A rich Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra Summer Season
Music lovers attend the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s regular symphony seasons hoping for at least a handful of moving and memorable moments in the concert hall.
For the first series of concerts given by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) for their 2023 Summer Season, Iranian conductor Hossein Pishkar presented works not heard since the JPO’s relaunch in 2017: Brahms’s Tragic Overture and Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto. It was counterbalanced by the familiar romantic sweep of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
Brahms’s Tragic Overture may occasionally sound mistitled: the turbulent energy through the music is lively, not despairing, and there are moments of true warmth. But the last section is fiery and tormented, and plunges unrelentingly into a D minor conclusion, leaving a final taste of tragedy.
Mendelssohn seems the perfect programme partner to Brahms. Both were well read in the music of the past, and held classical tradition in high regard. The music of both composers somehow strikes a miraculous balance between intimate emotions and grand statements, even while emerging from a serious academic stance. And where their compositional approaches match, their personalities contrast: Mendelssohn is sunny and animated where Brahms is stormy and ponderous.
Mendelssohn wrote his First Piano Concerto when he was only 22, and played the piano solo at its premiere. Unlike many other concertos written by virtuoso performers for showing off, Mendelssohn’s is a finely crafted and immensely enjoyable piece, from its first moment to its last. The soloist at the JPO was the young German pianist Danae Dörken, and she joined Mendelssohn’s colourful dialogue between piano and orchestra engagingly and energetically. The rondo in the final movement is one of the most gleeful in the repertoire.
Dörken appeared to approve of the Mendelssohn and Brahms match, as she chose Brahms for her encore: his late Intermezzo in A major (Op. 118, No. 2), which she played with surprising tenderness, showing Brahms’s persistent hope peeping through his melancholy and introspection.
Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are epic, windswept novels, epitomised in sound. The Fourth begins with an imposing minor-key fanfare in the brass, what has come to be known as the call of imperious Fate. The theme returns throughout the symphony, as the narrative threads from sorrow and uncertainty, through a lyrical respite, then a freer playfulness, and ultimately to an exultant triumph.
Somehow, Pishkar and the JPO (especially its brass section) lifted the amplitude of sound beyond what this reviewer has ever heard in the Linder Auditorium; it felt like their paroxysms might have torn the roof off. The little bootleg I made myself does very poor service to the exhilaration of those moments, but my own feelings were clearly shared by the rest of the audience; unrestrained roars of ovation rolled down to the stage as soon as the final cadence sounded.
The second week presented a wholly different affair. The all-French programme, conducted by the sharply energising Daniel Boico, included orchestrated selections from the light-hearted children’s piece by Bizet, the two-piano suite Jeux d’enfants, and Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony, avec Organ. The special intrigue was the centrepiece: a Concerto for Two Pianos by the 20th-century composer Francis Poulenc.
Poulenc’s music is an eclectic mix of musical jokes, fantastic harmonic and melodic innovations, and solemn spirituality. His music is both refined and jolting, reflecting the exuberant social life as well as the Catholic devotion of the man dubbed “moine et voyou” (“monk and hooligan”). The inclusion of a prominent work of his on a JPO programme is especially gratifying, as it lets audiences know that the world of classical music didn’t stop turning in 1880; things have been happening that we usually don’t have the chance to witness.
Read in Daily Maverick: Reflecting on the Spring season of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra concerts
The concerto was played by the debonair Italian pianists Sergio Marchegiani and Marco Schiavo, a well-travelled duo who played with a single highly poised musical sensibility. The inventive concerto itself is lively and lyrical, and full of harmonic and rhythmic surprises. Poulenc, like any self-respecting Parisian artist of the Thirties, loved jazz, and some moments in his concerto seem to bend to the inescapable influence of George Gershwin.
Something else that Poulenc loved, however, was the enduring advantages of classical forms to a rich musical imagination. The slow, gently rocking second movement seems to quote a melody by Mozart, only to distort and unravel it as the two pianos pass it between each other. The clean lines of the enlightenment era yield to the garish colours of modern times.
Poulenc proves himself a worthy contemporary of Picasso and Dali in his wildly eccentric final movement: a D-minor Rondo that spins together decadent Parisian soirees, sophisticated shows of virtuosic pianism, and transporting gamelan music from Indonesia. Schiavo and Marchegiani’s encore matched Poulenc’s playful progressiveness with yet another Brahms encore, the Fourth Hungarian Dance.
