Review: Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates 11/11/18

Music

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra
Mary Bevan – soprano
David Stout – baritone
Rowan Atkinson – narrator
The Choir of The Queen’s College
Owen Rees – conductor

Image credit: PublicDomainPictures

Attendees of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra’s Remembrance Day concert were treated to a thoughtfully crafted and magnificently performed programme to mark the centenary of the First World War. Proceedings were split into two parts: one English and one German, beginning with George Butterworth’s folk-song idyll ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. Butterworth’s music is routinely programmed, as it was here, as a meditation on the beauty and alleged innocence of England’s pre-war pastoral scene. The composer’s death during the battle of the Somme at the age of thirty-one was mourned widely, his Times obituary eulogizing “a musician of great promise as well as a man of sterling character, who, if he had not given his life in a greater cause, would undoubtedly have done much to further a national ideal of musical art in this country.” Posthumously, Butterworth and his music have come to symbolize an entire generation of lost youth and unfulfilled potential. That he read Greats at Trinity College made his presence in this concert all the more resonant.

Butterworth’s interest in folk-song was encouraged by Ralph Vaughan Williams whom he met while at Oxford, the elder composer becoming a strong supporter of Butterworth’s music, later dedicating his second symphony to him. Their friendship and joint enthusiasm for folk-song, part of a commitment to the larger movement of English nationalism, have frequently linked their music together on concert programmes.

Vaughan Williams’s ‘An Oxford Elegy’ is a seldom-heard gem for narrator, orchestra, and choir, but the Philharmonic’s compelling interpretation of the work suggests that it ought to be done more often, perhaps alongside the composer’s other work in this medium, ‘A Song of Thanksgiving’. The choice of Rowan Atkinson as narrator was inspired. The final season of Blackadder continues to spark debate over our perception of the First World War, but listeners with reservations over how the comedian might contribute to these somber proceedings were in for a surprise. The text is adapted from Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’ and ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, both set in the Oxfordshire landscape. The words are not rhythmically notated in the score, so the narrator’s challenge is to convey the rhythm of Arnold’s text in accord with Vaughan Williams’ intricate accompaniment. Mr. Atkinson managed this brilliantly, his sensitivity to the sound and sentiment of the text delivered with a clarity and immediacy that is not often achieved in such pieces. I hope that Rowan Atkinson will appear more regularly in this capacity as he clearly has much to offer.

“This concert was a reminder of music’s ability to commemorate historical events in a way which is simultaneously soothing and stimulating”

War-time tension extended to the field of music, and there was no shortage of anti-German sentiment in the press articles and private correspondence of England’s wartime intelligentsia, including that of Vaughan Williams. In 1919, he received an honorary doctorate in the Sheldonian, and The Musical Times noted that the “last honorary degree of Doctor of Music was given just five years ago to Dr. Richard Strauss, and while Oxford takes no shame for her past actions, generous on the eve of war, it was significant that her first act of peace was to seek out one of the foremost of our native composers.” This historical discord made the inclusion of Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem a touching and effective gesture of musical reconciliation. For this masterpiece, the orchestra was joined by soloists David Stout and Mary Bevan, both returning to the city after recent appearances in the Oxford Lieder Festival. Their singing was spell-binding; Stout’s dark severity complimented by Bevan’s ravishingly nuanced lyricism. Special commendation must be given to Queen’s College Choir who matched the orchestra and soloists at every level: a shining example of the world-class choral tradition that Oxford has to offer.

Like other occasions in Oxford this weekend, this concert was a reminder of music’s ability to commemorate historical events in a way which is simultaneously soothing and stimulating. The centenary has come to an end, but England will continue to engage with the First World War and to explore the ways in which the effects of that conflict may be felt today, and music will have an important part to play in this dialogue. The discussion will go on.