Robert Max directed the Oxford Symphony Orchestra with a particularly delicate touch that kept surprising the audience every time it turned into wild strength. From his placid and delighted smile to the intense and rapid movement of his entire body, observing Max conducting was a pleasure in itself.
The evening started with a mysterious adventure into an acoustic forest which seemed to have rivers and cascades of beautiful sounds lead by the mastery of Mariette Richter on her violin. d’Indy knew exactly what kind of experience he wanted to convey when he created ‘La Forêt Enchantée, Op. 8’; the orchestra couldn’t have performed it better.
The German tradition was a constant presence throughout the night. In every scene I could visualise a range of fantastic creatures. At times they were fragile dragonflies moving their wings at the velocity of the strings, sometimes we faced magnificent beasts announced by the intensity of the wind instruments and percussion. We could follow with the music a path of hypnotic sound which took us from dark and mossy woods to peaceful and bright clearings in which the sound of the harp bathed us in sun-rays.
Then Delius provided us with more. Benjamin Nabarro and Gemma Rosefield extracted us from our dreamy state and made us concentrate on the intense musical reality of the interplay between a dramatic and strong violin and a fierce and delightful cello. The concerto was pleasing to the ears and the eyes, seeing bows rising and plunging in perfect symmetry and synchronicity, with wind instruments adding to the performance's vividness. The piece was also adorned with subtle and intimate interactions which can only happen between musicians devoted to exalt beauty with sound. When they had finished, the audience could hardly let Nabarro and Rosefield go.
After the interval it was difficult to anticipate what more could be ahead. It had already been a delightful evening full of surprises. However, the orchestra was ready to give us an unforgettable experience of ecstatic sound. Saint-Saëns’s work, ‘La Muse et le Poète, Op. 132’ was as he described it, ‘a conversation between two instruments’, but also a poem in sound perhaps dedicated to an immortal and delicate muse, in which other instruments such as the harp and the clarinet added to the exquisiteness.
The last composition was ‘The Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54’ by Scriabin. The beautiful organ framed in blue with a man, Malcolm Pierce, his back to us ready to play it, was an arresting visual centrepiece. However, the richness and the sensuality of the music were able to overtake anything that we could actually see and transport us to the wildest realms of fantasy; Scriabin was definitely a genius in my book. The grand finale was also the final display of power and intensity of Robert Max’s conducting and the surrender of the entire orchestra to beauty and pleasure. It was a night which will haunt me deliciously for a long time to come.