- Captivating Performance of an Elusive Concerto

- Captivating Performance of an Elusive Concerto

Music Review by Paul Boekkooi

There’s a buzz in Pretoria about an orchestra of (nearly) symphonic strength which will give live concerts in the capital city – deprived for nearly a decade of orchestral music – on a more regular basis. No, the New Arts Philharmonic Orchestra Pretoria (NAPOP) is not resurrected. Neither is COSA, the Chamber Orchestra of South Africa, being extended to a size that matters for the performance of symphonic music in full flight.

This first appearance by the JPO on a Pretoria stage in many years – apart from accompanying in the final rounds of music competitions or being in the pit for Opera Africa’s productions – gave Shadrack Bokaba, the orchestra’s managing director, the opportunity to be a messenger of good news for the capacity audience attending this third repeat of the opening concert of the JPO’s 1st Symphony Season of 2010. The first two were given on 10 & 11 February in the Linder auditorium.

In his short address he announced that the JPO’s wish is to embrace Pretoria audiences and bring them regular symphony concerts. He was met by repeated tumultuous applause. He mentioned that Pretoria audiences may choose their preferred time (Friday evenings or Sunday afternoons) and venue (the ZK Matthews Hall at Unisa, or the Opera of the State Theatre). At their next Pretoria concert, on Friday 26 February at 20:00 in the ZK Matthews Hall, the audience will be asked the fill in their preferences on a flyer.

This is excellent news, the type which is not reaching classical music aficionados on a daily basis. Bokaba also mentioned that they’ll aim, during later seasons, to repeat every single concert in Pretoria.

Gérard Korsten (photo), a forceful personality amongst visiting conductors, opened this concert with an energetic approach to Weber’s Euryanthe Overture in which liveliness rather than force was the main characteristic. Although slightly hard-driven, the main aspect of Weber’s dramatic music – an underlying lightness and exuberant spirit – was sustained.

What was an amazing feat by both soloists in the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Opus 102, is the fact that their solo and especially ensemble playing gave no hint of the fact that they live in two cities 10,000 kilometres apart. Pieter Schoeman is concert master of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Anmari van der Westhuizen lives in Bloemfontein where she’s the cellist of the New Odeion String Quartet.

They secured a captivating performance of this elusive concerto through rich phrase-shaping and, at times when it really matters, pin-sharp articulation. Together with Korsten who underlined the concerto’s symphonic dimensions (especially in the Allegro opening movement) this was a performance in which luminosity and keen inflections became hallmarks of a vision which ultimately sounded naturally expressive. Stronger colouristic contrasts were achieved in comparison with the Linder performance I heard four days earlier. Especially Schoeman’s violin tone sounded rounder.

The Andante was characterised by a natural flowing expressiveness, with the intimate exchanges subtly handled. In the many dialogues of the rondo-like Vivace non troppo, one was aware of finely scaled playing, and especially the eloquence, grace, inner ease and spontaneity of everyone involved, the orchestra included.

There is a new line of thought in describing how a composition can be a bearer of musical unity. An answer could be that the unity belongs to a story which is somehow communicated in or by the music. This is the way in which, for example, Anthony Newcomb addresses unity in his descriptions of symphonies by Schumann and Mahler.

Gérard Korsten has the natural flair to make Newcomb’s theories seem brilliant, although he might never have heard of, or read anything, by this scholar. In Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 – the Rhenish – the JPO suggested story-telling in their playing. It’s a kind of holiday diary in sounds, penned by the composer during his last splurge of happiness. All of a sudden, while listening, I thought: In stead of taking any notice of the composer’s often criticised thickness of his orchestration, Korsten rather exploited its richness and removed in the process that kind of (perhaps false) criticism to the land of fables.

How often do conductors really stand to teach you things about the music you didn’t already know?

Event details:

Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gérard Korsten
Soloists: Pieter Schoeman (violin) and Anmari van der Westhuizen (cello)
Programme: Music by Weber, Brahms & Schumann
Date: Sunday, 14 February 2010
Venue: ZK Matthews Hall, Unisa, Pretoria

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