The Oxford University Orchestra's termly concerts are always fun and usually challenging. The challenge on Saturday was manifest: the unusual programming of Debussy's La Mer, probably the most important musical work of French Impressionism and which introduced non-functional harmony to orchestral music, with Bruckner's 7th Symphony, one of his massive cathedrals of sound.
Work on La Mer was started in 1903 in France and completed in 1905 at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, then in its Edwardian heyday. The composer corrected the proofs there between 24th July and 30th August 1905 in Suite 200, now known as the Debussy Suite. The hotel lies on the seafront and from his suite Debussy would at night have looked directly out to the winking light of the Royal Sovereign lightship, moored 11 miles off the coast.
The 1st movement, 'De l'aube à midi sur la mer', has a lilting ebb and flow as of the tide, played with a fine sensitivity that brings out many of Debussy's little orchestral details - shimmering cymbals and tinking xylophone, for example (behind her instrument, the xylophonist Miranda Davies kept up a restrained little jig to the music throughout the piece - nice!). Is it fanciful to wonder whether this tinking represents the pinpoints of light out in the English Channel? Conductor Robin Browning, the sole professional musician present, held the tension so that, when the final climax bursts out, it is magnificent, a great surge of the waves. The concluding 'Dialogue du vent et de la mer' contained some exquisitely still moments, particularly when the flute and oboe played over hushed strings.
Mr Browning's conducting was a visual delight throughout the programme. Such smooth co-ordination of baton and free hand, such sea-breeze swaying of his whole body, the kind of elegant movement that Debussy himself must have witnessed at waltz-time in the ballroom of the Grand Hotel. No chopping gestures, no fussy micro-management of his players. Then, at the crescendos, he was suddenly galvanised, giving out waves of energy to his young orchestra - an inspiring sight. One could imagine the atmosphere of disciplined good humour in which those rehearsals must have been held.
After the interval came the Bruckner, a daunting prospect for amateur players, and not least by virtue of its great length (over an hour). Mr Browning told me after the concert that he'd had the orchestra for four rehearsals over a two-week period - the bare necessary minimum, I'd have thought - and what a joy it was to collaborate with young people so quick to learn and to remember. The opening bars immediately bring Wagner's Siegfried's Lament to mind and Mr Browning produced the characteristic Bruckner feeling of spaciousness, as though one were atop a high peak, surveying a limitless horizon.
The brass section now numbered 15 to the wind section's eight, rather an imbalance. Four of the former were a novelty, Wagner tubas, a sort of hybrid between a horn and a trombone. These weighed in where the score was punctuated by hammer-blow climaxes. That said, their presence led, I thought, to the one infelicity all evening where towards the end of the adagio at the second grand climax, a famous one, from which the orchestra descends to a peaceful threnody, the strings were swamped by the force of the brass. Elsewhere, I appreciated the flute solos from Elias Tomarkin and the trumpet of Fifi Korda.
My post-concert thought was when next are we to hear Robin Browning conduct in Oxford?