Posters featuring Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra with renowned soloists are a common feature of every year in Oxford. Although it seems like another Oxford tradition dating back many years, the Orchestra began its residency in Oxford only 15 years ago. The formal collaboration between a British university and a professional symphony orchestra was a new idea in 2002, and has proved extremely successful.
This evening was a celebration of the 15th year of this residency. After the conversation between the orchestra’s conductor Marios Papadopoulos and Edward Seckerson, which was a bonus to the audience, Professor Robert Saxton from the Faculty of Music gave the audience some interesting insights into what they were about to hear, including contemporary accounts of how Handel’s music was received in Oxford at the time it was first performed. Every piece or composer in the programme was deliberately chosen for its connection to Oxford, except Gabriel Fauré, and Saxton humorously weaved him in too.
The first half of the concert presented an orchestral piece ‘Come Spring’ from the suite of five movements Seasons Four and Five by Martyn Parry, a Professor of Composition at the Faculty of Music. It was a piece reworked for the orchestra after being performed in many theatre productions around the country, and fits into the classical tradition. It was followed by the first movement of POLINsymphony by Strudivant Adams, who is a 24-year old Oxford student in Music Composition, from the USA. The piece was a musical rendering of the composer’s research into the story of the Polish Jews, as told by Warsaw’s POLIN Museum. This piece was extremely dramatic, innovative and beautiful, with the theme of human renaissance being conveyed through the oboe solo. It felt like a music score to some new major movie about the Holocaust and the history of the Second World War. Both pieces were conducted by John Traill who has studied composition in the University of Oxford.
The first half of the concert was finished by a famous Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn with Papadopoulos conducting and soloist Savitri Grier, the former undergraduate student at Christ Church and the winner of Oxford’s Philharmonic Senior Concerto Competition, performing. Grier, playing on a Mattheo Goffriller violin, rendered Mendelssohn’s music gently and considerately, performing the cadenza with extreme brilliance.
The second half of the concert celebrated the centuries-long Oxford tradition of church and choral music, showcasing two Oxford student choirs – Merton and Queen’s College united their forces and appeared in the seats behind and above the orchestra. It started with Music to Celebrate the Resurrection by Robert Saxton himself which had been commissioned by the BBC in 1988 to celebrate Easter, and takes St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry as visual inspiration. The piece masterfully and powerfully brings the listener to the heights of spiritual renovation and rebirth, with the blinding light and joy of the final moments conveyed through magisterial orchestral chords including church bells.
Famous pieces by Handel such as ‘Zadok the Priest’ and an extract of ‘For unto us a child is born’ from Messiah followed, with the audience having a chance to compare the impressions of Handel’s contemporaries (quoted by Saxton) with their own perceptions. A moment when everyone stood for the ‘Hallelujah chorus’ reminded us of the strong community feeling in Oxford, for professors, students and members of the public alike.
After Fauré’s melodious and tender Cantique de Jean Racine, the concert finished with three choral classics by Hubert Parry, including Blest Pair of Sirens (Vaughan Williams’ favourite piece of English music), I Was Glad (commissioned for the coronation of King Edward VII and performed at royal marriages ever since), and the famous Jerusalem, the pinnacle of Last Night of the Proms every year since 1953. The Oxford musical tradition was thus linked to wider British history and cultural traditions. The audiences of Classic FM (to whom the recording of this concert will be broadcast) will hopefully immensely enjoy it, too