The Sheldonian was the grand setting for the 2016 final of one of the showpieces of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra's work with grassroots music, the Concerto Competition for local young musicians.
Our three budding maestros were clarinettist David Mears from Abingdon and now of the Royal Academy of Music, playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A, and two Oxford University students: Emma Lisney of Pembroke College playing Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto, and Myrddin Rees Davies of St Hilda's, with Richard Strauss' 1st Horn Concerto. The glittering prize was £1,000 and performance opportunities with professional musicians in the coming year.
Mr Mears went first, looking composed and confident. It was noticeable in the afternoon rehearsals which I attended that the piece had needed very little work on it. Of course every member of the orchestra must have been very familiar with it, and conductor John Traill maintained a light, even muted touch, allowing the soloist to come to the fore; a diamond in a gem-studded tiara sitting a little proud of its fellows.
The challenge for Mr Mears was whether he could breathe life and freshness into this staple of the repertoire. This he did, fluently swooping up and down the register, and generating plenty of poignancy in the famous adagio. Alas, however, there were too many duff notes for comfort scattered through the movements, and I guess these were enough to knock him out of contention in the eyes of the 5-strong judging panel.
Next up was Mr Rees Davies, the recipient of a big cheer from the orchestra at the conclusion of rehearsals. He had seemed to me a notably relaxed, even insouciant figure when I interviewed him then.
The horn has the reputation of being perhaps the most demanding to play of all common instruments, and it's noticeable how the relatively few extant concertos for the instrument are all quite brief. So this Strauss work, an early piece from 1885, comes in a full 10 minutes shorter than the other two competitors' choices. Did this relative brevity weigh with the judges? Probably not, and in any case Mr Rees Davies coaxed sinuous, subtle lines from his unwieldy instrument, a striking contrast vis a vis the eye and the ear of the spectator. The concerto has, I think, no written-out cadenzas for it, but the soloist is always to the fore, and Mr Rees Davies made a bold winner's bid.
Finally came Ms Lisney, in a shimmering, long aquamarine dress. It was noticeable in rehearsal how Mr Traill had required much more backtracking and perfecting of this accompaniment from his band. This was unsurprising given that this work from 1935 is complex and quite jagged, and it's intriguing how many echoes it contains of his famous Romeo and Juliet ballet score. Now I look it up, and there we have it - both works date from 1935.
It was clear from the afternoon that Ms Lisney has the required technical ability a-plenty. But could she inject that elusive element, musicality? Hard or impossible to pin down, but you know it when you hear it. In the event her performance was a triumph of stamina and brio. She delivered with deceptive ease the yearning emotion of the marvellous adagio, a swaying figure in blue. The judges were left with a relatively easy task in inviting Ms Lisney to bear away the prize.
A fine annual occasion this; a great testament to the hard work and imagination of the Oxford Philharmonic and Oxfordshire County Music. I can't wait for next year's competition!
And you can hear the interviews as part of our Podcast Extra series, here.