphony, while also confusingly being the 12th of the ‘London Symphonies’) acted as an unintentional summary of the composer’s mastery of the form. After the grave introduction, the chirpy opening movement was elegantly played, as was the following Andante. The Menuetto was an excellent example of Haydn’s humour, with abrupt silences punctuating the movement where climaxes were expected. The rousing folk-based finale brought immediate applause from the audience, who had listened to a well-programmed and superbly played concert from one of Oxford’s premier ensembles.

by Charles Markland