The Lumière Ensemble had its first concert of the year on Wednesday 1 November, featuring a short but well-defined programme of 20th-century music from Germany and central Europe. As I sat down, trying to get over the embarrassment of having asked a woman on the street where I could find the Holywell Music Room whilst standing – and I can’t mean this any more literally – directly in front of it, I settled into my seat and awaited the concert’s beginning. The venue was not filled to capacity, but it was by no means empty; from my seat at the back I could observe a healthy crowd mostly made up of Oxford students, with a few older members of the public too.
First on the programme was Hans Krása’s Overture for Small Orchestra, whose lively start gave the concert a sense of energy and momentum which would be continued throughout its duration. Its performance was an early indicator of what would become apparent by the end of the night: this ensemble is very technically skilled. The crisp, light, and uniform tonguing by the woodwinds in the opening of the overture, as well as the expertly executed col legno solo in the strings are exemplary of this high level of musical technique.
Only once the overture was over did Kilian Meißner, the ensemble’s conductor, turn around to address the audience. He explained the piece’s dark background, how it was written by Krása in the year before his murder to match the availability of instruments in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, where he was detained, before introducing the second piece of the night. This was the second movement of Paul Juon’s Octet, another piece by a lesser-known composer, which was written some 40 years before Krása’s overture.
In contrast to the sharp and bright start of the Overture for Small Orchestra, Juon’s Octet begins with a soft, delicate cello solo of mellow character. It was played gracefully and assuredly, as were the subsequent entries by the violin and the clarinet, which again pointed to an ensemble on top of its game. Music filled the room as the piece’s texture grew richer, with each of the eight instruments at times finding its own voice, and at times blending in with the others to create one unified musical expression. If the octet’s elegant Romantically-inspired melodies served as a contrast to the piece which came before it, this was nothing compared to how it would clash with the one which followed.
“In fifty years, one will find [my music] obvious; children will understand it and sing it.” Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945) might have been slightly over-optimistic when he said those words. The fact that the Lumière Ensemble felt it necessary to break up his Concerto for Nine Instruments into shorter, more stomachable chunks before playing the piece in all of its unrestrained atonal intensity suggests that, even today, the world does not find Webern’s music as natural as he thought it would. Atonal music, as its name suggests, rejects the rules of keys and harmony which characterise traditional Western classical music, allowing it to combine musical pitches in a way that, to a listener unfamiliar with the form, can sound striking at best, and cacophonous at worst. Webern’s concerto called for a far less expressive character than the pieces which preceded it, instead requiring precise timing and rhythmic exactitude, which the ensemble executed to perfection – a testament to both their counting capabilities and the copious amount of rehearsals which must have taken place behind the scenes.
Some justification was given as the conductor introduced the final piece of the programme, which was Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche. Strauss had a complicated relationship with Nazi Germany – though he headed the Reich Chamber of Music, which promoted so-called ‘Aryan’ music whilst censoring ‘degenerate’ music by Jews and Jazz artists, he also tried to save his own Jewish family members and insisted on collaborating with Jewish musicians. Given that Hans Krása (the composer of the opening piece) died at the hands of the Nazis, some words were said to show the ensemble’s consideration of this tension. “If we would have presented you with a musical landscape of heroes, saints, and martyrs, we would have done you all a disservice,” the conductor explained to his audience. Giving this historical context served to create a fuller comprehension for the listeners, which was useful not only in order to better understand the circumstances in which the music was made, but also as a way of introducing pieces which are rarer to find in the standard repertoire.
There’s not much to say about the performance of Till Eulenspiegel, except that it was performed to a very high standard. The horn and clarinet solos at the beginning were both played with ease and control, and the performance as a whole went through contrasting musical characters which allowed the composition’s story of the mischievous exploits of young Till to shine through. With the end of the piece, the night was all but finished; only a final surprise piece, not listed in the programme, was saved for the very end.
This piece was Kurt Weill’s Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (known in English as The Ballad of Mack the Knife), from his and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. The ensemble’s pianist, who was not required for this piece, held up a large cue card with the words (in German) to the song, in an admittedly ambitious attempt to get the audience to sing along to the chorus. After a varied night of music which took the audience right through the turbulence and uncertainty characterising early 20th-Century Europe, the gentle closing flute solo was a welcome note to end on. Considering the staggering level of musical talent which was on display that Wednesday night, it’s not surprising that the end of the Lumière Ensemble’s concert was met with long and well-deserved applause.