The Oxford Millennium Orchestra put on a programme of music by composers who were radical in their day, as the conductor, David Hume, humorously informed us during the course of the evening.
Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld takes the original myth and turns it upside down (Orpheus really doesn’t want his unfaithful wife back etc.): at the same time he is making fun of Gluck, a court favourite at the time, who had written an opera on the same myth. The Orchestra performed the overture, complete with its famous ‘cancan’.
There followed two preludes of Debussy’s, written for piano but arranged for the orchestra by Tom Dixon (clarinet) and David Hume. These were gentle pieces: la fille aux cheveux de lin in particular.Cathédrale engloutie conjures up the sounds of a drowned church, the organ and the bells still audible under the water.
Berlioz was an opium user and it is said that he wrote at least some of his Symphonie Fantastique under its influence. The fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, indeed, tells the story of a lovelorn man who tries to poison himself with opium which instead sends him off into a nightmare where he envisages killing his lover and then being marched to his execution. The music conjures up his heavy steps to the scaffold and even the sound of the guillotine crashing down.
Saint Saëns too was an innovator – an organ symphony in itself was out of the ordinary. He was heavily influenced by Beethoven: so, for instance, he takes the idea of four notes (cp Beethoven’s 5th ) but then moves this idea much further, building on and extending the themes throughout.
It was impressive to put such a large orchestra, some 65 or so players, inside such a small space and the pieces were well chosen to highlight the whole orchestra, who gave us a lively evening’s entertainment. Apart from the Debussy preludes, they are rousing pieces where the whole orchestra can participate, from the gentle harp to the cymbals. The brass section was particularly powerful, as were the wind instrumentalists, and the organ, played by Ben Banks, brought the concert to a rousing finale.