The Orchestra of St John's, conductor John Lubbock, and Morgan Pearse, baritone, performed for a spellbound and appreciative audience of around 40 in the Greek-Roman collection space of the Ashmolean. Everyone should have the opportunity to see the museum after hours, it is the perfect venue for an evening concert. Being seated on three sides of the ensemble was reminiscent of having the luxury of Morgan Pearse and the OSJ performing in your own home.
Watched over by marble Roman figures created between 100-300 AD, the ensemble's first piece Dvorak's 'Cypresses B152' left no doubt as to the calibre of the performers and their ability to bring the music to life. Morgan Pearse sang Dvorak's 'Biblical Songs Op 99' in Czech, with a grand and commanding delivery which rang out amidst the natural acoustics of the museum. Making the most of this song cycle, those around me abandoned reading the text and were sublimely taken away by the sounds of the voice, the precision and interwoven craft of the music and evolving psalms. Such confident, grand and commanding sound dramatically proclaimed the essence of these psalms 'to the voice our (audience) give ear'. The effect of the whole concert was one of feeling immense pride and privilege to be experiencing such a heartfelt and emotionally energising performance. If only the robed antiquity could add their compliments.
Ashmolean Director, Alexander Sturgis' conversation with the audience post-interval, was much appreciated. A thorough and educational commentary on pastoral landscape and its link with the music in the second half of the program, George Butterworth's 'A Shropshire Lad' song cycle (1911-1912). Sturgis' only regret was that the landscape pieces of the museum were unavailable to view, due to current renovations. Cleverly the program insert provided the audience with postcards of two of these works, a much-appreciated gesture. One is left wondering if a projection of a pastoral work on the ceiling would have created a further dimension to the concert, an aesthetically-pleasing added quality to the song cycles. These songs ranged in interpretation by Pearse, ranging from angelic whispers, booming clarity and to the portrayal of haunting tragedy.
As Oxford revs up for an abundance of performances in the coming weeks, such an impressive concert deserved another evening's performance. Please look out for OSJ's further works this year, especially if they are at the Ashmolean which provides the perfect landscape. Also, avail yourself of concerts with Morgan Pearse as a soloist. His tender, theatrical and passionately delivered performance makes him the newest treasure to visit Oxford this spring. Hopefully, he will be invited back for another performance when the museum relaunches its 19th century collection of pastoral works.