Summer dreams, a summer delight

When I arrived at the Holywell Music Room for the Oxford University String Orchestra’s (OUSE) ‘Summer Dreams’ concert, I was not expecting to be met by a brief recital of Shakespeare that opened the evening.

This was the first of six poems that were recited during the programme as the inspiration of Amy Beach’s set of miniatures Summer Dreams, the source of the title and theme of the concert. Centred around depictions of summer, light, the sun, and the pastoral, Beach’s work was the focus of the evening: its six separate miniatures, each creating its own individual image of nature, were interwoven with pieces by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Gerald Finzi, and a world premiere of Louis Benneyworth’s beautifully named piece A Snapshot of the Dying Light.  

I must admit that I was not entirely convinced by separating the movements of Summer Dreams with the performance of other works; however, I understand the programming choice behind it.

Each sound world that was evoked within Beach’s work was handled with care and expression; from the depictions of the robin to the tarantella dance, these simple yet charming programmatic miniatures were played with elegance and poise. OUSE, conducted by Erin Townsend and assistant Benneyworth, captured the intricate detail and the themes of word painting that define these pieces with ease, shining through the unforgiving acoustic of the Holywell Music Room.

The exposed nature of the acoustic did highlight a couple of moments where the intonation was not quite there and when different sections of the ensemble weren’t quite together. I also found that on occasion, the lower voices of the group (the cellos and double bass) over-powered the violins, particularly in some of the softer moments; however, this did not detract too much from the overall performance of the work.

Drama and contrast were fore-fronted throughout the evening, and the dynamic range of the ensemble was impressive. The quieter sections were handled with control and elegance, while the louder moments were not too overwhelming.

The works by Coleridge-Taylor, Noveletten no. 2 and The Bamboula, were expressed with a similar level of charm. The addition of triangle and tambourine, enthusiastically performed by Benneyworth, was a particular highlight of the evening. This, in combination with the lyrical, singing-style melody that was beautifully played, cut through the air of the Holywell. The different melodic and supporting ideas were clean and tight: each individual line could be heard within Coleridge-Taylor’s (perhaps overly) dense orchestration.

My favourite piece of the evening also happened to be the best performed: Benneyworth’s A Snapshot of the Dying Light was truly a joy to hear. The work itself features different textures, ideas, sound worlds, and harmonies that all blend together into one flowing work. The harmonic shifts and constantly changing textures kept this piece engaging and interesting.

The opening tremolo section that accompanied the cello solo was performed with appropriate restraint and elegance. In partnership with the canonic textures and minimalistic driving passages, reminiscent of works by Michael Nyman, the performance of this piece by OUSE was brilliant with a terrific sound being produced by this relatively small fourteen-piece ensemble.

Benneyworth’s composition had everything, and portrayed elements of the pastoral through the influence of early 20th century British composers. Benneyworth’s conducting of his own work was elegant, flowing, and natural. He was incredibly relaxed throughout the trajectory of the piece and this allowed him to direct the ensemble with ease. The ensemble responded well to Benneyworth’s leadership, creating sheer drive and motion and a huge amount of contrast. A Snapshot of the Dying Light deservedly got the largest applause of the evening, and I can’t wait to hear Benneyworth’s next composition.

Finzi’s interlude for oboe and strings also made a pleasant appearance in the concert. I normally enjoy Finzi’s compositions; however, despite the excellent performance by OUSE and Benneyworth on the oboe, I did not respond well to the work itself due to its overly long length and compositional style. Much preferring Finzi’s shorter works, such as the song cycle Let us Garlands Bring, I found this work to drag a little and it felt a little out of place within the programme.

The programming of the concert was well thought through and had a nice balance of works by composers of different social backgrounds and styles. The works were adventurous in nature, but generally speaking they were excellently pulled off by the ensemble. OUSE didn’t just play the pieces; instead, they performed them to a very high standard that was highly appreciated by the audience of the Holywell Music Room.