Broad St was buzzing with life on Saturday evening with the combination of the opening of the full tourist season, a warm night and Giffords Circus just down the road. Oxford Symphony Orchestra was giving its summer concert, including one of the large-scale symphonies which frequently grace its programmes. For the opening Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto the soloist was Tamsin Waley-Cohen whom I heard play in a string trio at a Coffee Concert last autumn. In a long, off-white dress and with violin held rather high against her left shoulder, she made an immediate impression. The fiery passagework in the 1st movement, which she played with aplomb, her sound took on a slight edge to give the music a rapt intensity, and her lively cadenza (Tchaikovsky's own cadenza for this piece) was almost jerky at times as, unafraid to pause, she explored thoroughly the very top of the instrument's register. The 2nd movement flowed in soft arcs. In the 3rd movement, Ms Waley-Cohen's flute-like lines were finely matched to Tchaikovsky's orchestral writing, and under conductor Robert Max's prompting, woodwinds and horns sounded almost reverential in the closing passages. The nimble ending brought forth from the audience cascades of applause, repeated and repeated.
The whole of the second half was occupied by Mahler's 5th Symphony, one of his blockbusters. Along with Bruckner and Shostakovich, I think he's one of the symphonic composers whom one most needs to hear in the concert hall rather than courtesy of the recording studio, in order to catch the visual as well as aural experience of the massed ranks of brass and woodwind sections, not to mention the sheer emotional extravagance of the structure. This is a testing work for an amateur orchestra, not least by virtue of its sheer c. 70 mins length, with consequent call upon the players' powers of concentration and endurance. Mr Max seemed to have energy to spare, however, and he was a treat to observe at work upon the podium: expansive gestures, though never a hint of the showy, and balletic movements as he swivelled to address each section of the orchestra according to the requirement of the score.
The famous opening fanfare from solo trumpet (Jeremy Wood, excellent here and elsewhere) and then backed-up by timpani and cymbals didn't quite have the impact for which I hoped since the isolated chord for full orchestra was a little muted. The violins and cellos embarked in good style on the main theme, a song-like lament, though much later in the movement where the violins give vent to almost hysterical grief, they were a little uncertain and scratchy in tone. At the end of the 2nd movement, the huge, dramatic coda begins, introduced by a great drum roll and three harp glissandi, and here the brass-writing is thrilling, with the orchestra's trumpets, trombones and horns combining admirably.
The solo horn of Graham Wright was prominent throughout the symphony with fine tone and perfect breathing control – he was the first player to be singled out at the end by the conductor - and at the start of the 3rd movement with his colleagues brought off the magic of the long, haunting cry with its echo. Mr Max rightly declined to allow the celebrated 'adagietto' to flag in pace as is tempting, and Anna Lockett's harp accompanied yet stood out from the strings. In the long finale, the brass chorale from earlier re-appears, and the music eventually gallops home. It has been described as "a masterpiece that shows Mahler at the zenith of his life, his powers and his craft". Bold words, but Oxford Symphony Orchestra did them proud and were again rewarded at the end with unconfined appreciation from the concertgoers.