Live Review: University Philharmonia Orchestra @ The Great Hall: 23/09/11

The University Philharmonia’s first concert of the year coincided with a somewhat chilly October evening, but the audience in the Great Hall were instantly warmed by Suk’s ‘Fantastic Scherzo’. The jaunty woodwind passages and driving cross rhythms in the opening bars were contrasted beautifully with the soaring, lyrical nature of the subsequent ‘cello melody and conductor Jonathan Tillbrook worked the orchestra into a dramatic frenzy for the thrilling finale.

Ending the first half was Stravinsky’s ‘Dumbarton Oaks’, a chamber concerto for fifteen players where, in addition to exhibiting expert technical abilities in their individual parts, the players all demonstrated superb musicianship in melding what is effectively fifteen solo parts into one chamber ensemble.

Sandwiched inbetween the Suk and the Stravinsky was the world premiere of Alex Kolassa’s Unreal City. Inspired by TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, Unreal City has the themes of alienation, disillusionment and despair woven tight in its fabric. At times deceptively complex in terms of both harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary, Kolassa just manages to maintain the balance between innovation and accessibility. Clearly a very gifted young composer, he is certainly one to watch out for in the future!

The second half consisted solely of Sergei Rachmaninov’s final work, his ‘Symphonic Dances’. Whilst Rachmaninov’s compositional style is markedly dissimilar to that of his contemporary and compatriot Stravinsky, there is a certain element of nostalgia in both – as ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ is inspired by the Baroque concerto grosso (especially J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg concerti), the ‘Symphonic Dances’ too are a throwback to the past, in their case to the Russian romantic traditions of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Pulsating rhythms alternate with long, flowing melodies, such as the plaintive saxophone solo in the first movement (beautifully played by second year student, Dianne Muir), whilst extreme contrasts of textures and dynamics keep the dramatic tension throughout. The string section especially stood out, exhibiting their richly lyrical side in the first movement and a sinister and oft times ethereal quality in the lilting second movement, aided by some beautiful shaping from Tillbrook. The finale was devilishly intense and full of energy, building to an electrifying climax and a final moment of reflection as the reverberating final tam-tam crash died to nothing.

One of the only negatives was the lack of a proper piano for the ‘Symphonic Dances’ – with the grand piano that usually sits in the Great Hall out of action, the replacement keyboard had none of the powerful crispness needed for the opening of the first movement and, dynamically, found itself almost completely lost within the full orchestral texture during the beautifully played string chorale. Nevertheless, this was an excellent first concert which bodes very well for the rest of the year, especially the scheduled performance in March of Gustav Mahler’s epic Second Symphony, ‘Resurrection’ in the Albert Hall in March.

Jamie Njoku-Goodwin


Upcoming concerts

University Sinfonia Orchestra – Great Hall, Sunday 9th December, 7.30: Music by Brahms, Liszt, Dukas and Mussorgsky

University Philharmonia Orchestra, University Choir and Viva Voce – Djanogly Theatre, Saturday 26th November, 5pm: Music by Andriessen, MacMillan, Britten and Stravinsky


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