Oxford May Music Festival 2010

Festival of classical music and scientific lectures.
For full listings see the May Music Festival website.
Holywell Music Room, Wed April 28th - Mon May 3rd 2010

May 10, 2010
Clara Mouriz & Julius Drake, Oxford May Music Festival 2010
Holywell Music Room, Sun 2 May 2010
I arrived at the Holywell Music Room with very few expectations for the evening’s entertainment, being no more than a fan of good singing and a willing guinea pig for most musical experiences. I am aware that a Mezzo Soprano is a level of classical singing voice, but there ended my knowledge.

Clara Mouriz, rather than fitting my image of an operatic diva, buxom, overly made up, melodramatic in delivery, was slender and elegant, compact and bijou enough to fit snugly into the curve of the grand piano’s side. (This is not to say that she hid away - more that she and the instrument made an attractive couple!) As she began the first of the pieces, a cantata by Haydn, she stepped forward and as much acted the piece as sang it, demonstrating that a part of the performance is in the singer’s gesture and expression, which in this case seemed convincingly heartfelt.  

The power of her voice, easily reaching the limits of her range with note perfect precision and depth of tone, belied the expected capabilities of such a petite frame.

Clara’s real skill however, lay in her ability to sing the quietest of notes with such clarity and finesse that it actually made me shiver a little. Admittedly, I am pretty easily moved when it comes to the human voice, but I sensed that others in the audience felt that the power of the performance was in the purity of those moments. I looked around me to see smiles of appreciation and pleasure. A bonus for me was that many of the songs were in French, a language I am fortunate to understand and love to hear spoken and, I discover, sung. Clara quite clearly enjoyed the singing of many songs in her native Spanish, ending jubilantly on an uplifting note with a couple of what I would describe as more fun and animated numbers.

I enjoy a performer all the more when they engage with their audience, which Clara and her accompanist Julius Drake certainly did - Julius being the more vocal of the pair, introducing the songs and explaining their context. It was when Clara told us about the pieces that she endeared herself, and thus her performance, to us most however.

If I had any negative criticism to make it would be of the error on the part of the organisers to distribute printed lyric sheets to the audience. The intention was kind, but the result was a perpetual, slight paper rustling, page-turning accompaniment to every song. Maybe my ears were super-tuned on that night to pick up on and be disturbed by even the tiniest distraction, but I felt that Clara Mouriz sang beautifully and expressively enough that the understanding of the meaning of the words should have been irrelevant. Stop reading, listen and enjoy!

May 4, 2010
Finale Concert, Mon 3 May 2010
How can words chase after the unrepeatable moment of this in every way superlative performance? First, Beethoven’s trio for piano, clarinet and cello, an intriguingly disjointed experience, with the driving energy of the piano, the lyrical cello and the laconic clarinet, as though these very different voices were struggling to find each other, and occasionally succeeding, with a politeness not altogether reassuring. An ill-fitting, somehow enquiring, opening. Then, Felix Mendelssohn’s E Minor String Quartet: imposing, often agitated and relentless; also imploring, fragile, and at times painfully sweet - a controlled piece that pushes to the edges of control, then hints at some deeper rawness, then climbs again and again insistently into itself yet turning plaintively beyond itself, leading us to a landscape of introspection only more defiantly to demand that we listen to something beyond ourselves. The third piece was dark and explosive: Bartok’s Kontrastes for clarinet, violin and piano, with more punch, more danger, more antagonism, but nostalgia too, and a thrilling conscious theatrical zeal that prepared us for C. M. Von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet and the unmitigated joy of pure exhibitionist brilliance. I need you to imagine you are there, that you are living it note by note, and that as you journey through this fascinating programme of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bartok, and Weber in ways quite inexpressible, you are also flabbergasted by the talent of these musicians, who bring everything off to impeccable perfection, to the extent that you, and the audience with you, long for greater and greater difficulty knowing that each precipice will be traversed with elegance and ease. This was an unforgettable evening, held as all live performance so exhilaratingly is, in the time of its happening, an event to be celebrated but hardly possible to be explained in words. You need to hear these gifted players, wherever and whenever they perform, and you need to book now for May Music 2011.
I doubt there are many people in the western world who haven’t come across the term “MRI scan” in some medical context. It’s a crucial stop in the diagnosis of many diseases, such as brain tumours, which were previously unidentifiable and therefore wholly untreatable. It was for this massive advance in medical science that Sir Peter Mansfield jointly won the Nobel Prize in 2003.

However, as this talk showed, the power of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) spreads far beyond the realm of diagnostic medicine. By being able to study the activity of different regions of the brain, MRI has created the opportunity to address difficult questions in neuroscience, psychology and even ethics in a scientific manner. It’s a really tall order to try and explain pretty complex physics to a popular audience. This is particularly true in Oxford where in addition to interested laymen, like myself, one suspects there were a one or two of rogue experts from the MRI field. nevertheless, Peter Morris did a truly excellent job. He didn’t labour parts that weren’t necessary, but equally didn’t shy away from addressing the underlying fundamentals.

I wish all the lectures I have attended were as well delivered as this one. Light relief from the science was provided by describing Sir Mansfield’s journey from jobless, qualification-less Londoner to Nobel Prize Winner. It takes a truly remarkable character to go from watching VI rockets fall on London, to being a rocket scientist. Then onto “nuclear” physicist (of sorts!) and so producing a whole string of major contributions from which the human condition has benefited immeasurably.

I can’t deny it seems a bit odd to twin a series of popular science lectures with a music festival, but no matter. If this is the standard, I would certainly recommend checking out the rest.
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