Student Soloist Spotlight| Jenny Ryan takes on oboe concerto with Cambridge University Orchestra

Cambridge University Orchestra (CUO) is gearing up for their first concert of the academic year featuring one of their own talented members.

Third year St John’s College music student, Jenny Ryan, is currently preparing to make her solo debut with the University’s premier orchestra. Jenny will play Martinů’s Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra and the performance will be led by preeminent conductor Alice Farnham. The concert will also include Emmy Lindström’s captivating The Lost Clown, a reflection of Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Beethoven’s joyful Symphony No. 4 in B♭ major.

Performing a concerto with CUO is a prize awarded to outstanding classical performers in the Concerto Competition. Jenny was the runner-up of the 2022 – 2023 competition.

Jenny was kind enough to share some insights into the preparation process and what draws her to the music.

What is the preparation process like for a concert like this?

“I’ve never performed a concerto performance in a concert on this scale before, so it’s definitely been a learning curve for me, especially balancing preparation alongside my academic work for third year! I like to spend a lot of time listening to different recordings of the piece, and playing it through in my mind; I find it visualising a performance in this way is often just as useful as physical practice in preparing for a concert. Equally, the oboe is a very physically demanding instrument, and so it’s been important to keep my stamina up; oboe playing requires thinking very carefully about how we use our muscles and control our posture and breathing, as well as resting well (or much as studying at Cambridge allows!).”

How long have you been working on this piece?

“I first started learning this piece when I was 16 or 17 (I’m now 20), but have revisited it a couple of times after breaks since then, and have thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it this year. Time and space does definitely allow you to improve technically as a player so you’re prepared to tackle a piece with better facility and more confidence to communicate what you want in a performance. However, I’ve found the most useful and refreshing part about revisiting this piece after a break is the fresh perspective this time and space has created. I find myself discovering new and exciting things in the music every time I return to it. It’s allowed me to rethink my interpretation, and be more creative with trying out new ideas in order to draw out further dimensions of the music (although I feel I’m still only scratching the surface!).”

What drew you to the Martinů’s concerto?

“It’s such a characterful, exciting and joyful piece, I love how much variety there is within only 20 minutes. Musically, it’s so rich and interesting, but also so engaging for an audience, with beautiful themes, playful dialogue between the oboe and orchestra, and dramatic cadenzas which show off the many different colours the oboe is capable of producing. Martinu has such a distinct and interesting voice as a composer, with so many different musical influences. I am hoping to perform some of his chamber repertoire later in the year too.”

How do you fit playing oboe at such a high standard around your studies? 

“I am in my third year studying Music, and so performing is a part of my degree. However, the majority of my degree is focused more on musicological essay-writing and composition, and so it’s definitely been a learning curve balancing my academic work with a regular practice schedule and the many, many concerts always going on in Cambridge! Obviously, there’s lots to be said for carefully planning your time, setting aside clear times of day for reading, practice, rest and social time etc. However, the best piece of advice I think with managing practice alongside studying is just to be kind to yourself, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be on top of everything all the time. It’s ok to need to take a break from everything, rest and just take one day at a time. There’s other useful things you can do too, like listening to recordings, or going to watch some of the many concerts in Cambridge, which can be equally as enriching for your musical life as actually practicing!”

What are you most looking forward to in this concert?

“I’m so looking forward to playing alongside CUO, having been a member of the orchestra myself since 2021, and playing for a number of student concertos during this time. I’m very lucky to be supported by an orchestra comprised of so many talented musicians from across the university.”

What has your experience playing in CUO been like?

“Playing in CUO has been one of my favourite experiences in Cambridge. It’s been so rewarding to perform fantastic repertoire under professional conductors, and has inspired me to pursue orchestral playing as a career in the future. Highlights for me have included; Mahler’s 1st Symphony, Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem in King’s Chapel, and playing cor anglais in many pieces including Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.”

“CUO has also been where I’ve met some of my closest friends at the university, and I would really recommend to anyone to join an orchestra in Cambridge. It’s a great  way to meet lots of different people who are all studying different subjects and are at different stages of their academic career.”

What was the Concerto Competition process like?

“Having been a 2022 and 2023 finalist, the competition has been a fantastic opportunity to focus my practice on a set goal, and gain valuable performing experience, and I obviously can’t wait for the opportunity it has given me to perform with CUO! I’d urge anyone to give it a go, as the audition is a really good performance opportunity to polish a piece and improve your confidence as a performer, and you can enter every year you’re a student. The finalists’ concerts have also been a lovely opportunity to hear fellow student musicians’ fantastic performances on a variety of instruments in west road, and I’m looking forward to coming to watch this year’s finalists when they audition.”

What are you up to next?

“I’m graduating this year, and planning to take a year out to apply to conservatoires in London to study the oboe full time, and hopefully have a bit of time to work, travel, and figure out the next steps post-university!”

Don’t miss the chance to witness a rising star’s performance alongside the Cambridge University Orchestra and renowned conductor, Alice Farnham!

£25, £18, £12 | Concessions: £22.50, £16, £10 | Cambridge University Students: £5

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