In the first of two performances of this concert, St. George’s welcomed Michael Barenboim and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, previously known as the Oxford Philomusica. Mozart and Mendelssohn were rather tenuously associated for this performance as ‘two of the most prodigious musicians of all time’, where the interval provided a further divide between the two composers. Despite the standard overture-concerto-symphony programme choice, the three pieces of the evening did provide a true showcase for the orchestra under the baton of their musical director, Marios Papadopoulos. He was not only the ‘driving force’ behind the orchestra, but was at the core of the orchestra’s sound and delivery.
The hall at St. George’s is well known for its aural sensitivity and difficulty for larger forces, and a big orchestra of over forty musicians was not an easy, large sound to coordinate. Often, orchestras in the hall accompanying a soloist end up stifling the star, but that was not the case for this concert. The orchestra’s sound was balanced to perfection, and despite a couple of flat notes from the woodwind – one prominently jarring one at the beginning of the Hebrides Overture, Op.26, ‘Fingal’s Cave’ – the orchestral textures were rich, vibrant and subtle in all the right places. In the opening Molto allegro of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550, the nuances of exclamations of the same phrases were dynamically and expressively different where each treatment of the melody had its own character applied. Although the second movement of the Mozart had a little less impact because of its repetitive nature, the final two parts gripped the reins of the hall and pulled them hard. Papadopoulos commanded a fantastic swelling climax at the end of the final Allegro assai movement.
Violinist Michael Barenboim was the guest artist for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64, entering on stage dressed with an unusual tie and a red handkerchief to rest his violin over his shoulder. This cloth proved itself to be quite a distraction during his performance and certainly during the orchestral parts of the first Allegro molto appassionato section. Both the first section and the final Allegro molto vivace felt rushed in the faster passages, and so the highlight of Barenboim’s performance was the middle Andante section. He played the concerto with a very rigid left arm close to his body with tense bowing, giving a strong personal interpretation of the concerto. The lower notes of Barenboim's performance were more crude and husky, where the higher registers had more colour. Throughout the piece Barenboim demonstrated a real mastery of high notes that were spot on pitch every time, even if he did use a few too many ‘portamento’ slides for what would be considered traditionally in-keeping with Mendelssohn or the orchestra’s timing. There were several moments of call and response that worked well between Barenboim and the orchestra, and other times that felt mismatched and out of synchronisation.
The players of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra were the true stars of the evening, clearly enjoying every minute of the well-known pieces of music. The highlight of the evening was the wonderfully presented ‘Hebrides’ Overture, which was portrayed with such drama that the audience were silent for a good long pause after the piece had finished before starting to applaud. It captured more attention than the Mozart symphony that was brilliantly executed also, but not quite as well as the Mendelssohn Overture. Papadopoulos must take a high credit for his achievements as a conductor and musical director. He connected extremely well with the orchestral players and his body language during each piece was a testament to the high quality results he achieved. Resultantly, the peaks and troughs of the concert evened out to be a successful event.
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