The Sheldonian theatre is not just a place to get your degree. It is also a venue for concerts, lectures and other events. To celebrate three-and-a-half centuries of musical memories created in this beautiful space, tonight the Sheldonian Anniversary Orchestra and Chorus, specially convened for the occasion, performed Beethoven’s Ninth “Symphony with final chorus on Schiller’s Ode to Joy” (which, the programme tells me, is its correct title, as opposed to its more commonly used name, “The Choral”). The symphony was also played, under the direction of Richard Wagner, at the laying of the first foundation stone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in Germany in 1872.
Beethoven’s Ninth is arguably one of the most famous pieces of Western classical music, and one of the most performed, with various re-orchestrations and alterations rendering each performance unique. The esteem in which it held is even more astonishing given that its composer was practically deaf when he wrote it.
Generally, when you go to review things, you are given good seats, for obvious reasons. At the Sheldonian, as we know, this is somewhat of a Hobson’s choice. But every time I have been before, most of the ground floor seats have been fine. I expect nothing luxurious. This time, however, largely due to a mix-up, the lady at the door put me in the Upper Gallery. Here, I got a fabulous view of the newly-decorated ceiling (including the belligerent cherub who looks like he’s about to throw a punch) but, apart from this, the experience was something I never want to repeat.
Unfortunately, the seats were so uncomfortable that they also marred my enjoyment of the performance, particularly as it (being a symphony) was 75 minutes long, without an interval. There was quite some verbal (and written – thanks for the leaflet!) emphasis on Health and Safety but, judging by a lot of shifting in the audience, those seats should be a priority. Even if the building is listed and modifications cannot be made, it would have been possible to permit sitting on alternate rows, for example, so that nobody was sitting on anyone else’s feet. Have fewer of us, maybe, but please make your guests comfortable.
Seating issues aside, I wanted to focus on the positive elements as much as possible, because I have heard the symphony played beautifully before and had genuinely been so excited about seeing this performance. The conductor, Paul Coones, was unfortunately indisposed, and James Ross did a sterling job as his replacement. By the second movement, the orchestra were much more in their stride and, as the wonderful performance notes stated, the entry of the human voice was indeed a ‘magical moment’. I wonder if the overall sound balance (between, for example, the male and female soloists, and some of the instruments) got a little distorted up here in the rafters, but the climaxes were rousing, particularly where orchestra and chorus united. The celebratory nature of the evening was finally captured in the jubilant Ode to Joy and, while there was no standing ovation, the several rounds of applause were well deserved.
The Sheldonian is an important place and I am enormously fond of it. I was happy and honoured to be at this concert to celebrate its 350 years, and I look forward to the rest of the events programme. I’ll just be sitting elsewhere next time.