Tuning the Concert

Gold Arts Award Portfolio

The Conventional Classical Concert: Review May 1, 2010

La Belle France, 29 April 2010

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford | John Rutter and Catrin Finch


I chose to attend this particular concert, as I knew I could get a free ticket through work, I was free that evening as my boyfriend intended to work, and I liked to sound of the programme with Debussy and Ravel.


I knew I liked Debussy and Ravel as composers – I did a course at uni about La Belle France focusing on music in Paris around 1900. I’ve played a few works by the composers including Debussy’s La Mer with my Youth Orchestra and Ravel’s Piano Trio at University though I wouldn’t be able to hum any tunes now. On itunes, I have an album of Ravel and Debussy’s piano works. Other friends have also commented how they like these composers.

I was also interested in seeing the soloist. It was a harpist, which is a beautiful instrument in itself. Through tweeting at work, I learnt a little more about the soloist, Catrin Finch. A volunteer at work who I invited to the concert also emailed me some You tube links of the soloist playing. I was impressed how she did conventional repertoire as well as fun things in electronic settings with bright lights etc. She has also been on TV.

There was also a guest conductor, John Rutter who put the programme together. This made the concert a little more different/special.

The colours of the poster caught my eye – though it wasn’t very easy to read the text. I saw a big poster outside the building.

Pre-concert experience

I just made the train down from London, had a nice dose in my seat and then had the quick walk into the centre of Oxford. I’ve been to the Sheldonian before for work and earlier in the afternoon had looked around the building to help plan a future concert. Around half an hour before the concert, I went outside and loitered around the entrance. I bumped into a couple of Friends of the Orchestra who I had to make polite conversation with as well as a colleague. Other than that I just watched people come and go, picking up their tickets and seeing the stewards guide the audience to the correct entrance. There weren’t that many people around, though they did seem to arrive in big groups. It started to rain, so I went inside.

The stewards smiled when I showed them the ticket and and commented ‘all the way to the top’. There was a subtle subtext of all the way to the top for the cheap tickets. I noticed there was quite a young steward for a change on the entrance to the Upper gallery. Knowing the theatre I made my way around the seating to get a more central position. Not many people were in the Upper Gallery and I was waiting for more to arrive (thought the concert was meant to start shortly). It was rather quiet, I peered over the barrier and watched the people below. I noticed the younger members of the audience seemed to come in groups of friends, while there were a couple of single people. It surprised me that there were quite a few elderly people in these uncomfortable and cheap seats as well as a posh American family on my right.

When the orchestra came on it helped to fill up the space. They looked old fashioned yet traditional in their trails with the women not quite as smart but many wearing lacy tops. There looked as though there were a lot of musicians on the stage, particularly in relation to the number of people in the Upper Gallery. The conductor came on beaming and smiled to the audience. I thought he looked very enthusiastic and I warmed to him immediately.

The concert – 1st half

The hall seemed to fill with sound once they started playing. The hall felt intimate but I wasn’t sure if it sounded a little muffled from where I was sitting. I found it a bit funny when everyone turned the pages at the same time – it lost some of the magic but also at the same time made you aware of the mechanics of playing in an orchestra. I had a clear view of the 1st violins and they seemed to move around a lot more than the other instruments, in particular the woodwind. (This may be because the woodwind were not playing all the time).

The 2nd movement of the Ravel felt a little uncomfortable with these trills and a weird tune in the violins. I noticed how the conductor waved his arms around in quite flouncy movements, but as soon as I thought that he changed his style and conducted in a contained manner with little movements just in front of his body. I also noticed one violinist in particular smiling, which was nice to see someone enjoying themselves. It was also doubly significant as I vaguely knew the player and had read her alternative biography that she sent in for a kids activity pack. The gold orchestral harp matched the gilt setting of the Sheldonian.

