The University Orchestra in Parma, March 2024


A recent tour in Northern Italy proved a huge success, reports Tommaso Rusconi

Published: 5 April 2024

Author: Tommaso Rusconi


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The flagship ensemble of the university, alongside conductor Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, thrills Italian audiences during its tour. The programme, from Sunday 10 to Saturday 16 March between the cities of Milan, Bergamo, Cremona, Bologna, and Parma, included five orchestral concerts (one in collaboration with the choir of the University of Bologna), a rehearsal open to school students and a chamber music concert in a care home.

The Oxford University Orchestra (OUO), made up of talented students of various subjects (from Music to Mathematics, Chemistry to History), performs every term under the guidance of a professional conductor in the seventeenth century Sheldonian Theatre. Since 1958, the ensemble has tackled some of the most demanding pieces of the symphonic repertoire, including great classics but also equally brilliant and lesser-known musical works. For the second time in its history (the first was Japan in 2019), the orchestra embarks on a tour abroad. This time, the chosen destination is northern Italy (Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna).

During the week-long tour, the 62-piece orchestra performed the beautiful melodies of Brahms’ Second Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (a tribute to Shakespeare and the city of Verona) and Ruth Gipps’ exceptional Second Symphony, never performed in Italy before this tour. The orchestra also presented the world premiere of Sŏlum, a new composition by Italian composer and Oxford alumna Giulia Monducci, commissioned specifically for the tour on the theme of environmental sustainability. The piece, inspired by the research of Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva, was well received for its “dissonances that amaze the listener, envelop them and weave around them an unexpectedly reassuring plot full of emotional suggestion” (La Provincia di Cremona). Of great success also the collaboration with the Choir of the Collegium Musicum Almae Matris of the University of Bologna, with which the orchestra tackled Edward Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands Op. 27.

On top of the busy concert itinerary, the tour was also an opportunity for the orchestra (many of whose members had never been to these places or even Italy) to discover the beauties of this country. There was no shortage of opportunities to explore monuments and taste the food and wine delicacies of the area. In Cremona, the visit to the Violin Museum was splendid, while in Parma the orchestra was welcomed for a private visit to the Teatro Regio. Harpist Isabel Samuel (Medicine, New College) tells us that “one of the most beautiful moments was climbing to the top of the Duomo of Milan and seeing the spires turn pink at sunset”.

Acknowledgements, by Tommaso Rusconi: 'The success of the tour owes much to the support of generous donors and local realities. We would like to thank our media partner Classica HD, who told the story of the orchestra through an interview with Tommaso Rusconi (Music, Jesus College), the new Milanese manager of the orchestra, as part of the programme ‘Mestiere e Teatro’ curated by Paolo Gavazzeni, which was streamed on Sky. We would also like to thank the sponsors Braida, Ruggeri, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, and Millutensil, as well as the British Chamber of Commerce for Italy (BCCI) and the municipalities of Parma and Bergamo for their patronage. Finally, we are pleased to have collaborated with our charity partner, the Lega del Filo d'Oro, who has been with us in Milan and Parma and has given the opportunity to some deaf-blind people to attend the concert in the Aula Magna of the University of Milan.'