Piazzolla, Schubert, Duggan, Schumann
As part of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations for Wolfson College, Oxford, the College’s artist-in-residence, the Fournier Trio, performed in the College’s recently-opened new auditorium.
The centerpiece of the concert, immediately after the intermission, was the world premiere of a work commissioned for the occasion, The Song of the Hedgehog and the Fox by John Duggan, inspired by the writings of Wolfson’s founding president, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The composer himself and Miranda Laurence joined the trio for the tenor and soprano vocals, with Teena Lyle on percussion. This playful work skipped around several compositional styles, linked by the modern, the fox knowing many things and the hedgehog one big thing. The performers knew the right things, in order to deftly handle the variety of skills required.
The Fournier Trio performed the other three works alone. Of these, late trios by Franz Schubert (in B flat, D. 898) and by Robert Schumann (#3, op. 110) demonstrated the respective composers’ mastery of the art – classical in scale but bigger in concept, with the Fournier Trio making their instruments sing along. Unfortunately, this had to grow out of an inopportune opening work, an arrangement for trio of Astor Piazzolla‘s Verano Porteño, which came out smudged to the point that I feared the acoustics in the new hall may not have been especially good – however, the following works showed that the problem was not the acoustics, as the Trio did perform the other works balancing both delicate and full-bodied passages without the smudge. So either the Fournier Trio failed to understand Piazzolla’s tangos, or those tangos just did not work in this setting (or arrangement for trio).
The auditorium itself has an unusual layout. I had gone on a architectural tour of college earlier in the day led by the lead architect for the new buildings, himself inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s instructions for the College’s original buildings. The architect actually sat next to me during the concert. Planning permission came through for a rectangular auditorium, but modifications to attached structures to harmonize with the older buildings, plus to encapsualte some of Berlin’s ideas, meant that the roof would not be a rectangular block. Since the auditorium floor could not have a standard layout without clashing with the adjusted non-standard ceiling, the seating in the entire auditorium required twisting. But the entire concept worked. The newly-opened wings of College mark an enormous improvement, augmenting the positive aspects Berlin and the original architects had develped decades ago (although I admit I am still not a fan of concrete brutalism that was the fad at the time, considering when the original structures were built, they did a remarkable job; for consistency, the new wings also had to match the old ones in style).