The Oxford Proms has carved a comfortable little niche for itself since its formation in 2011.
Neatly filling a gap between the summer festivals and the flurry of activity as the autumn season kicks in, the concerts are designed to appeal both to residents and tourists with an unashamed focus on some of the most popular classics.
“We’ve tried to programme it to appeal to tourists who simply just like music, and also to be quite innovative in our programmes,” says founder Edmund Jones, who played violin with the Northern Sinfonia and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, among others, before he retired and settled in Oxfordshire in 2005.
“For instance, in our second concert, on 15thAugust, we’ve got a premiere of a new work, Capela Dos Ossos, by our resident composer, Tim Perkins. It’s written for two clarinets and strings, and it describes a visit he made to a chapel in Portugal which consists entirely of human bones, the idea being the transitory nature of human existence.
“In our first concert, we’ve got Finzi’s Five Bagatellesfor clarinet and strings, and you can hardly put Classic FM on now without getting one of the bagatelles played to you because they’re so popular. We also have Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2, which is one of the most popular, so that one will attract the tourists, I hope.”
Although now living in the West Midlands, Edmund is keen to keep the Oxford Proms flame burning. As always, he is particularly passionate about persuading young people along to the concerts – and tries to avoid describing them as classical music.
“The term ‘classical music’ is very off-putting for the younger generation,” he feels. “And it’s not really descriptive at all because when you talk about classical music it describes one period, from the time of Mozart to the beginning of Beethoven. That’s what we call the classical period.
“Classical music covers so many genres, it’s just not an appropriate title.
“Tim Perkins writes quite a lot of folky music and puts jazz in, as do composers like Copland and Bernstein – they’re very much influenced by jazz.
“I’m very encouraged this year because we’ve had some block bookings from the international student colleges. They organize 50 tickets in advance for the students, and that’s really good getting younger people coming in.”
Both concerts this year take place in the University Church – and Edmund is delighted.
“They have a very good concert grand piano, which the Sheldonian doesn’t have. That’s a big attraction because you don’t have to get a Steinway piano up from London, which costs a small fortune.
“Also, in this weather the Sheldonian can be terribly hot, whereas in the University Church, with those stone walls, you’re almost feeling cool as soon as you walk in, so it’s much better for the hot temperatures.”
The opening concert, Hall of Fame Classics, is this Saturday, and features pianist Maki Sekiya making her Oxford Proms debut alongside regulars Catriona Scott (clarinet), conductor Catherine Underwood, the Oxford Proms Orchestra and Edmund himself as orchestra leader and solo violinist.
In addition to the Finzi and Shostakovich pieces, the programme includes Beethoven’s Egmont Overtureand Romance in F Op 40 for violin and orchestra.
“We like to use local soloists who’ve got a good international reputation,” says Edmund. “And they appreciate it as well.
“We haven’t worked with Maki before so we’re really looking forward to that. She’s promised to play some Chopin studies as an encore, and Catriona’s going to play an encore as well, so that’ll make audiences feel they’re getting more for their money.
“I’m also doing the Beethoven Romance,which again is very popular on Classic FM, one of his really inspiring compositions. I really enjoy doing it.”
The Magic of Mozartfollows on Thursday 15thAugust, and includes the Clarinet Concerto in A (with soloist Lucy Downer) and Piano Concerto No.21 (with Maki Sekiya), as well as Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Shebaand the premiere of Tim Perkins’ Capela Dos Ossos. Once again, Catherine Underwood conducts.
For many, the Clarinet Concertois likely to be the highlight of the evening.
“It’s such a popular piece,” Edmund says. “My own opinion is that it’s Mozart’s greatest concerto. It’s the last completed work that he wrote, and he knew he was dying, I think, when he wrote that. You can tell – the slow movement is heartrending. And I think he really knew then that he was not going to recover. It’s his last greatest work.
“Also, it’s a very good contrast to the Concerto No.21, also known as the Elvira Madiganconcerto, which is a very joyful work, really Mozart at his most joyful, so the contract between the two is very good.”