The level of anticipation for Saturday’s Oxford Philomusica concert was high, although not necessarily for the reasons you might expect: several minutes passed after tuning before the concertmaster emerged from the wings of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. Although the Sheldonian may be somewhat lacking acoustically, the building’s grandeur more than makes up for it. The main feature of the interior is undoubtedly Robert Streater’s painted ceiling (depicting “Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences to expel Ignorance from the University”). Amid such impressive surroundings, the Oxford Philomusica had the potential for an unforgettable concert. Unfortunately, the orchestra seemed slightly disengaged from the music.

Marios Papadopoulos conducting Oxford Philomusica
Marios Papadopoulos conducting Oxford Philomusica

Marios Papadopoulos directed Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 from his position as soloist. With Mozart’s other works in D minor including much of Don Giovanni and the Requiem, I was hoping that the Philomusica would capture the key’s dramatic character. However, I was to be disappointed: instead of treating the concerto as a battle, the orchestra seemed to retreat into the background without complaint. The stormy syncopated rhythms of the first movement lacked attack or urgency, although Papadopoulos’ cadenza seemed to provoke the orchestra to conclude the movement with vigour. The renewed sense of purpose continued into the second movement, a Romance, which Papadopoulos took at a brisk andante. This movement drew attention to problems of balance, with the lidless piano frequently overpowering the exposed woodwind passages. The start of the Rondo finale saw Papadopoulos rise from his seat to galvanise the orchestra, the cellos and double basses driving the rest of the orchestra on in their fiery performance. Despite the fluctuations in tempo throughout the movement, the Philomusica finally gained the warm (if not triumphant) key of D major.

Papadopoulos was relatively motionless as a soloist, and perhaps this goes some way to explaining the apparent lack of energy for much of the concerto. Although it was clear he possessed the required technical prowess (demonstrated in Beethoven’s cadenza for the first movement), I felt that he could have made much more of a personal imprint upon the piece. His interpretation was strangely restrained, and I felt that more force would have suited the opening movement. His understated performance came into its own in the Romance, lending the movement a mood of contemplation and a sense of honesty.

The Philomusica more than doubled in size over the interval, filling the floorspace underneath Streater’s stunning art. The orchestra’s performance of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 was one of extremes: either the playing was almost inaudible, or it was ear-splittingly loud. This contrast became tiring, but perhaps the Sheldonian’s lack of resonance is partly to blame for this. It seemed as if the trombones were attempting to drown each other out in the last movement, even forsaking tone for volume. The effect of the final climax was lost because of this all-or-nothing approach. The orchestra was clearly more comfortable in the loud passages, seemingly because of an insecurity of ensemble. It seemed as if the orchestra was a collection of individual players rather than a group working towards the same aim, a trait which was especially noticeable in the violin bowing.

Papadopoulos’ presence as conductor made the Bruckner symphony a much more engaging performance than the Mozart. Bruckner’s formal blocks were well-shaped, but I felt that they needed to be integrated into a wider perspective. The strings were much stronger in this half: even when hushed, they had an intensity which had been absent in the Mozart, and the violas and cellos shone in the section solos of the second movement. Papadopoulos’ emphasis on the bass created a sense of propulsion through Bruckner’s ostinati and sequences. Although some momentum was lost in the second movement (with the silences appearing hollow, not electric), it was definitely regained in the Scherzo. Despite some slightly unsteady brass rhythms, the fluttering woodwind calls in the pastoral interlude captured the sense of a Mahlerian mountain idyll. The clarity of clarinettist David Rix’s playing especially stood out.

Orchestra and audience alike were fidgety throughout the concert: glancing around in the last movement of the Bruckner, I could see several people fiddling with their phones (thankfully, only in the audience). It was this sense of disconnection which pervaded the performance. Glimpses of the orchestra’s potential could be seen throughout the evening, making their performance all the more frustrating.

**111