Vengerov, young violinists light up Oxford Philharmonic’s U.S. debut at Carnegie

Wed Jun 08, 2022 at 1:54 pm
Maxim Vengerov performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with conductor Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Michael Violago

For Americans gazing across the water, the ancient town of Oxford, England holds many secrets. But there was one fewer as of Tuesday night, when a fine professional ensemble called the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra made its U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall.

The group has been a part of town and gown life in that university community since its founding in 1998 by the pianist and conductor Marios Papadopoulos, who led Tuesday’s concert.

Arriving on these shores in force—the roster in the program listed 60 string players—the orchestra presented its credentials with three ultra-familiar works: Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Sarasate’s Navarra for Two Violins and Orchestra, and Brahms’s First Symphony. This not only dared the listener to compare this group with more storied ensembles, but left out the kind of local pieces that an orchestra from abroad can bring to a New York audience.

What the concert did offer was a violin soloist of international renown, Maxim Vengerov, who gave a polished performance of the Bruch, then joined no fewer than seven impressive teenaged violinists from the Juilliard School’s Pre-College division as soloists in the showy Sarasate piece.

Vengerov’s ease and familiarity with the Bruch concerto were evident, enabling a long perspective that arched over the first movement’s impassioned scales and arpeggios. The orchestra under Papadopoulos’s direction did not quite match him for lightness and fluency, either when accompanying or in the forte tutti passages.

The violinist brought a full low register and a singing top to the long lines of the Adagio. Although the winds tended to intrude on his pianissimos, elsewhere the conductor put a fine taper on the orchestral diminuendos.

Rushing the finale’s crisp theme is a grand old tradition, duly observed by Vengerov on Tuesday, which one would like to see retired. Freedom and panache are fine, but playing completely out of time makes it sound like a throwaway instead of an exciting piece. Papadopoulos and the orchestra couldn’t afford to treat the tune that casually, to the music’s benefit. Happily, rhythmic order was restored for the soulful second theme. Vengerov’s sweet tone there, and bravura playing later, offered a full measure of Romantic violin styles.

The challenge of eight violinists simultaneously playing an over-the-top virtuoso piece meant for two didn’t seem to faze Vengerov and his seven young partners—three boys and four girls, regrettably not identified in the program—as they stood in a line in front of the podium and whisked through Sarasate’s jolly tunes and fiddle pyrotechnics. In a performance meant to highlight the Oxford orchestra’s commitment to education, these teenagers looked well educated indeed, as they executed even Sarasate’s lightning left-hand pizzicato in unison.

The menacing slow opening of the Brahms symphony was clouded by thick orchestral texture that tended to mask the plaintive wind solos, but the ensuing Allegro had a bold bounce and swing. Amid this strong momentum, conductor Papadopoulos paid close attention to the movement’s many color changes and inflection points.

The Andante sostenuto suffered here and there from balance problems, with the violin theme at the beginning covered by a bass rumble and a fine violin solo by the concertmaster (again not identified) obscured by wind doubling at the end. But the performance overall successfully balanced sostenuto with a steady forward motion, to highly expressive effect.

The symphony’s charming “un-scherzo,” Un poco allegretto e grazioso, could have used more rhythmic clarity in the early going, but found it in the switch to triple meter at mid-movement. The ensemble’s tendency toward thick sound worked against grazioso and the delicacy of Brahms’s counterpoint.

The finale’s suspenseful introduction was distinguished on Tuesday by a splendid horn solo and an equally vibrant answer from the flute, exactly the breath of fresh air the music needed at that point. Unfortunately, the movement’s striding main theme was so rushed that the pizzicato accompaniment had difficulty keeping up. Fortunately, conductor Papadopoulos then got the rhythm in hand and led a spirited performance marked by compelling pacing, dramatic crescendos, and an exuberant, up-tempo coda—a strong note for this new entrant to go out on.

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