Following the success of their first concert last term, St Peter’s College Chamber Orchestra returned to give a concert of Debussy, Mahler and Vaughan Williams. The program posed a series of challenges for a chamber orchestra consisting of only seventeen players, as this repertoire is usually played by a symphony orchestra consisting of around ninety musicians.
When speaking to the ensemble’s ambitious conductor, John Warner, prior to the performance, he stressed the importance of choosing a program that is “both challenging and rewarding for the players yet appealing to the audience.” In this respect, Warner curated the perfect program; the works were all inspired by poetry yet show complementing nationalistic interpretations of late Romantic ideals. The ensemble’s sensitive performance demonstrated their obvious identification with the repertoire, while the large audience that filled St Peter’s College Chapel proves that the right programme draws a sizable crowd.
The ensemble clearly values the enjoyment of playing music together. As explained by violin soloist Anny Chen, ‘everyone is here because they want to be here, because they love the music,’ which in her opinion differs to the atmosphere of orchestras at London music colleges where some people attend purely out of obligation. Although the ensemble’s spiritual home is St Peter’s College, the members come from all over the university. A total of fifteen colleges are represented with a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students from a variety of different subject areas.
The concert opened with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and the audience were instantly transported to the hazy heat of the French riverbank depicted in Mallarmé’s poem as a result of Daniel Shao’s sensuous flute solo. The subsequent wind and horn solos perfectly matched the quality of tone and sentiment set by Shao.
However, the dynamic range of the piece could have been explored deeper. Players tended to be concerned with projecting their individual lines rather than creating moments of real pianissimo, which would have transformed this otherwise beautiful performance into the realm of the sublime.
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony formed the centre of the program, and its shorter length and lighter scoring compared with some of his other symphonies lends it well to chamber performances. Highlights of the first movement included lyrical string themes from the cellos and Ben Horton’s fantastic horn solos, whose rich tone perfectly suited the Mahlerian sound world.
The second movement featured a large variety of textures and all members of the ensemble fully exploited the chance to play with characterful articulation. An admirable sense of poise was maintained throughout the third movement. Yet the strings could have afforded more sentimentality in their sweeping melodies to please those of us who enjoy listening to Mahler played by musicians who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Helena Moore’s soprano solo in the fourth movement provided a glorious culmination to the work, and the generous acoustic of the chapel enabled her silvery tone to soar above the orchestra. Warner gracefully handled the movement’s potentially awkward transitions sections, and expertly led the ensemble to the work’s understated close.
In an interesting subversion of programming conventions, the concert ended with Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending. The creative decision paid off as Chen’s sensational violin playing was the undoubted highlight of the evening. Her exceptional interpretation of one of the nation’s best-loved classical works defied comparison with even the generation’s finest violinists. The audience was captivated by her sophisticated explorations of the violin’s different registers, which created a magical aura in the chapel. There was no need for Chen to forcefully project her volume during the performance, as her ethereal tone inspired sophisticated and supportive playing from the accompanying ensemble.
After such a successful concert, it will be interesting to see how the ensemble develops in the future. No doubt Warner will mastermind suitably ambitious projects in the coming terms. It would be a joy for audiences if Moore and Chen, both students at London music colleges, were to return to Oxford for subsequent appearances.