As Google so playfully reminded us, 22 November 2013 is a significant day in the world of sci-fi: the 50th anniversary of the mysterious Doctor Who. However, it was an entirely different doctor who was being celebrated at the Royal Academy of Music, one more majestic than mysterious, whose identity is renowned throughout the musical universe – the new Doctor Christoph von Dohnányi. As part of this "Free Fridays" lunchtime concert (or, perhaps, the other way around), the vice-chancellor of the University of London presented the German maestro with the degree of Doctorate of Music, Honoris Causa, in a brief ceremony attended not only by concert-goers, but the Principal of the Royal Academy, the Duchess of Gloucester and about a hundred of the Academy's finest student performers. Some of these latter would fill the hall with the Duke's Hall with triumphantly resounding processional music as the vested dignitaries entered, whilst the remainder waited patiently on stage for the Doctor to down his robes, take up his baton, and conduct them in Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony.

Whilst it is not my place to review a ceremony such as the awarding of a Doctorate, I will just mention a couple of things about it, as they made up a part of this lunchtime concert experience. Firstly, the entrance music: this was Arthur Bliss' Investiture Antiphonal Fanfares, a pretty functional fanfare featuring three groups of brass players, standing high up towards the rear of the stage in this rather intimate concert hall, playing passages in antiphony. Fanfares are both an annoyance and a bit of fun for the brass player: annoying, because they're usually not very interesting; fun, because they usually give you an excuse to play as loud as you like. And there were certainly some trumpeters and trombonists enjoying themselves here, filling the hall almost unbearably with powerful, crisp, and controlled playing. Certainly it was an impressive start to the occasion, but unfortunately, any attempts at engendering a solemn atmosphere of sacred secularity were smashed to smithereens by the last, clear, resounding chord subsiding only to be replaced by the sound of the Nokia theme tune. It was a bizarrely tragicomic moment, and it certainly made for an interesting start to the ceremonies.

Secondly, I wish to mention the reasoning given for presenting von Dohnányi with an Honorary Doctorate. These are given by the University of London to those considered "truly outstanding individuals", and one didn't need to hear the citation given rather stiltedly by Classic FM presenter John Suchet to know why this conferment was appropriate; one only had to listen to the Academy Concert's performance of the Schubert under von Dohnányi's baton which followed.

Schubert's Symphony in B minor, the "Unfinished", is a rather strange work to hear in a celebratory context, and its selection was determined more by the conditions of its dedication – to the Graz Music Society on their awarding Schubert an Honorary Doctorate – than by any particularly festive musical material in the score. The first of the two movements is definitely on the darker side, with its brooding cello introduction, its menacing section for trombones over scurrying strings in the middle, and its general feeling of foreboding. The unison clarinet and oboe theme – played so perfectly together by Matthew Scott and Viviana Salcedo Agudelo as to sound as one multi-faceted, perfectly moulded sound – and the lyrical string second subject over a syncopated accompaniment only temporarily relief this sense of darkness. The orchestra played exceptionally, with spotless intonation and fantastic dynamic control, two sure signs of an excellent relationship between the students' and the maestro. The winds, particularly, sounded extraordinarily well-oiled and finely attuned.

The second movement, by contrast, is full of light and lightness: its delicate, restful opening, its irresistible descending pizzicato bassline, its hauntingly beautiful clarinet and oboe solos over another syncopated, oscillating chordal accompaniment in the strings. This levity was perhaps a little too unkindly quashed in a section where the walking bass is transferred to arco strings playing in octaves, who assertively usurped the melodious woodwind chorale and forced their way to the fore a little too heavy-handedly for my liking. But this was a conscious choice: the string section had its own fair share of delightfully handled, fragile melodies, none so beautifully controlled and weighted as the high first violin passage which linked numerous sections, and in which one caught a glimpse of the composer's more adventurous harmonic twists and turns, less prominent in this work than in many of his smaller scale pieces.

The immense beauty of this symphony and its expert performance here presented a funny contrast to the stiff formality of the preceding ceremony. It was certainly in the latter, rather than the former, that the students and the audience really discovered who the Doctor is.

Christoph von Dohnányi conducts Schubert's 'Unfinished', at RAM, Duke's HallDavid Fay reviews Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Academy Concert Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music on the occasion of his being presented with and Honorary Doctorate from the University of London3