Behind the Scenes: OUPhilharmonia


Rosa Schiller-Crawhurst rehearses with one of the best orchestras in Oxford.

The Oxford University Philharmonia was founded in 1992 to be run by and for students. It is regarded to be one of the friendliest and most open of the university orchestras – players are selected not simply on the basis of their technical competence, but also on their commitment to producing incredibly high quality music in a short space of time.

This week, I was the newest member of the orchestra to join. Learning the viola was certainly one of the best career moves I have ever made as a rather incompetent musician – violists are almost always one of the smallest sections and players are constantly needed. This week was an informal sectional rehearsal for the players of the orchestra, as section leaders took us through the more challenging passages in this term’s programme. When examining an orchestral score initially, it can be difficult to tell where the most complex areas of the piece might be and where you might be the most exposed – so much relies on what the other sections are doing at the time. The task of the section leader therefore is to flag up these areas of vulnerability and make sure that the technique that each player employs is similar. The focus of this rehearsal was on Brahms’ 3rd symphony – a piece very well suited to the melodious violas. The sultry, romantic and quality of this piece is an extremely enjoyable one to put together. It is a piece that produces a big sound and gives interestingly academic parts to all sections. It is also very well suited to the mellow tone of the viola as the supporting melodies and soft chromatic scales and arpeggios that run through the part add a gentler edge to the piece.

After the rehearsal I spoke to Kathryn Buckley, manager of the orchestra and violist. “One of the most exciting things about playing with OUPhil is that it is an entirely student-run orchestra. Working with a student conductor can be a very different experience from playing under a professional one. In a way, it is a lot more challenging. If you come in as a professional, your authority is already assumed, whereas as a student it is very challenging to play that role for the duration of a rehearsal. I definitely react best to conductors who put a lot of emphasis on the feeling of the music that is being produced. Obviously there will be some passages that the conductor likes to go through in detail, to make sure that the balance of sound is right, but a conductor that engages with the music emotionally and communicates this to the players is incredibly important. One of the best conductors I’ve ever worked with told the story of the passages in the music before we started to play.” Lucy Nolan, harpist, added that for her “one of the main roles of the conductor is to energise the orchestra. If conductors can express themselves and their enthusiasm for the music in their body language during rehearsals and performances then this will have a very positive effect on the sound the players produce. Often it is not the specific technique advice that the conductor gives that changes the sound of the orchestra,-it is often the section leader that should do that job – but the kind of attitude he puts forward to motivate the players.”

In a student orchestra the turnover of players is fairly rapid, so producing a consistently high quality sound as players learn to react to one another is one of the main challenges. Listening and reacting to the styles of other players within your section and the rest of the orchestra is something that you are forced to pick up very quickly – you have to be constantly aware of what everyone else is doing around you.  It’s important that the players familiarise themselves with the music before they begin rehearsals in order to try and understand the sound that the conductor might be trying to produce. As a harpist who is often hired to join rehearsals at a later stage in the process this is a more difficult task for Lucy. “Often I feel quite isolated as a musician in an orchestra, as when I come into the rehearsal process the musical ideas are often fixed. As a predominantly solo musician it can be a bit of a shock to the system when you have to integrate yourself into a much larger body of sound”.

An orchestra requires such a versatile set of skills in order to produce a high quality sound. Precise technique and an academic understanding of the music is a given, but a good orchestral player requires more than this. A real natural musicality is needed in order to deal with the complexities of producing different genres of sound that are employed in such a big and experimental orchestra as the Oxford University Philharmonia.


Thursday 7th June, 8pm Sheldonian Theatre.

Programme: Verdi Nabucco Overture, Rachmaninov Caprice Bohémien, and Brahms Symphony No. 3

Tickets £12/£6