As worldwide excitement grows over the approval and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, it’s only fitting to recognize the scientists who have worked nonstop to develop these defenses. One group of researchers and technicians just received a unique tribute. On 18 December the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra streamed a celebratory concert honoring the University of Oxford team that worked with AstraZeneca to develop a vaccine now under consideration for use in the U.K., India, and elsewhere.
The concert is available on the orchestra’s YouTube Channel for on-demand viewing.
A Well-Deserved Tribute
The socially distanced orchestra, conducted by Marios Papadopoulos, is joined by the Choir of Merton College, Oxford and baritone Sir Bryn Terfel at Oxford’s historic Sheldonian Theatre.
Though not billed as a holiday concert, the program suits the season perfectly. It includes Elgar’s stately “Chanson de Matin,” William Henry Monk‘s lovely setting of the hymn “Abide with Me” with Terfel and boy soprano Alexander Olleson, and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, all of which help sustain a hopeful tone. Violinist Maxim Vengerov, who has had a long association with the Oxford Philharmonic, contributes a searching solo performance of Bach’s Adagio from Sonata No. 1 in G minor, recorded from home. A clean, crisp “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah closes the program rousingly.
Also featured are two works written and guest conducted by John Rutter, “Look to the Day” and the premiere of a new composition, “Joseph’s Carol,” written in tribute to the Oxford Vaccine Group, the Jenner Institute, and the RECOVERY team. Rutter’s libretto recounts Joseph and Mary’s long weary journey to Bethlehem before the birth of baby Jesus, echoing the vaccine program’s progression from struggle to hope.
Like many of us over this past year, I’ve had to grow accustomed to watching online concerts without a live audience and thus no applause. Musicians are rising to the occasion, connecting with viewers through sheer passion and skill despite lacking audience energy to feed off of. Simply making music together, in any kind of ensemble, provides musicians with energy. That’s why live music is more than the sum of its parts.
Here the musicians and singers are spaced well apart, but the effect is not thinness but sonic clarity – just right for these relatively simple and straightforward pieces. As a set, they create a gracious and celebratory mood, perfect for a muted holiday season. Terfel is in good voice, as are the other soloists, and the choir sings with subtlety and strength. The small orchestra strikes a nice balance between delicacy and fulness, notably in the Elgar.
Young Olleson sings with silvery assurance in “Abide With Me,” standing up impressively to Terfel’s woodsy baritone. “Joseph’s Carol” has many nice touches – the harp accompaniment, sighing cadences in the choral writing, warm interplay between choir and woodwinds. The only letdown is a too-sleepy arrangement of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
The Oxford musicians are right to honor their local medical heroes whose work may hugely benefit the world. And we, in turn, should cheer on the artists whose livelihoods are in ever graver danger the longer the pandemic goes on. Kudos to the Oxford Philharmonic and to all who insist that the show must go on.