"Russian Stars Worldwide: Ashkenazy and Vengerov in Oxford"

The city of Oxford is known primarily for its association with one of the world’s leading and oldest universities. The name evokes images of haunting gothic spires, students rushing about in black robes, and a litany of faces who have passed through as students—from John Locke to Hugh Grant. But beyond the University, the city has a vibrant cultural life of its own, and one of the things it should be known for is the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Oxford Philharmonic is a gem of an ensemble, one of implausible quality for a city of barely over 100,000 people. Founded in 1998 by conductor Marios Papadopolous, the orchestra has undertaken an impressive breadth of projects and invited visiting artists of the highest calibre, including some of Russia’s most celebrated musicians: Valery Gergiev, Maxim Vengerov, and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

On November 10, 2016, Maxim Vengerov took the stage with the orchestra, performing a programme that required stamina unthinkable for most musicians: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major as well as the world premiere of a violin concerto by American composer Eugene Birman. Vengerov showed an impressive range of playing styles on this occasion. Often a flashy player who dazzles the world with his showmanship as much as (or more than) his playing, he was uncharacteristically restrained during the Beethoven. The subtle ensemble between soloist and orchestra was mesmerising, including slight tempo changes that were perfectly synchronised. It was also clear that Vengerov holds the orchestra in high esteem: he followed more than he led, and adapted to the sophisticated, if occasionally reticent, English playing style. In this case, Vengerov’s usual passion and the Oxford Philharmonic’s delicate accuracy blended to create a sublime atmosphere.

If during the Beethoven Vengerov displayed his more sensitive side, he was all fury during the Birman. The composition itself is built of atonal, fractal segments of sound which rotate between sections and soloist. Performing such a piece demanded not only extraordinary energy, but also conviction. This kind of composition often baffles audiences—with its squeeks and squalks, and seeming lack of melodic, the response to this music can be anything from laughter to indignation. But neither of these reactions arose after this performance. Rather, Vengerov and Papadopolous performed so persuasively and with such gusto that the audience was left with little choice but to accept there must be some reason for this fiery spectacle. In fact, this is the best possible premiere Birman could have asked for: world class artists who put their faith in the work and present it as a masterpiece.

A few weeks later, Vladimir Ashkenazy, another of Russia’s most famous émigré artists, appeared on the same stage. Though Ashkenazy’s earlier career as a pianist is what rocketed him to fame, he now spends much of his time conducting, as he did on this evening, when he took on a programme of Brahms and Lidstrom. There are, of course, several kinds of conductors. There are conductors who have formally trained in conservatoire; those who have apprenticed themselves to a great master; those who rose from obscurity out of an orchestra section in a moment of need and showed themselves to be talented conductors; and there are those who, after careers of the highest prestige as instrumentalists, decide at some point to try their hand at conducting. Ashkenazy falls into the last category.

The fact that Ashkenazy does not seem to have much in the way of discernible technique, however, does not seem to bother anyone—least of all the orchestra. Ashkenazy garners so much respect as a musician that the orchestra did its utmost to follow his tempi (sometimes a bit unusual for Brahms’ second symphony), and fought through moments of potential confusion—beats that were neither up nor down. However it happened, the music was beautiful, spontaneous, and unlike most tired renditions of Brahms’ pastoral symphony. In all of these regards, it was a success.

Finally, it was a success in the eyes of the audience, largely due to Ashkenazy’s charisma. His slight frame managed to project so much excitement and intensity that it was simply contagious. Whether he was leading the orchestra, or reacting a few moments late to the sounds he was hearing, did not matter. It was effective: he fulfilled his role as mediator between orchestra and audience and conveyed passion to the sold-out house raptly seated behind him.

On March 6, the list of Russian artists appearing in Oxford this season adds another name: Valery Gergiev. Gergiev, possibly the world’s most celebrated living conductor, will appear at the Sheldonian, and it will be fascinating to hear whether he can evoke a different texture from the orchestra than the sound coaxed by Vengerov and Ashkenazy.

Written by Hannah Schneider

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