If you haven’t been before, look out for the next in the series of 8 concerts that form the 2019 Orchestra of St John’s Ashmolean Proms series. The softly lit alcoves of the Greek and Roman Sculpture Gallery at the Ashmolean provide not just a stunning backdrop for these performances, but also near perfect acoustics, and the enthusiastic audience at last night’s Cello Masterworks concert soaked up every soaring note.
The internationally acclaimed Orchestra of St John’s was founded by John Lubbock in 1967, and appears regularly in London and at Dorchester Abbey, as well as in Oxford. Alongside the OSJ’s public concerts, it has a long standing commitment to making quality music available to those who might otherwise have little music experience: the orchestra provides over 50 musical events a year to children with autism, adults with dementia, and refugees. John Lubbock himself was awarded an OBE for his services in 2015.
The performance began with Milhaud’s Suite d’apres Corrette, for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, all three of which were played with great technical skill and flair. Each of the 8 separate movements were a joy to the ear, and the clarity and balance of the piece, as the notes resounded through the gallery, served as a reminder of how marvellous it is to hear such music played live.
The concert continued with Saint Saens’ Cello Concerto No 1. Prizewinning Latvian cellist, Margarita Balanas, joining the OSJ for this concert, began by introducing her cello to the audience with the astonishing fact that it was the very same instrument on which the Concerto had been premiered 146 years ago! Ms Balanas continued to amaze the audience with her truly accomplished playing, displaying both irresistible style and stunning technique, perfectly woven into the smooth textures of the orchestra behind her. She played both with power and passion, evident in the two outer movements, and with tenderness and precision, for the delightful central minuet.
The OSJ Proms events always feature a 5 minute talk after the interval on an item in the Museum Collection relating to the music that night: accordingly, we were treated to Dr Jon Whiteley’s smart and engaging talk about the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. This was followed by Fauré’s Elegy, where once more we were enchanted by the hauntingly beautiful cello playing of Margarita Balanas in this achingly sad piece. With the orchestra accompanying and varying the theme, Ms Balanas once more excelled as her cello carried the main theme, from its sombre opening, through to a powerful middle section before returning to the opening melody and the calm of the final, poignant notes.
The evening ended with Fauré’s Pelleas et Mellisande suite, a piece which overflows with rich and elegant melodies, especially in the accomplished hands of the OSJ Orchestra. The solo horn and oboe were standout performances, but the whole suite was glorious, and a fitting finale to a wonderful evening. I would encourage anyone to listen to (and preferably go and see!) the supremely talented Ms Balanas and I for one will be seeking out the next OSJ Prom, and can promise anyone who loves live performance that they will not be disappointed.