An audience of 80 or so heard Weber, Sibelius and Brahms at the Wesley Memorial Church on Guy Fawkes Night as rockets and Catherine wheels fizzed on the Oxford skyline and shivering would-be revellers jostled for space nearest to the bonfires. The Victorian Gothic church (built 1878) makes for a fine concert venue, being spacious and light, and offered a warm welcome from Sue Moore on the door. The programme notes were admirably full. The church interior is comfortable, with a long upper gallery to three sides, polished marble columns and prominent internal wood buttressing to the ceiling.
The 3-act opera Oberon was composed by Carl Maria von Weber, a contemporary of Josef Haydn, during his first and last visit to London - the programme kindly told us he took 153 English lessons before leaving Germany; his heirs may have been entitled to some of the cash back since Weber died a few weeks later in London of consumption aged just 39. The opera had its premiere at Covent Garden in April 1826. The strings got us off to a tentative, rather scraping start, but this was soon forgotten amid the delightful tune of Oberon's (the Elf king's) magic horn before pressing on to music of Puck and other fairies, switching from melody to melody and tone to tone as overtures are wont to do.
Brahms' Fourth Symphony from 1884 was originally conceived as a piano concerto. The opening movement, allegro non troppo, showcases the woodwind section in two-note phrases that comprise the expansive melody, conveying an unusual, pointilliste impression, little dabs of sound gently nudging the off-beats. Conductor Ben Winters kept the orchestra carefully up to the tempo - as he did for each movement. In the andante, the horns again were to the fore, followed by pizzicato clarinets. The well-known finale is a set of dozens of little sectional variations - I liked the solemnity of the trombones, hurrying scales from the strings and then in a variation late on, flamboyant timpani marking each bar.
But for me the highlight of the evening had come before the interval in the shape of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (1903-5) and soloist Fenella Humphreys. Speaking to me afterwards, Ms Humphreys made light of the substantial difficulties of the piece and in particular the fact that the soloist is called on at the very opening for the long, expressive tune, 30 bars of it, then very soon has to dig deep into a Bach-like cadenza. Later in the movement comes a sort of double cadenza, introduced by arpeggios and briefly interrupted by the vigorous orchestra, and offering virtuoso, seasonal fireworks of its own. In a pewter-coloured dress, Ms Humphreys often rose onto tiptoe, the elbow of her playing arm held high, jogging slightly to the rhythm of the orchestra when briefly at rest. In a cocoon of concentration, this was an artist intensely dedicated to her craft.
The slow movement was full of the gathering together of threads, the hesitations and little springs of tempo that Sibelians know and cherish. Mr Winters worked hard to produce the required flexibility of sound from his players, while from Ms Humphreys' fiddle flowed a rich, expressive sound. The finale is a gipsy dance, pounding then more sedate.
We emerged from the warm embrace of John Wesley and Johannes Brahms onto a freezing Cornmarket St to find a busker huddled under a blanket, his guitar resting on his dozing body. A reminder that music comes in all shapes and sizes, some of it conceived in conditions of hardship.