The scene of the concert was St Mary's Church, in theory a Perpendicular Gothic creation from the 14th Century, but heavily re-modelled in the 1850s by Sir G.G. Scott (very active in Oxford, notably in Exeter College) in the Gothic Revival style. Pevsner's The Buildings of England opines that 'the interior, with its depressing brown floor, now resembles a warehouse'. Well maybe, but the warm welcome from Sue Hurst and her colleagues on Saturday utterly squashed any thoughts of brown floors or warehouses, and the large size of the audience, which included an Oxford contingent, suggested anticipation of good things to come from the Orchestra; though the two plums of the programme, Dvorak and Sibelius, were more than sufficient enticement to this concert-goer.
The plums were preceded by a damson, the Croatian/Austrian Franz von Suppe's Light Cavalry overture, a brief Leharesque confection of martial parade ground music, and if the galloping tune seemed strangely familiar, could it be you've watched too many Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny cartoons?
Then our cello soloist appeared and we slipped into Dvorak's Cello Concerto with sombre (and here slightly hesitant) clarinets spelling out the theme. When Dan Brandon, formerly lead cellist in the National Youth Orchestra, came to the brief cadenza, his instrument rang out full-throated with sotto voce flutes and violins accompanying. In the slow movement, containing the passage where horns (four of them; excellent) give a solemn reminder of the opening theme, Brandon took this up with lots of vibrato. He was afterwards joined by a solo flute and then bassoons evoking rustic, bird-like sounds – a magical effect. Were these for Dvorak, composing the work in New York City, a Robert Browning-like Czech manifestation of Home Thoughts from Abroad? Dan Brandon was undemonstrative but eloquent; for him the future looks rosy.
In the interval half-a-dozen of us were kindly treated to a little homily by the smiling Fr. Doug Zimmerman, once of Florida, USA, on the stone reredos behind the altar from 1891, which features Abraham and Isaac from Genesis and a much more unusual depiction of Nehustan, the serpent of bronze on a pole from the Book of Numbers.
Sibelius' First Symphony filled the second half. Musicologists talk of this and its successor coming from a soon-to-be-dropped romantic tradition. No doubt, but the true Sibelian might prefer to dwell upon the links with the other six symphonies: the characteristic hesitations and pauses, the flowing of the music into apparent cul-de-sacs. Here there are fewer of the paragraphs that hold back from a climax, and the Big Tune in the finale was given full weight by conductor Robert Hodge, who all evening from his podium gave just the brisk, unambiguous direction that an amateur orchestra requires. The interventions of Charlie Grimsey's harp were telling, and Paul Ramsell on the timpani got up a real head of steam, enjoying the lavish scope offered by the piece. In the first movement, the violins, which had been a bit scraping in the Suppe and occasionally a little faltering in the Dvorak, dealt energetically with the pizzicato passages, matched by the cello section (very good all evening). The orchestra as a whole dealt capably with Sibelius' constant fluctuations of tempo and we moved inexorably to the final climax.