United Kingdom Brahms, Mendelssohn, Jieun Lee and Bruckner: Jennifer Pike (violin), Lauren Fagan (soprano), Claudia Huckle (contralto), David Junghoon Kim (tenor) Simon Shibambu (bass), Choirs of Merton and The Queen’s Colleges, Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos and Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey (conductors). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford 17.11.2022. (CR)
Brahms – Academic Festival Overture, Op.80
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Jieun Lee – The Withdrawal
Bruckner – Te Deum
This concert was part of the present season marking the 25th anniversary of the inauguration of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (the Oxford Philomusica as it then was) as the orchestra in residence at the University of Oxford. That, and the fact they regularly play in the Sheldonian Theatre, built primarily for the university’s degree ceremonies, made it appropriate to open this concert with Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, written after the composer had been awarded an honorary degree from the university at Breslau (now Wroclaw).
Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey conducted an account of the Overture that started sturdily in the quietly furtive opening section but became brittle subsequently with somewhat raw brass and timpani tapped with sticks, and foursquare structuring of the various sections. But excitement was generated by the conclusion such that the entry by the choirs of Merton and The Queen’s Colleges on ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ was rather submerged in the glittering flurry of orchestral activity, so the student song didn’t come through with as much gusto as could have been the case.
The orchestra’s usual conductor, Marios Papadopoulos, took to the podium to lead off the orchestra, and Jennifer Pike as soloist, in an elegant sweep for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. They charted a steady, flowing course through the first movement to build sufficient momentum for a convincingly delirious coda, with Pike drawing a poised solo line over the orchestra, even if the ascent in octaves (broken, and as chords) in the first subject was not absolutely in tune. In the Andante she sustained the violin part in a more mellow than singing fashion, though the overall tempo could have been a touch more relaxed and the oscillating demisemiquavers in the accompaniment gentler so as to make the movement less hectic. But the finale was convivial, supporting a lively bonhomie between Pike’s cheerful playing on the violin, and skittish, chattering woodwind and strings in dialogue.
As an encore, Pike played Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice, starting ruefully in its slow, modal opening melody like a folksong, before bursting out with demonic energy in its faster concluding section, its vivacity not quite so straightforwardly joyful as it seems on the surface, as the theme is overlaid with some dissonant acerbity, rather like the trenchant style of Ysaÿe in his solo sonatas, where the music never quite goes where one expects.
The Withdrawal received its world premiere here, an orchestral piece of about 10 minutes in length, written by Jieun Lee who was recently educated at Oxford. Her programme notes describe this as a narrative work depicting, at some level, the course of personal experience, retreating from one set of social activities and expectations to another, reoriented sense of purpose and ambitions. Ponchione-Bailey took up the baton again to direct a lucid performance of the tightly argued work, largely obsessing over a scale-like thematic figure. Although tension was well set up and held throughout the work, the character of the work was somewhat in the style of a film score or a ballet by a Stravinsky or Shostakovich, and consequently the withdrawal expressed seemed to be not so much a matter of existential angst as a sly repositioning of aims and priorities, as the composition ended as tantalisingly inconclusive as it opened.
There is no such indecisiveness or ambiguity in Bruckner’s monumental setting of the Te Deum, a work which the composer said he would wish to present before the throne of God as an account of himself. The Sheldonian is a difficult acoustic in which to achieve a satisfactory balance among any large ensemble. For the most part Papadopoulos handled it well enough, the brass coming through powerfully without unduly dominating the other sections and, thankfully, mallets now used on the timpani. But there were times when some instruments, such as oboe and bassoon, were exposed. It was a pity that there was no organ to add its more sustained tones to the overall sonic edifice. (Has the Sheldonian’s organ now ceased to function? Even the electronic instrument as it was would have offered some foundation, unless its condition is now entirely beyond being played. It seems unfortunate that the university doesn’t try to reinstate an instrument that was once played by such musicians as Parry for example.)
The quartet of vocal soloists brought an effusive range of colour to the performance, not least from tenor David Junghoon Kim, who has the largest solo role – accustomed as he is to the operatic repertoire, which added a welcome dramatic dimension to this interpretation. Lauren Fagan offered a golden, celestial radiance in the soprano part, contrasting with Simon Shibambu’s gravelly, wide vibrato in the bass line, resulting in only approximate intonation at some melodic turns.
The youthful voices of the two choirs provided a light, open body of sound in this bold music, certainly working well in the more meditative moments, where their streamlined timbre demonstrated the experience they must have gained in singing the composer’s a cappella motets in chapel services. Positioned as they were on the divided stands at the back of the orchestra, however – sopranos and altos of both choirs to one side of a door, tenors and basses to the other – caused some anomalies in ensemble, including almost fatally at the end, when their ascending scale on ‘non confundar in aeternum’ without any accompaniment to herald the final alla breve section didn’t emerge unanimously, but rather as though in canon. Fortunately, the emphatic fanfare of instruments saved the day as they ushered in the otherwise triumphant climax, though it felt a little hollow.