St Andrew's Church in N. Oxford is the base for St Giles' Orchestra. It sits at a crossroads of four of the characteristically wide avenues of the area, is adorned by a pretty garden containing hardy geraniums, day lilies and a banana plant, and the church's apse contains examples of the Mid-Late Victorian stained glass in which Oxford is rich, including a fine polychrome panel of Paul on the road to Damascus.
The programme commenced with Dukas' Fanfare from La Peri, just the sort of delight to wake the spiders lurking up in the roof rafters, unclog the arteries of the audience and give the brass players a workout. We passed on quickly to Norwegian composer Johann Svendsen's Zorahayda, named for the eponymous princess of a folk tale recorded by Washington Irving, he of Rip Van Winkle fame. The pathetic story is from 1,001 Nights inspired by Rapunzel, in which we learn that timidity never pays. This is an instance of the kind of interesting programming in which conductor/programmer Geoff Bushell specialises. I know Svendsen's Romeo and Juliet incidental music but not this work. Poor old Svendsen had the misfortune of having the one and only manuscript of his 3rd Symphony dumped in the fire by his wife after she intercepted a bouquet of flowers from an unknown woman who declared her love for him. Irving recorded three princesses locked in a tower by their father to safeguard their virginity (not to say their marketability). The music's tone is not unnaturally sombre, and dwindles away to the pathetic at the end, descriptive of the wasting away of the hesitant Zorahayda, left behind by her bolder siblings as they escaped the tower.
But Mr Bushell was able to up the pace and cheeriness quotient as the escape was effected via a rope woven from the sisters' own hair. Throughout, the conductor was a distinguished, upright and vivacious figure with the baton, giving precise direction to his discrete sections and refusing to allow tempos to drag – both virtues just what an amateur ensemble requires. He's in his 35th year as the orchestra's director, a noble effort, and here he came up fresh as a daisy like a man of half his years. Such energy and dedication!
For Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante K297b we acquired four soloists in Matthias Winkel (oboe), Jackie Bushell (clarinet), Steve Guard (horn) and Jonathan Ross (bassoon) – and four gems they were, too. In the 'allegro', Mr Winkel's oboe rang out loud and true above the enveloping strings, a pin-sharp sound and with perfect breathing control, soon combining strongly with Mrs Bushell's clarinet both here and in the charming 'adagio' which I thought the conductor took surprisingly fast, almost at an andante pace. The clarinet came over with great flexibility, and the sound of the oboe swirled around us in rising arpeggios. Mr Guard also did really well with his difficult horn part which demanded suppleness of articulation.
Elgar's Enigma Variations was the item after the interval. The helpful programme notes mentioned briefly the identity of the dedicatees for each segment, and I'd say that further investigation of the relationship between their persons and the nature of the music that suggests or represents them can perhaps be left to the cruciverbalists and Sudokumanes. The strings got off to a rather scraping start that had me a little worried, but after the melodic variety in G of the initial section, the segments tripped by briskly until 'Nimrod' sounded as a call to attention. Here Mr Bushell squeezed a decent crescendo, then diminuendo from his players, though their number seemed somewhat depleted by comparison with the first half of the concert, and once or twice I thought the string section could have used a few more willing bows.
Mr Bushell teased out smooth solos from the woodwinds - the pungent punch of the bassoons for GRS as his bulldog went pell-mell down the hill and into the River Wye, then Variation 12 for cellist Basil Nevinson was sonorously delivered with the cello section appropriately prominent. There were the sprung hesitations in Dorabella floating away in the silence with, I thought, nods to The Nutcracker, and the fine blare of brass rang out loud and clear in the culminating EGU (Elgar himself). This was balanced by the ode to Lady Mary Lygon in the penultimate variation, where Elgar hauntingly evokes an image of his secret beloved leaving on a ship: we discerned in the tympanum the soft throb of the engines as she pulls away from the shore.