This was the second concert programme from the Didcot Concert Orchestra, the brainchild of Jackie and Geoff Bushell, two of the seven pillars of wisdom of Oxford amateur music (who are the other five, though?), now spreading their euphonic tentacles into the Oxfordshire hinterland; specifically, the growing demographic force that is Didcot with its new Enterprise Zone, futuristically named The Didcot Growth Accelerator. We are told that man (and woman) cannot live by bread alone, and where there is a perceived musical vacuum, the Bushells are aiming to fill it with tonal music repertoire; mainstream but not hackneyed. Professional musicians are engaged to lead each string section. Players meet for up to four rehearsals (some amateur orchestras have even ten) and there will be four concerts a year.
The thread linking our quartet of works I take to be a loose one, but it is there: English or England-associated music. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a mixed-race composer named after the Ancient Mariner poet, is surprisingly neglected, according to Geoff in his introductory remarks from the podium. His Ballade in A minor is rather a rhapsodic work, elegiac at times and not really adhering to sonata form. Geoff performed something of a minor miracle in getting his strings to spring out of the traps with instant energy. Not at all usual vis à vis an amateur orchestra, and nor was it by chance. I've heard him perform the trick with his Oxford St Giles' Orchestra, too.
Then we moved on to Elgar's Cello Concerto, reticent if not downright introverted - the opening Adagio setting the tone - and composed in the aftermath of World War 1 in which Elgar lost a number of friends and family members. Australian soloist Jacqueline Johnson launched into what ought to be an arresting declamatory passage, but I felt her cello initially a little muted, perhaps not helped by the rather scratchy playing by the violas of their quiet theme just after the start. There were subsequent moments when Johnson struggled just a little to project her solo voice above and beyond the accompaniment, but sympathetic help was at hand from the conductor who thoroughly understands the demands upon a soloist and his players in dovetailing.
Later frailty in the second violins was offset by three plucked chords from the cello, the soloist making them sound delightfully harp-like. In the finale, Johnson cut short her brief cadenza with an exciting rush into the extreme upper register, and here Elgar keeps the accompaniment very light so that every note of the solo could clearly be discerned. In the short coda the cello joined in the insistent rhythm and brought us with fine control through despair into a more equable mood to finish on.
Victor Herbert's Yesterthoughts (he was an English contemporary of Elgar, but American by naturalisation, who composed no fewer than 48 Broadway operettas), was here arranged for cello by maestro Lynn Harrell. It was perhaps just a little too short to make more than a fairly fleeting impression of lyrical, light music. It was succeeded by Dvorák’s Symphony No. 6 of 1881, perhaps not quite of the quality of the better-known Eighth and the Ninth, but immediately popular in
The first movement has a clear feel about it of German music - Brahms and, through him, Beethoven. Geoff Bushell brought out the swaying dance-like rhythms of the first theme and then the cellos and horns introduced its expressive successor, followed by the flutes and then the oboes. In the Adagio there was some uncertainty from the four horns but, this being Dvorák, the melodies just poured out all around us. Viewing and listening conditions in the Cornerstone auditorium are excellent; cheerful decor, pretty spacious stage, raked seats and all within striking distance of the players.
The orchestra's wind section struck me as particularly good hereabouts as collectively it played a duet with the strings, and the pair of flutes was outstanding all concert-long. We heard a pensive flute cadenza from the excellent Sue Hurst just before the coda and then in the aptly-named Furiant (a Czech dance) her colleague Rachel Wright took to the piccolo with great effect. Here Geoff Bushell was galvanized, whipping up his own little Hurricane Callum and then after a quieter passage launching into a powerful recapitulation. In the finale, a brass chorale rang out (to have three trombones is always satisfying) giving weight and depth to the conclusion.
The Orchestra's next concert will be on 3rd March and will include Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. On this showing it will be difficult for the music aficionado to justify being elsewhere that day.