The Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (OPO), under the baton of Artistic Director Marios Papadopoulos, was to make its long-awaited Carnegie Hall debut on May 4, 2020.
One look at that date and you’ll know why it didn’t happen.
Now it’s back on the marquee, rescheduled for June 7, 2022 and presented by MidAmerica Productions. Grammy-winning violinist Maxim Vengerov will be the featured soloist at the 7:30 PM concert. Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and the Navarra (Danza Espagnole) for Two Violins and Orchestra (1889) by Pablo de Sarasate constitute the program.
Established in 1998, the Oxford Philharmonic has developed into one of the UK’s premiere orchestras. It is the Orchestra in Residence at the University of Oxford. It has collaborated with artists including Valery Gergiev, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Martha Argerich, András Schiff, Renée Fleming, Lang Lang, Nicola Benedetti, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and of course Maxim Vengerov.
We had a chance to speak with Maestro Papadopoulos in advance of the OPO’s Carnegie Hall debut.
The OPO has had a long association with violinist Maxim Vengerov, its Artist-in-Residence over four seasons. He’ll be part of the Carnegie Hall concert as well. How has this collaboration in particular, and others over the years, enhanced the Orchestra’s success?
Tremendously! For a start, it has raised standards to ensure that Maestro Vengerov and other eminent artists appearing with us encounter the level of music-making they are accustomed to when performing with the greatest orchestras around the world. It is a testimony of our musicians’ high level of attainment that Maestro Vengerov and artists such as Martha Argerich and Anne-Sophie Mütter return regularly to perform in our series.
Maxim Vengerov has appeared as soloist with us in concertos by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Bruch and soon Shostakovich. He has also played chamber music with our principals, and he and I have performed and recorded all the Brahms Violin Sonatas. We have therefore developed a deep understanding of each other’s style of playing and expectations.
At the Carnegie Hall concert the Orchestra will play Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. (A preview of the Bruch, performed by Maxim Vengerov with the OPO in February, is available here. In addition, an ensemble of the Juilliard School Pre-College Division led by Mr. Vengerov will play Sarasate’s Navarra for Two Violins and Orchestra, featuring Mr. Vengerov as one of the soloists. Can you describe how you conceived this interesting program?
Thank you. Over the years, the Oxford Philharmonic has developed its own distinct sound and style of playing. This adheres to my own approach of music-making both as a pianist and conductor, particularly in works from the German repertoire.
Members of the Orchestra include a number of Eastern European players who have added more color and another dimension to the sound, suited to the repertoire close to my heart of works by Mozart, Beethoven and the German Romantics, including Brahms. I hope his first symphony will show the Orchestra at its best.
As the University of Oxford’s Orchestra in Residence – an appointment still unique amongst British orchestras – we are deeply engaged in education, providing tuition and performance opportunities to student instrumentalists and composers at the primary, secondary and tertiary level. Offering outstandingly talented young musicians from The Juilliard School Pre-College Division a platform at Carnegie Hall demonstrates our commitment to nurturing new talent and showcases the Orchestra [members] as both performers and educators.
On June 19, 2022 we will be accompanying Maestro Vengerov in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where Sarasate’s Navarra will once again be performed, this time with seven students from the Royal College of Music.
Oxford, where you’ve been based for much of your career, is a very beautiful town with pastoral elements. Does that setting help inspire you musically?
Totally! Over the last 20 years, I have been inspired not only by the beauty of green pastures and the magnificent architecture of this world-famous university town, but also by the people I have encountered who have taught me a great deal.
Today, I feel I am a better person as a result. I have never been comfortable hopping from one concert hall to another and conducting different orchestras. I much prefer being in one place and working with no more than a handful of orchestras.
Oxford has one of the most discerning audiences anywhere in the world and it is a joy to be able to communicate with them. It’s often like a tennis game: the harder I send the ball in their direction, the more powerful is the return.
Sir Christopher Wren’s historic Sheldonian Theatre, where we perform, is not only an architectural jewel but a marvel acoustically. Being the University’s ceremonial hall, it has played host to Handel, Haydn and Richard Strauss. The latter two stood where I stand [when I] conduct the Oxford Philharmonic, to receive Honorary Doctorates from the University of Oxford. Daunting, yet enormously inspiring.
Highlighting Music of Afghanistan and Music by Women Composers
Please tell us about your “Orchestral Music of Afghanistan” program coming up at Spitalfields on July 5. It sounds fascinating.
The concert will be championing works by leading Afghan composers, many of whom are refugees from the current crisis and now live in locations across Europe and the USA. With musicians in Afghanistan having been silenced by the Taliban, this concert shows that their voices will not be suppressed, but indeed will continue to flourish around the globe.
The concert will be co-curated by the Orchestra’s Conducting Fellow, Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, who has worked closely with musicians at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul since 2018, and pianist and composer Arson Fahim. The composers have been commissioned to write new compositions and arrangements of Afghan traditional songs for a chamber orchestra of instruments from Afghanistan and the Western classical music tradition.
The Oxford Philharmonic website celebrates 11 women composers, going all the way back to Kassia in the 9th century and up to contemporary UK composer Errollyn Wallen. Have you been programming music by some of these composers?
Many women composers feature in our programming:
• We performed Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony on 30 April 2019.
• We recorded a piece by Libby Croad in October 2020 which can be heard here.
• We premiered works by Carol Jones and Grace-Evangeline Mason this season – both involved in our Composers’ Workshop in previous years.
• Samantha Ege will be performing works by Florence Price and other female composers as part of the Piano Festival in August.
• We are planning to do the Florence Price Piano Concerto on 22 April 2023.
• We are performing Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C Major on 25 April 2022.
Recordings and Recollections
In September 2019 the Orchestra released its latest album, The Enlightened Trumpet (Sony Classical), with soloist Paul Merkelo. Are any more recordings in the planning stages?
We have a number of recordings still to be released, including those with Maxim Vengerov, who appears with the Oxford Philharmonic as soloist in the Brahms and Sibelius Violin Concertos and leads an ensemble of Philharmonic Principals in Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings. These will soon be available for streaming on major international platforms as will the Brahms Violin Sonatas with myself on the piano.
We have also made live recordings of our performances in the Sheldonian Theatre which have been broadcast on Classic FM. We hope to bring these – and further live recordings – out commercially over the next season or two.
You recently released a memoir titled, Beyond Dreams and Aspirations: My Journey to Oxford. What were the dreams and aspirations you were thinking of, and what did it mean to get beyond them?
My dreams and aspirations were always to deliver musical performances at the best of my ability. In Part I of the book, I describe my early experiences which led me to formulate strong musical ideas, outlined in Part III. In Part II, I document the creation of an orchestra that offered me a platform to share my musical thinking with a discerning audience. This was a dream come true and has gone far beyond my wildest expectations.
For further information and tickets to the June 7 concert visit the Carnegie Hall website. Marios Papadopoulos’s memoir is available online.