The Oxford Philomusica programme hors d’oeuvre at an almost full Sheldonian Theatre was the premiere of Ithaca by Irish-born, Oxford postgraduate student Solfa Carlile, a short piece for orchestra inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. This turned out to be surprisingly melodic with snatches of birdsong and some poignant oboe at the conclusion. Necessarily very short, but we need to hear more from Ms Carlile.
Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto, an unusually jolly piece for this composer, was described by him shortly after completing it as “having no redeeming artistic merits". Odd then that he permitted its publication and performing to go forward, but fortunate for posterity. 23-year-old soloist Alexander Ullmann dealt manfully with the challenge of needing to hit the keyboard running immediately after the opening clipped notes of the bassoon, and also with the wild variation in tempo from movement to movement: the rapid but light-fingered opening with its catchy tune, the tender Andante which for me always summons up Chopin (of whom Shostakovich was a passionate admirer), and then the breakneck allegro finale, the pizzicato strings sounding appropriately almost balalaika-like.
These two works were conducted by Cayenna Ponchione. How nice to find a woman on the podium; the male domination of professional conducting jobs all over the world is a perennial disgrace.
Before the concert I re-visited Milos Forman’s film Amadeus, in particular the dreadful final scenes of Mozart’s funeral after he’d been found dead, his bed strewn with the unfinished manuscript of The Requiem. The obsequies took place in the pouring rain with almost no one present save a couple of shivering graveside attendants and a hasty jobsworth of a prelate. The contrast between those miserable scenes and the grandeur of the composer’s final creative outpouring that immediately preceded his demise is a shocking one. Daniel Hyde and his 27 strong choir from Magdalen College did a workmanlike job although Mr Hyde’s diffident style conveyed little impression of giving out much energy to orchestra and choir.
The Introitus, perhaps the noblest opening to any piece in the Western tradition of choral music, came over as tentative when smooth power is required, but then players and singers got into their stride. The Requiem is primarily of course a challenge for choir rather than soloists, and the soloists here were satisfactory, though soprano Alexandra Kidgell seemed ill at ease with the notes at the bottom of the range.
I liked the smooth tone to the trombone solo of the Tuba Mirum. There were a few parts, like the Rex Tremendae, in which we could have done with a few more adult male voices to lend more body to the singing. The choir’s woeful expressivity in the Lacrimosa reflected the falling of tears in Mozart’s minor-key score. They successfully navigated the passionate pleading for eternal life to follow on from death in the Hostias, then celebrated the closing diminished chords of the Lux Aeterna, boosted by the resounding horns.