You may not have heard of Oxford Alternative Orchestra yet – they’re new kids on the ensemble block, but they’re making a powerful entrance. On Friday, in the hallowed setting of Rhodes House (an adventure in itself), the audience was treated to a collaboration with poet friends, delivering a topical programme woven around themes of redemption and new beginnings. This was one of those humbling Oxford experiences, stepping off busy Parks Road into a tranquil and seemingly secret hall, and hearing a showcase of truly impressive individuals (who all do a million other things alongside, of course).
Though surprisingly short, the programme was balanced, emotion-packed and terrifically curated. Beginning with cinema favourite “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission, Morricone’s soaring melody was effortlessly delivered by soloist Mason Ji – a gentle yet rousing opener. Next, Theophilus Kwek recited his Poeme in Five Movements, an emotive response to the Westminster Attacks earlier this year, providing a temporal unfolding of the events in fragments, seen through different eyes. This was followed by a sublime musical rendering of Kwek’s text by award-winning postgraduate composer Kristina Arakelyan – whose response deftly tackled the poetic subject in five nuanced movements, and whose compositional voice was so well-defined that the piece almost could have been mistaken for a stalwart of the string repertoire. Then came the second poetic item, a dynamic spoken word performance by Alex Coccia and Mayanka Mukherji of their jointly-written “Fit” – a poem about limited time and space, using topics of displacement and forced migration to frame value judgments, concluding “you can never fit it all”. For the final work, OAO were joined by two stunning first-year violinists, Athena Hawksley-Walker and Ellen Dunn, to perform Arvo Pärt’s double concerto Tabula Rasa (meaning “blank slate”). With Pärt’s signature sacred-minimalist style, the angst-ridden first movement “Ludus” built to an energetic climax of arpeggios, a fiercely impressive display of the skills of the soloists and orchestra. By contrast, the introspective second movement, “Silentium” was as the name suggests, making full use of a prepared piano to emulate resonant bells (played by Yuri Daniel van Nieuwkerk). A pensive melancholy pervaded this movement, with the texture eventually reducing, instrument by instrument, to fade to nothing – allowing the listener to focus on each section of instruments in turn.
Throughout the performance, conductor Hannah Schneider held the ensemble beautifully, with elegant exactitude and powerful flair. Set to conduct OUPhil for next year, she is absolutely one to watch – previously personal assistant to world-famous conductor Valery Gergiev, she has evidently picked up a trick or two. Not many students have the trailblazing get-up-and-go that is necessary to set up an orchestra in their earliest weeks at Oxford, but Schneider clearly saw a gap in the market. Formed to explore the intersection of music and social impact, Oxford Alternative Orchestra (affiliated with St John’s College) was only formed in Michaelmas 2016, but its young life has been nothing short of ambitious. The ensemble draws excellent players from other major orchestras for its interesting repertoire and collaborations as well as its sufficiently “alternative” experience – an intimate chamber-sized group, condensed rehearsing and norm-defying performance contexts. So far, OAO has performed 9 concerts in 7 venues, including Oxford Homeless Pathways and Sobell House Hospice – and a prison visit is in the works. The group has also toured Edinburgh to play with the University Chamber Orchestra, and proceeds from public performances are always put towards future charity projects.
Friday’s performance was only a taster of the skills and connections that OAO have to offer – a very promising start for a still-nascent ensemble. OAO are planning more ground-breaking mixed media collaboration in Michaelmas 2017, as well another service tour. Interested players are invited to contact the manager at OxfordAlternativeOrchestra@gmail.com.