There was interesting programme from the St Giles Orchestra on Saturday where the late Romanticism of Edvard Grieg was coupled with the altogether more cerebral Jean Sibelius. The In Autumn overture is an arrangement of a song revised more than 20 years after the latter was written. No doubt conductor and orchestra mover-and-shaker Geoff Bushell, well-known for delving in cobweb-wisped storerooms for half-forgotten pieces of merit, looked for some Grieg to accompany his Piano Concerto that was a bit more recherché – and of course shorter – than, say, the Holberg Suite. This was a lively opening lollipop, and quite dramatic. There featured a tuba – surprising in an overture - a plaintive oboe and a jaunty tune with something of the fairground about it. The orchestration is florid and put me in mind of Rimsky Korsakov's Golden Cockerel.
When the time for the Grieg Piano Concerto arrived, soloist Olga Jegunova strode forth boldly down the aisle and proceeded to give either a speech of welcome or perhaps an introduction to the work. Alas, neither I nor any of those around me could hear one word of what she said. Nice idea, but to little purpose without microphone and a mite of planning beforehand. Her bold striding was a foreshadowing of her approach to the work. The familiar opening timpani roll in the first measure announced Jegunova's entry, taken quite slowly but with emphasis as she tumbled down three octaves.
It emerged that the billed timpanist had been unable to play at the 11th hour, and Paul Ecclestone, one of the trombones, had nobly volunteered, despite not having played the timpani since the 1990s! Fortunately, the part is not too taxing for the Grieg, though the Sibelius later was a bridge too far and our hero later resumed his trombone duties. There was no denying the soloist's almost muscular energy and faithfulness to the drama. The applause at the end was unconfined. Yet I myself wished for something a little more nuanced, a little more light and shade, so that the romantic touch of the 'adagio' did not come over almost as forcefully as did the playing of the surrounding movements.
I noted a fine brace of trumpet fanfares (the instrument was notably well played all evening by Vere Lintern-Smyth, Deb Sanders and Scott Gladwell, and after the interval, at the start of the final push in the Sibelius' finale, they were to generate admirable power) and the bassoons were prominent. Geoff Bushell, twisting round, monitored the piano very closely throughout, of course desiring no lacunae to develop between it and the orchestra, a familiar pitfall for amateur bands where rehearsal time with the soloist has been of the minimum. His watchfulness was rewarded by neat dovetailing.
In her 3rd movement cadenza, announced by a five-bar outburst from the orchestra, Jegunova produced left-hand arpeggios, followed by a descending cascade of double octaves and then thunderous rumbles in the bass. At the start of the finale came another fizzing arpeggio, but when a folk dance intervenes, the soloist again to my taste rather overdid the volume when something nimble and a little fancy might have been the better option. The encore was an excerpt from Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto.
Sibelius' Second Symphony presents a serious challenge for a non-professional orchestra. The way that every gay melody or serene reflection is offset by some surge of doubt or melancholy makes the decipherment of a consistent tone difficult. And then there are the constant hesitations, switches of tempo and pauses that we Sibelians know and cherish. So Geoff Bushell had a task and a half on his hands. There was in the opener a sprightly dance from the woodwinds with the oboes prominent, then an unusual bassoon fanfare and then a violin recitative, all carried off with aplomb.
It was only with the start of the 'andante' that things became tricky, with laborious pizzicato figures from the basses that didn't really gel with the lugubrious bassoons, before the brass lashed out (and the timpani were sorely missed hereabouts). In the third movement there was a telling trio for solo oboe – Matthias Winkel, whom I know to be a fine player. Towards the symphony end, first cellos, then cellos sotto voce, then brass and flutes, then upper strings, then growling horns built the tension as Geoff led his players on with passionate thrust as they approached the pounding, driving end to the symphony, always a thrilling experience; and here the orchestra did itself full justice.
A final word on Geoff Bushell. This is a musician who has given 35 years, half a lifetime, to this orchestra and more widely to music in Oxford. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that in their cause he's played just about every instrument bar a ukelele and the bagpipes. Far from easing down his activities or at least marking time, he's now engaged in bringing classical music to Didcot. Enthusiasm constantly renewed, hard work leavened by a light touch and humour – he's an inspiring example to the rest of us.