Music

Review: The Ripieno Players with Jess Gillam

The Ripieno Players have earned quite a name for themselves on the classical music circuit in Oxford. You could tell that much from the large, excited audience that was waiting in St Peter’s Chapel – the orchestra’s home turf – for their Hilary concert on Friday 19th January. Performing under the Ripieno name, the musicians lingering at the back of the chapel had a big reputation to uphold. As expected, they did not disappoint.

The repertoire was the subject of much attention. Stravinsky is not the most common composer in student programmes, and the pieces preceding his Pulcinella on the night – the first suite of Manuel De Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat and Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Fantasia for Saxophone and Orchestra – are rarer still. As the audience would soon learn, the pieces in this repertoire were united by a shared energy, a balletic drama, and Latin influences. Together, they provided the listeners with a refreshing programme (and proved a rewarding challenge to the players, no doubt).

This challenge was pulled off with the stylish aplomb that Oxford audiences have come to expect from the Ripieno Players

This challenge was pulled off with the stylish aplomb that Oxford audiences have come to expect from the Ripieno Players. Hopes were high as the musicians took their places for De Falla’s 1919 composition, and they were amply met – from the compelling percussion and brass that launched the performance to its lively finish, the players delivered.

This punchy piece gave the musicians an opportunity to show off their practise and expertise – though the collective changes with every concert, this term’s Ripieno Players were clearly comfortable together and collaborated with ease. First violin Bethan Rose led with particular poise; the string section sounded outstanding throughout the concert. Percussionists Matt Venvell, Will Medcalf, Chris Cottell and Miranda Davies must also be commended for their masterful playing. It was a captivating performance, and it set the tone for a bright and bold concert ahead.

The performance owed much of its vitality to the direction of Joe Davies. Conducting the Ripieno Players is just one accolade on Davies’s impressive list of musical achievements – if you follow the university music scene, you’ve probably heard an orchestra under his direction at the Playhouse or the Sheldonian. He was on form throughout the concert, driving the orchestra with the distinctive gusto that has set him apart from his conducting contemporaries. Davies will soon be moving on to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where we can look forward to watching the next steps of this promising young conductor (and perhaps await further outings under the Ripieno title).

Her strong stage presence captivated her audience, and brought the whole performance to life

Joining the conductor at the front of the orchestra for the next piece was Jess Gillam on the soprano saxophone. The solo saxophone part in Villa-Lobos’s Fantasia, a fast-paced and whimsical composition, would be daunting for any musician. Gillam, a finalist in the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, made even the most intricate sections look effortless. Her strong stage presence captivated her audience, and brought the whole performance to life. At its end, she was met with rapturous applause from her listeners and the orchestra behind her – it was no surprise that she was invited back to the stage after Fantasia for an encore from Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs.

The whole ensemble gave a polished performance. The piece was technically demanding, but this did not deter the musicians – they appeared to relish the challenge, and showed an evident passion for their craft. In the brief interlude which followed Fantasia, the audience was alight with discussion about Gillam’s rendition and the capable orchestra behind her.

After the break, the musicians returned for a final instalment: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Just like the pieces before it, this was a theatrical and daring composition designed for ballet. However, at around 40 minutes long, it was a longer trial for the players. Nevertheless, they approached Stravinsky with impressive enthusiasm.

Sofia Kirwan-Baez, Jacob Clark and John Lee delighted their listeners as solo vocalists. Though the acoustics of the chapel meant their voices were occasionally lost in the powerful thrust of the ensemble, they complemented the orchestra very well. The solo concertante in the orchestra (Emma Lisney and Christopher McDonald on the violin, Lucia Turner on the viola, Sam Whitby on the cello and Richard English on the bass) were also remarkable for the commitment and energy they brought to the piece.

Undeniably, these musicians entertained their audience – arguably, I think they enlightened them as well

Stravinsky’s compositions are well known for pushing boundaries, occasionally to great discomfort (think of the infamous riot after his Rite of Spring premiered in 1913). Pulcinella is a characteristically challenging piece from the composer, and the Ripieno Players’ expert delivery allowed the ballet’s thought-provoking implications to shine through. It is a modern piece which looks to the future, but it constantly references the styles of the past; the flux and uncertainty of Stravinsky’s times are evident in this composition, and they felt eerily relevant to a modern audience. Pulcinella was an interesting choice to put at the end of an interesting programme; not only did it cement the ensemble’s enviable reputation for performance, but it also illuminated the considerable skill which had gone into crafting this repertoire. Undeniably, these musicians entertained their audience – arguably, I think they enlightened them as well. I’m telling you: if you weren’t there, you were missing out.

The concert ended on something of a bittersweet note. It was another triumph for the Ripieno Players, who have consistently proved their mettle on the Oxford circuit, but it will perhaps be their last for a while. Nonetheless, they ought to be proud of the engaging show with which they have ended their run. The Ripieno Players have made their mark on classical music here with charm and skill; with any luck, we will see them back soon to do it all over again.

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