When the Sheldonian's full it buzzes like an upturned beehive, but when half empty it feels a little desolate; and there was a bit of an end-of-summer feel to the place on a wet and blustery Saturday evening, despite the well-balanced programme on offer from Oxford Proms. Quite how this concert and its companions in this short season qualify as "proms" escapes me since there was no provision for standing audience or groundlings. That may, however, be a blessing since we read that a feature of the proms in Sir Henry Wood's day was licence for promenaders to smoke, eat and drink during a performance.
We got off to a lively start with Vivaldi's brief Concerto in C major for 2 Trumpets and Strings. This staple of the baroque repertoire, representative of a vast library of concertos grosso, is a happy effort, frankly intended for entertainment. It stands or falls on the ability of its twin soloists to dovetail their parts, a difficult task given that the orchestra had but one rehearsal beforehand. After a slightly hesitant start, Howard Rowntree and Stephen Cutting picked up the pace and did their best to shatter the crystal chandeliers (had there been any to shatter).
In contrast, Leamington Spa composer Tim Perkins' Dithyramb for Clarinet, Viola, Strings and Percussion was a premiere. For those who missed out at school on Ancient Greek, a dithyramb was a wild choral hymn, especially one dedicated to Dionysus the god of sex and wine. Mr Perkins told me he was thinking more of the modern, looser definition of a short lyrical composition, and this is what we got, a piece of strong rhythm, alternately swelling and subsiding until interrupted by crashing drums. I was put in mind of the music of contemporary Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu, especially his Symphony No. 1. Enjoyable stuff from Mr Perkins.
The evening's major works were naturally the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, the last instrumental work Mozart completed before his final illness, and Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto. Each received a strong interpretation from its soloist. Clarinettist Lucy Downer, who also featured all evening in the orchestra, a fine feat of stamina, constantly and smoothly switched between upper and lower register and back again. The concerto radiates joyful ease in the outer movements, and a kind of quivering peace in the great adagio. Ms Downer began this in slow waltz tempo, then picked up speed as she went along, demonstrating fine legato and impeccable breath-control. This was the highlight of the evening for my neighbour Song Pei Fen from Penang Island, Malaysia via Brookes University.
Emperor Concerto, with Japanese soloist Mami Shikimori. Those of us who were at the Sheldonian for Sir Andras Schiff's interpretation on 16th June very likely had that night still fizzing in their memory lobes like a Guy Fawkes sparkler. Yet gratifyingly Ms Shikimori lost nothing in the comparison.
Elegant in a black jacket and long turquoise dress, she made her mark in the opening bars, letting loose a flood of sound that brought the orchestra instantly to heel before releasing it for its exposition. Throughout one sensed the pulses of energy she was giving out to conductor Catherine Underwood, hitherto during the programme quite self-effacing. In the second half of the
allegro she let loose aggressive arpeggios like hammer blows, hands in unison for maximum volume. In the slow movement I wondered whether the tempo was a little quick before remembering it is marked as adagio un poco mosso (slow but moving onwards). The seamless transition to the final rondo was followed by that beautifully still moment just before the final chords.
Afterwards Ms Shikimori amid clamorous applause took her repeated bows in the long, deep Japanese fashion.