The St Giles Orchestra programme informed us that conductor Geoffrey Bushell "is renowned for introducing players and audiences to lesser-known and unjustly neglected repertoire". I think Shostakovich's
Suite for Variety Orchestra can be placed in that box. To my shame, I was entirely ignorant of the work. I'm tempted to use the confusion that surrounds its more common naming as Jazz Suite 2 - the details need not concern us here - as a handy fig-leaf behind which to hide, but alas Robert Browning tells us that ignorance is not innocence but sin. The work opens like an Oom-pah-pah band from St Moritz; it's an immensely attractive collection of waltzes, a polka, a march and other swing music, the sort of thing to be played at a tea dance by a big band on the Palace Pier, Brighton on an August bank holiday. It kicked off the second half of the programme and by now the SGO was thoroughly primed and delivered the rhythms with a bit of a swagger. I enjoyed the perfectly timed xylophone work in the 'Little Polka', and also the tutti moments, particularly in the second element, 'Dance 1'.
We had begun with Wagner's 'Entry of the Gods' into Valhalla from Das Rheingold, a tough opener since it calls for expert dovetailing by the orchestra of its discrete sections, and for the strings to be instantly right on the button. The presence of no fewer than three harps was a pleasant surprise. The whirring violins did not fail us, but the presence of two tubas, one a Wagner tuba, a rotary horn hybrid, may have been a slight over-egging of the pudding since from where I sat their booming had a tendency to suffocate the rest of the brasses.
Carmen Suites 1 and 2 followed, with 11 components. 'Aragonaise' was played at an exotically rattling tempo by Mr Bushell, just right for a castanet-edged piece. All evening I thought the wind section to be especially good, and here in the 'intermezzo' the clarinets showed dexterity in exploring the registers, and the flutes came into their own. Charlotte Purkis and Catherine Wilde demonstrated excellent breathing control, quick fingers and clarity of tone – it was a treat to hear them. Then in the second half Ms Wilde abandoned her flute and played the alto sax. Such versatile talent! Soprano Mary Pope was called on for her first solo in the famous 'Habanera', and handled her passages at the bottom of the register faultlessly; not invariably the case with sopranos I've heard sing the aria. Mr Bushell alternated between coaxing and driving his players on, an undemonstrative but strikingly composed figure with the baton.
The interval gave a chance to look round the church. Pevsner in his Buildings of England: Oxfordshire dismisses it as: "Norman, of all improbable styles". But the mellow, yellow brick, wide arches and modern glass atria create an airy interior with no visual impediments and excellent acoustics. On the walls are several plaques for benefactors of the parish, often linked to the Indian civil service or army, and a modern tablet for Lady Young (1926 – 2002), noted as the first woman leader of the House of Lords who "strongly defended Christian values ".
Wagner's 'Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene and Finale' from Gotterdammerung, the very end of the mammoth Ring cycle, was the culmination of the programme; heady stuff for an amateur orchestra. Mary Pope told me she had commenced practising the piece in Florence last August, and her careful preparation paid handsome dividends. At the outset the horns and trombones were a touch over-exuberant, overshadowing her voice, but soon the balance was redressed, allowing the broad range of her warm voice to ring out over Wagner's heavy orchestral textures. She threw herself wholeheartedly into the wild drama, if not the actual flames, ultimately accompanied by first echoes from 'Siegfried's Funeral March' and then by a noble thundering on the timpani.
The fresh programming choices and the more than competent musicianship on display, coupled with the convivial atmosphere and super-warm welcome offered by Robert Peberdy, Sheila Doel and Geoffrey Bushell himself added up to an experience I'm eager to repeat.