The sun in the form of the God Helios was in the ascendancy in Summertown on Sunday afternoon, and the new south-facing vestibule of St Michael and All Angels Church, only just completed, has flooded with light an already airy late Victorian church. I was last at the church last February for Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 and Mami Shikimori's playing of Mozart's Piano Concerto 23 in A Major. Perhaps Oxford Studio Orchestra regret that Dvorak didn't manage a 10th Symphony (he downsized instead to symphonic poems) so they could play it next year?
Carl Nielsen's well-known Helios Overture was composed in Athens in 1903 when he and his wife, both keen classicists, were studying the sculptures and bas-reliefs at the Acropolis. They witnessed the course of the sun across the burning blue parabola of the sky from sunrise to sunset over the Aegean Sea and Nielsen scribbled on the fair copy of his score – originally in his native Danish:
Silence and darkness,
The sun rises with a joyous song of praise,
It wanders its golden way
and sinks quietly into the sea.
The sunrise is illustrated with the four horn calls that merge together in dissonance, though in this instance the sound was a little uncertain as it chimed in with the seven cellos. A more steady celestial movement in the music was built up by the flutes and clarinets, then the upper strings, a trifle reedy, came in as the sun headed for its zenith in a wild fugue. This thrust led to a gradual diminuendo as the day wears on. The sun hymn was played once again, this time by just one horn, and we reached a satisfying ending as cellos and basses combined on gently until fading away entirely.
Our Grieg Piano Concerto in A soloist, Ashwin Tennant, is something of a youthful musical prodigy. Aged 15, he's a music scholar at Abingdon School, and an accomplished violinist as well as a pianist. This was his second full length concerto, having played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.19 last year. Ashwin sat himself at the piano stool with great sang froid, and after the famous drum-roll he produced a fine rhetorical flourish in the tonality of A minor. Having established his authority, thanks to a change of mood from Grieg he then launched into a capricious passage suggestive of an elfin dance in which he managed delicacy to go with the strong chords earlier and to come. When the trumpet blast arrived, the two trumpets of Oliver Beard and Malcolm Vale rang out bravely. Although another couple of them would have added a bit more weight, of course an orchestra can only put out there the resources available to it on the day.
In the 'adagio', a high point in the beauty contest of 19th century Romantic piano concerto slow movements, Ashwin did not in the least degree allow nervous energy to rush him through the elaborately decorated passages. He rolled through a substantial crescendo leading to a majestic statement of the original theme. In the brief coda with its bird-song trills, he demonstrated digital finesse at the very top end of the upper register. The finale soon introduces a rocket-like arpeggio shooting across the keyboard – here our soloist stumbled just a little over clear production of the notes for the only time that I noticed - and he brought us through Grieg's folk dance to the heroic conclusion. Ashwin told me afterwards that he had learned the piece in January and had been hard at work on it ever since, having had two rehearsals with the orchestra. A case of hard work paying off, and the future for him looks rosy, akin to the dawn with Helios just at hand.
After the interval came the New World Symphony and here the orchestra really showed what it could do, with the violins in particular casting off almost all of their earlier hesitancy. Christopher Fletcher-Campbell is a most sympathetic conductor of an amateur orchestra. As well as keeping carefully to the marked tempos, not as common a quality in a conductor as one might imagine, he gives unambiguous cue direction to the discrete sections of his players with the result I noticed that more of them than usual look at him rather than continuously at their score; a clear sign of symbiotic musical relationship. The pianissimo introduction was succeeded by horns in unison – strong and clear here. When the big cor anglais tune arrived at the start of the 'largo' it was taken smoothly by the soloist until he rather ran out of breath at the very end, but the oboe playing in the work – and of the wind section generally - was of a high standard. The conductor whistled up a fine following wind at the rousing last bars of the symphony, preceded by an emotional, slow trombone fanfare before the sprint to the finishing line.