Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre was nearly full for the concert on Thursday night. Billed “Russian Greats”, the programme mixed the familiar fare of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich with a world première by the Oxford-based composer Chris Garrard. There was a tangible sense of anticipation before the concert began, and the audience’s encouragement throughout the evening surely encouraged the Oxford Philomusica to give such a spirited performance.

Natalia Lomeiko © Sasha Gusov
Natalia Lomeiko
© Sasha Gusov

Chris Garrard’s Broken Thumbs opened the concert. Selected from the Philomusica’s 2012 Composers’ Workshop, the piece was inspired by his experience of the 2011 UN Climate Change Conference in Durban. Brass breath attacks, guttural brass, string glissandi and rhythmic loudspeaker utterances gradually emerged into a rhythmic groove (established by pizzicato snaps in the lower strings). A darker mood arose out of this lively texture, pitting angry loudspeaker exclamations against violent orchestral swells, but this skirmish was followed by a more peaceful section, in which sustained string chords and open harmonic language suggested an opening of vistas. This quietly contemplative interlude supported a loudspeaker address, before the piece closed with a reminiscence of the opening gestures. The piece was enthusiastically received, the audience applause lasting for some time.

The evening then turned its attention to Russia. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto saw the soloist drawn from the ranks of the orchestra as Natalia Lomeiko (one of the Philomusica’s Concertmasters) took centre stage. It was clear from the robust opening that this Tchaikovsky would be anything but saccharine, and Lomeiko’s dark-hued first entry confirmed this. The rest of the orchestra responded well to her defiance and poise, though their full sound meant that Lomeiko was overpowered at points. Although Lomeiko was clearly in control, conductor Marios Papadopoulos guided orchestra and soloist through the subtleties of Tchaikovsky’s score effortlessly. Lomeiko successfully bypassed any hint of sentimentality, imbuing decorative variations with an element of playfulness and adding hints of melancholy to sweeping melodies. After some dubious woodwind intonation at the opening, this melancholy emerged once more in the Canzonetta. A simmering tension underpinned this movement, allowing it to proceed with a sense of purpose (even if the strings seemed reluctant to take part in the antiphonal confrontation). The third movement saw Papadopoulos set at a breakneck speed, maintaining it throughout the lengthy Rondo to edge-of-the-seat effect. Lomeiko’s performance was still just as assured, digging into the virtuosic passagework to create an earthy sound. Orchestra and soloist spurred each other on, and the Finale certainly packed a punch.

Some slight rhythmic disparities and a lack of suspense meant that the opening movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 took some time to gain momentum. The intense string sound of the opening gesture quickly weakened, causing the tension underpinning the movement to flag. The softer passages particularly suffered, requiring cleaner articulation. Papadopoulos’ understated gestures didn’t quite lend the orchestra the direction they needed: the emergence into the nightmarish march in the opening movement almost came as a shock. After a slightly wild start, a buoyant tempo was established for the Allegretto. The Philomusica’s interpretation was brilliantly sarcastic, but more connection between gestures was needed to provide coherence. The third movement was hauntingly beautiful, maintaining a sense of progression through the sustained string chords. The poignancy of Ileana Ruhemann’s flute solo definitely made up for other wind weaknesses (notably, strident clarinet tone and intonation problems in the horns). The Finale portrayed a sense of bleakness but lacked the underlying menace which animates the movement, and the orchestra seemed torn between the desire to maintain the athletic tempo and a resolute sound. Altogether, a solid interpretation with some striking moments.

The Oxford Philomusica gave an engaging performance, with their interpretations of Tchaikovsky and Garrard most praiseworthy. The audience definitely appreciated it, and the atmosphere was still buzzing as I left the Sheldonian: surely the sign of a successful concert.