The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Shostakovich, Copland & Prokofiev

oberon-draperOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of 20th century music from the superpowers, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 11 June

Shostakovich Festive Overture (1954)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Prokofiev Symphony no.7 (1952)

Cosima Yu (clarinet), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

This evening’s concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra comprised three pieces which complemented each other ideally, especially when their immediacy and accessibility as music tends to offset their frequent technical difficulties – albeit for musicians rather than listeners.

Not least Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written in three days to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, whose tunefulness does not make for ease of ensemble; not that this was an issue when the players were as alert rhythmically in the first theme as surely as they conveyed the suavity of its successor, and the grandeur of its framing fanfares emerging without undue heaviness. That Shostakovich struggled to refocus his music in the post-Stalin era hardly lessens the appeal of this piece when so capably rendered.

The sharp stylistic contrasts in Copland’s output may have been determined more by aesthetic than political considerations, yet here again those pieces written for a wider audience are by no means straightforward to perform. One might have expected a testing solo part in the Clarinet Concerto composed for Benny Goodman, but the high and exposed writing in the first movement hardly makes life easy, and it was a credit to the Oberon musicians that they met the challenge while capturing the Mahlerian plangency of this music. The second movement, with its continual syncopation and recourse to jazz idioms, presents difficulties that were less fully surmounted; which in no way deterred Cosima Yu – her elegant phrasing and rhythmic verve much in evidence through to that final and decidedly Gershwinesque upward glissando.

While it has never been neglected, Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is still too often interpreted at face value. A letter to the ailing composer from Shostakovich soon after the premiere betrays a recognition of deeper and more ambivalent emotion behind the outward naivety (something the latter clearly had in mind when writing his final symphony two decades on), and it was this ambivalence that Samuel Draper brought out most convincingly – not least in an initial Moderato of a formal simplicity concealed by the harmonic subtlety with which Prokofiev navigates its searching and often uneasy course. This was no less true of the ensuing Moderato, a waltz-sequence of ingratiating melodies undercut by a rhythmic assertiveness made manifest during a coda whose forced jollity came ominously to the fore.

The highlight was the Andante – easy to glide over when its themes are so simply and unobtrusively drawn, but here given with  a plaintiveness and regret as disarming as is the piquancy of its scoring (not least the melting harp passage toward its close). While the final Allegro was less convincing, this further instance of ‘easy’ expression allied to its fair share of technical difficulties is far from plain-sailing, and if ensemble was not always precise in the cavorting main sections (or the admittedly uninspiring central episode), the return of the first movement’s ‘big tune’ was finely judged and the coda suffused with acute poignancy.

Draper rightly opted for the quiet ending that Prokofiev had initially intended: no matter if   its final pizzicato was not together – the music’s essential fatalism could hardly be ignored.

The next Oberon concert takes place on 17th September 2015, where the orchestra will play the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ symphony and Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes. Here they are in the Tchaikovsky’s Fifth:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven and Shostakovich

Picture (c) Alexander Robinson

Richard Whitehouse on the young, thriving Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert, pairing Beethoven with Shostakovich at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 26 September

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.4 (1806)

Shostakovich: Symphony no.5 (1937)

Jean Paul Ekins (piano), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

This evening’s concert given by the Oberon Symphony, the orchestra’s tenth such event since its inception, brought together a concerto which is poised expressively between Classical and Romantic eras, then a symphony bridging the divide between personal and public expression.

For all its popularity, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 remains a tough challenge in terms of its emotional understatement and often elusive interplay of soloist and orchestra. There was no denying Jean Paul Ekins’ technical adroitness, his crystalline tone and limpid passage work being rarely in doubt, but equally a lack of expressive variety and a degree of preciousness in terms of phrasing that gave the opening movement – steady if by no means stolid in its underlying tempo – a uniform and even unyielding profile; the highlight being a cadenza that dovetailed ideally into the surging coda. Not so a rather prosaic transition from slow movement into finale, yet the dialogue of the former was (rightly) one of stark contrast and the latter exuded ample impetus through to its rather awkwardly negotiated final chords.

Throughout this reading, Samuel Draper proved an astute and attentive accompanist – before he and the orchestra came into their own with Shostakovich’s Symphony no.5. Still the most often heard of what is now among the most familiar of symphonic cycles, its performance has grown more difficult over time given those extra-musical ‘interpretations’ to have been foisted on its musical content. Having steered an involving course between its yearning and plaintive main themes, Draper infused the first movement’s development with a purposeful momentum so that the climactic reprise unfolded as an arc of decreasing intensity towards a coda of aching suspense. Trenchant in forward motion, the scherzo was dispatched with a keen irony and, in its trio, appealingly deadpan playing from leader Richard Gratwick.

A degree of thinness in string tone was by no means to the disadvantage of a slow movement which eschewed widescreen emotional expression for intense inwardness, not least with the chorale-like transformation of its initial theme in a central passage of real eloquence. Nor was the ensuing climax found wanting, as Draper secured a searing clarity across the strings prior to a wistfully resigned close. Even finer was the finale: the hardest movement to bring off, its tempo changes worked ably in terms of a cumulative overall structure – making nonsense of any claim it lacks formal focus; with a palpable emergence from the restless searching at its centre towards an apotheosis which evinced the fraught inevitability that was surely intended. The closing bars then drove home the work’s defiantly individual stance with bracing resolve.

A gripping account of a piece which should never be taken for granted, not least in its knife-edge ambivalence, and that found the Oberon SO at its most committed. Draper had begun by noting the 75th anniversary on this day of the suicide of philosopher Walter Benjamin – the victim of a political and cultural intolerance that has by no means abated, and to whose memory this performance was dedicated. Such a procedure can risk indulgence, though here the sincerity of his remarks was more than matched by the conviction of the music-making.

The next Oberon concert takes place on 5th December 2015, where the orchestra will play Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. Here they are in the composer’s Fifth:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website