The Oxford University Orchestra veered away from its usual course this term with a programme of five shorter pieces spanning a period of 75 years, rather than the two larger orchestral works the Orchestra generally prepares. Although the players responded well to the task, the programme was rather disparate, and the fragmentary quality of the pieces themselves – such as Verdi’s ‘Overture to La Forza del Destino’, which dotted through several themes from the opera – meant the Orchestra had a hard job to maintain a sense of direction. Fauré’s ‘Masques et Bergamasques’ in particular suffered from this: the majestic poise of the dances at times gave way to more of a heavy stagger, as the orchestra trudged through the light Minuet and Gavotte, although there was responsive interplay between the sections as they worked to weave the more obscure strands of Fauré’s piece.
This all changed with Brahms’ ‘Variations on a Theme by Haydn’ however, with some exciting playing from the violins, and a wonderfully thick sound oozing from the lower strings in the coda. Gaining confidence, the orchestra approached Butterworth’s ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ with finesse; beautifully phrased flute, clarinet and oboe solos from Claire Wickes, Calypso Nash and Julian Scott juxtaposed sensitively with rich string sections. This lesser known yet highly impressionist and evocative piece was full of contrasts, and leader Henry Chandler’s expressive solo floated over the top as the piece came to a perfectly bucolic conclusion.
This contrasted dramatically with the sinister world captured by Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite’. The lower strings and brass worked well together here to create the mood instantly, followed by an ethereal and eerie array of glissandi harmonics in the strings. The demanding woodwind parts were sharply controlled, while the strings were tightly compact, and conductor Hilary Davan Wetton took full advantage of the contrasting textures and timbres throughout. Crisply rhythmic work in the percussion and piano pierced through the string lines, and a quick glimpse around the Sheldonian Theatre was enough to show that most of the audience were on the edge of their seats. An applaudable concert by Oxford’s première student orchestra; especially given the disjointed and taxing programme they were set.