‘Music for Madagascar’, coming up this Saturday at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, is a pair of concerts forming a mini-festival organised to raise money for the charity Doctors for Madagascar. These two events bring together young talent in an eclectic range of genres for a fantastic cause, promising a day of exciting music-making.
The first of these (at 4pm) is a unique opportunity to catch some of Oxford’s best established student ensembles in the worlds of jazz, funk and a cappella on the same billing. First up is the New Men, the a cappella group formed by the choral scholars of New College Choir. Thanks to the rigorous training involved in singing in one of the city’s best chapel choirs, this ensemble bring a polished sheen and blended sound that is sometimes rare in Oxford’s competitive a cappella scene. An emphasis on the counter-tenor voice and, indeed, its humorous potential – all features reminiscent of Cambridge’s incredibly successful King’s Singers (another group formed originally by Oxbridge choral scholars) – also makes the New Men stand out from the crowd. The group who follow them on the programme at this event, the Oxford Gargoyles, are, unlike the New Men, a mixed ensemble, particularly specialising in more jazz-oriented repertoire. The Gargoyles are an impressive outfit, moving seamlessly from gentle ballads to energetic funk, something recognised by their being awarded the prize of ‘Open Category Winners’ in the BBC’s Choir of the Year Competition in 2012. While the Gargoyles present driving rhythms within the context of a sophisticated a cappella sound, funk and jazz band Dot’s Funk Odyssey (DFO) will bring such energy to the fore in a somewhat more visceral way to close this first concert. Since their formation back in 2004, this 14-piece group have been unchallenged as the kings and queens of their niche among student ensembles in Oxford, always guaranteeing a set of riotously funky fun.
The evening concert (7.30pm) presents an entirely different kind of programme, with chamber music and song being performed by impressive young performers from Oxford and elsewhere. Themed to a large extent around French music, the concert will open with a performance of Francis Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano (1926) by Hamish Dustagheer, a postgraduate performance student at New College, and members of the Tate Wind Trio (a group consisting of Angharad Thomas, Mary Tyler and Tim Keasley, all former music students at Oxford now continuing their studies either in Oxford or at the London conservatoires). As is typical of Poulenc’s music, this work contrasts flippant humour with sweeter moments of melancholy that betray the composer’s fascination with the colouristic possibilities of woodwind instruments. Another French composer fascinated by these timbres was Jean Françaix, whose Divertissement (1947) will also be performed by the Tate Wind Trio.
Between these chamber works, mezzo-soprano Ellie Edmonds (a recent graduate of Birmingham Conservatoire) and pianist Hannah Watson (formerly of Cambridge and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama) will tackle Debussy’s colourful setting of mysterious and sensuous texts by Paul Verlaine in Fêtes galantes II (1904), as well as Ravel’s Deux mélodies hébraïques (1914) which also creates a mood of mystery in adapting material from Jewish liturgical melodies. The programme culminates in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor (Op. 49, 1839) by the Beech Piano Trio (comprised of Oxford-based musicians Naomi Watson, James Mitchell and Jacob Rainbow). This work showcases both the composer’s famous lyricism and his mastery of tightly controlled classical form, in music that erupts in moments of exuberant virtuosity.
The ambitious undertaking is the brainchild of two fourth-year undergraduates at New College, Sasha Ockenden and Satya Tan. Ockenden’s connection with Madagascar began in 2011, when he volunteered for the Dodwell Trust. During his year abroad in Germany in 2013-14, he was an intern for Doctors for Madagascar and has already organised one concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, which raised over €10,000 for the charity. Both Ockenden and Tan have also used the skills honed as language students in translating materials for Doctors for Madagascar, an organisation that sends both doctors and equipment to the south of Madagascar. Founded in 2011, the charity has built a hospital in the town of Fotadrevo which is the only surgical hospital for approximately one million people. Given the charity’s calculation that a life-saving surgery in Fotadrevo costs only approximately £60 in terms of essential equipment and medication, attending these concerts offers the chance to make a tangible difference to those living in one of the poorest countries in the world, as well to hear a diverse range of exciting young ensembles.