Eskom’s woes ensured that the third week’s concert would be an unforgettable one. Before the Leonore Overture (No. 3), JPO board member Stephen Jurisich announced that load shedding was scheduled to start during the concert, but that the generators of the Wits Parktown Campus should kick in soon afterwards, minimising interruptions.
The Overture proceeded without a hitch, under the baton of long-time returning guest, Bernhard Gueller. The concerto was Strauss’s First French Horn Concerto, a charming and deft work, written when the composer was a young student and still in Mendelssohn’s thrall. The soloist was an accomplished youth from Cape Town, Shannon Thebus.
In the middle of the concerto, both suddenly and unsurprisingly, the lights went out. But the orchestra and soloist continued smoothly, happily aided by the small book lights on their music stands. In the darkness, Thebus’s rich, warm tone took on an especially heroic quality, with a small tinge of plangent mournfulness. He sounded like Wagner’s hero Siegfried, riding bravely through the night.
The audience expected power to be regained before the concerto ended. Failing this, we anticipated light as we made our way downstairs for the interval. When this hope, too, was extinguished, we sat in the hall and eagerly awaited the generators to allow us to begin the now-delayed second half of the concert. Eventually, some official figure (his face and identity unilluminated) announced from the dark stage that the orchestra would continue with the programme, with or without electricity. This distinctly South African hardiness – the derring-do that arises when we’re knocked back once again – inspired a spontaneous round of grateful applause. And damn right: JPO concerts did not end in the confusion and uncertainty of a pandemic, nor would national grid failures stop the music.
And what music they gave us! The programmed work was Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, a titanic work in its own right, but also just about the perfect piece for the occasion. From the Symphony’s opening strains, Brahms’s music is tragic and severe, and its sunless hues found haunting echoes in the conductor and musicians’ silhouettes that danced eerily across the ceiling. The darkness itself became a part of the music, and yet Brahms’s furious artistry brought out a light all of its own.
His fierce hope and courage lit up the music from within; it set a spiritual glow on the stage, which grew to fill the entire hall. The Fourth Symphony is a story not only of turbulence, but one of triumph, of the unconquerable human spirit in the face of death. Though the performance was far from flawless, the JPO and their circumstances brought to life the Symphony’s miraculous vision of emerging from darkness into light.
Daniel Boico and his keen musical acumen returned for the final concert of the season. He conducted a programme that started with the Siegfried Idyll (a happy occasion for fans of Wagner’s Ring cycle, like myself), and followed with a work by a composer who has probably never been heard in South Africa before.
José Silvestre White Lafitte (often simply called Joseph White) was an Afro-Cuban musician, who grew up in colonial Cuba and travelled to Paris in the 1850s, to hone what would eventually be hailed as the most prodigious skill on the violin throughout Europe and the Americas. His illustrious career, which included lavish praise from the renowned Rossini and a musical directorship in the court of Brazil’s Dom Pedro II, resulted in a handful of compositions for violin, none of which gained much eminence in the past 150 years.
His best-known work is his Violin Concerto in F-sharp minor, a virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra, of which I could find two recordings online. The American violinist Rachel Lee Priday has an apparent affinity for expanding the classical repertoire, and brought this Concerto to South Africa for her recent guest appearances at the JPO and KZN Philharmonic Orchestra concerts.
Other than its unusual key of F-sharp minor, the Concerto is a wholly conventional, if enjoyably elegant, Romantic affair. It begins in sonata form and ends with a rondo, and the musical fabric is cut from the same cloth from which all of the 1860s seems to have been fashioned. The distinctive features are White’s assured writing for his violin solo, which traverses lyrical melodies and cadenza-like monologues, before wrapping up with the inevitable pyrotechnics of the finale, all of which Priday handled admirably well.
The JPO paired this unheard-of rarity with the Number One most familiar symphonic work in the world: Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor, though led with the irresistible vigour of Boico’s conducting. One of the frequent felicities of Boico’s performances is how small moments underneath the main theme are highlighted. In the Symphony, his sharpening touches on bassoon countermelodies, clarinet fanfares, and piccolo flourishes.
The performance’s energy can be objectively measured, too: it clocked in at under 30 minutes, which is quicker than any of the recordings in my library – quicker, even, than Toscanini with the NBC Symphony. But this speed didn’t seem to sacrifice musicality; the players seemed swept up by this verve and responded with their own. There were strong, unified strokes from the strings, and buoyant singing from the woodwinds and brass. The audience, apparently excited beyond decorum, applauded strongly after each movement, ending the season with a conspicuous show of warm appreciation. DM/ML