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Review: St Andrews Chamber Orchestra

There are few sounds so precious as a gifted and well-rehearsed orchestra, and St Andrews Chamber Orchestra is certainly a jewel. Performing to a packed audience in Holy Trinity Church on Sunday, 10 October, the orchestra sent reverberations of euphoria into the ears of students, retirees and everyone in between. As the group’s first performance in two years, the event was somewhat of a homecoming and one of joy at that. I arrived at Holy Trinity Church on South Street and joined a long winding queue that occupied the pavement; it attracted looks of intrigue from passers-by. The church towered up into a blue October sky; imposing and beautiful. Amongst the ticket-holders, event organisers rushed about, their dark blue robes billowing in the late afternoon breeze. Inside the Category A listed building, I saw the student musicians preparing to deliver the audience a religious experience, against a backdrop of sparkling stained-glass windows. Before the first note was played, the atmosphere was already thick with electric anticipation.

St Andrews Chamber Orchestra, a collective of the very best musicians from the town’s university, is conducted by the University’s Director of Music Michael Downes, as well as Head of Instrumental Studies Bede Williams. The orchestra’s repertoire encomposes a wide range of pieces from the Baroque to the present day which has recently included several symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven, overtures by Mozart and Weber, world premieres by Sally Beamish and Eddie McGuire, and piano concerti by Grieg and Beethoven (with international soloist Susan Tomes). In addition to regular concerts in St Andrews and Edinburgh, the orchestra has also toured to Northern Ireland and the West of Scotland.

The theme of this performance’s setlist seemed to be that of celebration and joy. It comprised three pieces: firstly overture “The Hebrides” by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, composed over 1829-1830 after Mendelssohn’s first inspirational visit to the Scottish island of Staffa. The second piece was Symphony No. 2 in C major, op. 61 by Robert Schumann. Composed during a period of ill health for Schumann, the piece was inspired by an intensive study of J.S. Bach and of Cherubini’s Treatise on Counterpoint and Fugue which Schumann undertook with his wife, Clara. The piece is also majorly influenced by Beethoven and thought to be a celebration of Schumann and Clara’s love. Lastly, the performance concluded with Scottish Dance Suite by Thea Musgrave, one of Scotland’s most important living composers. The energetic piece is based on traditional Scottish folk songs and dances.

First year student at the University of St Andrews, Lucy Horton joined the Chamber Orchestra after hearing about it at Freshers’ Fayre. A double bass player, Horton had to undertake an arduous and selective audition process. Successful in her efforts, she describes the group as “a really welcoming environment” and reflects on the intensity of the rehearsal process; investing two entire weekends to prepare for the performance, she says “we were able to progress so quickly during rehearsals.” Of course, the group’s hard work was definitely worth it; the quality of the performance was out- standing. A newcomer to Scotland, Horton professes how “very symbolic and poignant” it felt to play Scottish composer, Thea Musgrave, for the first time. Furthermore, reflecting on playing The Hebrides, she says “it was really enlightening to play a piece inspired by Scotland.” Horton affirms her enjoyment in “collaborating with such dedicated and talented young musicians.”

As, admittedly, somewhat of a classical music neophyte, I felt completely enthralled by the immensity of the sound. I stopped thinking about all my dreaded assignment deadlines and just listened. After continuously hearing of the great scientific benefits listening to classical music can have on the brain in the ways of improving concentration and relieving stress, I feel inspired by the performance to become a regular listener to the likes of Beethoven and Bach. If this event has taught me anything, it’s that classical music really is for everyone and we students better listen up.

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