It was nice to sit still – I had a job in hand to review the concert and was making notes, but I could see how it would be a good environment to stop and think, in particular encouraging more creative thoughts. I noticed how everyone sat very still, with a few closing their eyes (I assume to help concentrate or they may have merely fallen asleep!). If I sat back in my seat, I didn’t get such a good view so I tended to lean forward.

I was a little surprised to hear a jazzy cord at the end of the 3rd movement. There was a loud cough just before the end, which was distracting and amusingly lots of coughs during the applause. The 4th movement was jolly and got my foot tapping. I started to feel a bit tired, but the piece soon came to an end. The conductor again enthusiastically bowed to the audience and looked very pleased with himself!

The next piece (as I noted from my free programme) was written by the conductor. The soloist came on wearing a very bright red top – I thought she looked quite casual and a bit cool. When she sat down, people in the Upper Gallery moved on my side so they could get a better view. They were able to do this as there were not very many people in front of them. The music sounded quite popular and accessible reminding me of classic fm style music. I noticed the eyes were closed of a girl in the audience – not sure if she was tired. She also later asked a question to her parent – and I thought she doesn’t know she needs to be quiet.

The 3rd movement reminded me of Bach’s Air on a G string with the bass line in the cellos (I have played the bass line of the Bach myself). The 4th movement was a waltz and some of the audience members included myself started to gently sway. The 5th movement was a chanson and made me sleepy.

As there was space in the Semi circle, one lady was leaning back onto the seat behind. A gentleman had a pen poised over the programme notes – not sure if he was making comments. A student’s head was bobbing to the music and he seemed very into it (he is a flautist). Towards the end the young girl from the schools project started to fidget and yawn. I could hear the rain and cars outside. People started clapping before the music had barely finished – though it was nice that they were keen, I would have preferred the music to be able to settle for a moment.

The harpist was quite casual in the way she bowed. She came back on for an encore. She called it ‘just a small one’ which was quite endearing and the audience seemed to appreciate. It was cool, a bit jazzy and seemed to quote tunes I recognised but I couldn’t pin down. She didn’t have any music but looked out into the audience with this funny look, as though she was enjoying it.


Most people in the Upper gallery seemed to stay in their seats with one gentleman opening a window. Down on the stage, people gathered around the harp with the stage manager standing on guard. The soloist came back on the stage to arrange her music and started chatting to an audience member. She demonstrated a few things on her harp. A neighbour asked what CD’s they were selling – she didn’t have a programme. She wanted something by the soloist or conductor.

While waiting a family took photos of themselves with neighbours offering to take photos for them. This broke the ice and I shared a couple of words with my neighbours discussing what I was doing making notes.

The concert – 2nd half

My head felt a little fuzzy and felt I should have actually gone to stretch my legs. I noticed the cars outside again. I recognised the semi-tone passage in the Debussy that we had recomposed in a Schools project the week before. I wasn’t sure what instrument was making a low note, so leaned forwards to check and saw it was the double basses rather than the cellos. I liked the harmonics as well as the dreamy runs played on the harp.

Felt unfocused but the piece shortly ended. I was a bit puzzled though as there wasn’t a break between the movements and I hadn’t noticed the change in styles.

The Bizet sounded very traditional in comparison to the rest of the programme. It got my neighbour’s foot tapping. The 1st movt seemed a bit repetitive though I was proud that I noticed the recapitulation. It was funny when some of the audience clapped prematurity after the first movement, as it had quite a final ending. There was a great tune in the violins during the second movement and I noticed a fugue in the strings. The conductor was not using a baton this time, which made his hands look different- more open and humble.

I started thinking about the concert at the end: wondered whether it is better to go to sleep or keep the brain active toward the end of a concert. I also noticed Max the stage manager telling an animated story though the glass doors.

After thoughts

I liked the music, though not so keen on the last piece. I was tired towards the end of the concert and in a way would have liked to go home earlier. It was a more eventful evening than staying at home. I wanted to find out more about the soloist and checked out her website. The most memorable things were the smiles from a few of the musicians and the soloist’s demeanour.


One Response to “The Conventional Classical Concert: Review”

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