Joanna MacGregor Arjan Tien CTPO – Prokofiev Shostakovich Stravinsky #ClassicalConcertReview

Joanna MacGregor Arjan Tien CTPO – Prokofiev Shostakovich Stravinsky #ClassicalConcertReview

Reviewed by Andy Wilding

Conductor: Arjan Tien
Soloist: Joanna MacGregor
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall Thursday 2 February 2017

PROKOFIEV LIEUTENANT KIJÉ SUITE – SHOSTAKOVICH PIANO CONCERTO NO.2 IN F – STRAVINSKY THE FIREBIRD

Pressure makes diamonds – or rubble, depending on the conditions. After a busy holiday season, the CTPO Express barrelled headlong into rehearsals for Rigoletto and a gruelling schedule of four symphony concert programs in the space of two weeks! Pressure indeed, but such is the pace of international orchestras. Perhaps CTPO management upped the pressure to ensure that our orchestra hardens, to attract international recognition as the glimmering diamond in the centre of the city. The marketing technology is already here, we just have to plug it in. Imagine using the rising tide of internet publicity to carry words and videos of CTPO performances to booking offices across the world. Cruz ships arriving in the harbour could provide organised tours to symphony concerts, ballets, operas, and recitals around Cape Town. Conductor Arjan Tien seems to provide the right conditions for diamonds to form under the pressure of this international dream. Last Thursday was an evening of un-square timing that required the steady hand of an experienced conductor to hold the orchestra on course.

Opening the Lieutenant Kijé suite, the off-stage trumpet of David Thompson interrupted the last few words of conversation in the audience, creating a delightful moment of wondering whether there was some kind of parade going on outside. Maestro Tien must have known all too well that he was catching the audience by surprise, in one of many ways that he has of creating an exciting performance of well known works. As the audience grappled with “have we started?”, trumpet was joined by feather-light snare drum and soft accurate piccolo, flute, and brass – an impressive demonstration of military precision and excellent control of the pianissimo dynamic. Three or four YouTube clips of comparative listening will reveal that few other orchestras manage such a soft touch to Prokofiev’s opening, which clearly portrays an army approaching from the barely audible distance. The suite is rich in solo performances such as the gorgeous melody of the Romance, with Christian de Haan on double bass, to the soft accompaniment of violas.

Shostakovich’s second piano concerto of 1957 is uncharacteristically accessible to the Romantic ear. Like Bartók’s third piano concerto 12 years earlier, it has the feeling of a work written by a mind that has travelled far beyond the cloistered walls of Classical counterpoint and Romantic harmony, searching for a more accurate expression of life’s suffering, tyrannical dictators, and massacres. In contrast with the chaos of both composers’ predominant “Modern” style, where the listener is sucked down into the abyss, the melodies in these two concerti convey an eerie sense of knowing true madness without actually going into it. There is compassion, as the safety of the harmony and tonal structures which the listener understands is respected, albeit using 12 instead of 8 notes. Psychologically this may represent the transcendence of trauma, letting go and moving on – both composers having survived the second world war. Of course a trauma like this leaves a scar, and there is an other-worldly, alien feeling to the melodies in these works. Shostakovich 2 is among my favourite concerti because I can understand and follow it, but it sounds like nothing else on earth.

MacGregor immersed herself in these bewitching, mind altering, pointy melodies, letting her fingers follow their training with astonishing accuracy. She is an outstanding performer and her love for the work infused the orchestra, her attention acutely focussed on synchronism, which is a big challenge in this work. Shostakovich gives us recognisable melody, but in exchange he takes away our concept of four beats in a bar – square timing. Conductor, soloist, and orchestra are tested to their limits, but the results last Thursday were phenomenal. The final movement features one of my favourite un-square timings, 7 quavers. Here MacGregor revealed a glimpse of her encore to come, seeming as comfortable accompanied by Senegalese congas, singers, and brass as a full symphony orchestra. She has in fact performed with Moses Mololequa on her previous visit to the City Hall. A classical musician who also plays jazz (to put it simply) has a noticeable connection via eye contact with the other instrumentalists, and this was visible in MacGregor’s Shostakovich, her eyes often on the orchestra, barely looking at her hands. Her dynamic range is wonderful, from the intense ecstatic accuracy of the outer movements to the sensitive tenderness of the Andante.

And then she played an encore.

In two works by Astor Piazzolla, Milonga del Angel and Libertango, MacGregor’s delivery was of Lisztian proportions. Arranging Latin music for piano must already be regarded as Lisztian in that Tango is played by at least three instrumentalists not counting piano: bass, percussion, and a melody instrument or singer, usually more. Piano transcriptions are extremely rhythmically complex to capture the offbeat bass rhythm, accompanying harmony, and melody – Liszt’s symphonic transcriptions are not far off. Even more entertaining was that, just a week earlier, the CTPO’s new piano was presented and inaugurated by Paul Lewis playing Brahms 2, review below. When MacGregor leaned under the lid of the new baby to mute the base strings of the rhythm she was playing, I could only imagine the inner gasps of horror from the audience! “Noooo!!! What is she doooooing to our new baaaaabyyyyy!!!” But the new Steinway sauntered out of its trial by Latin fire, brushing the ash off it’s collar without a hair out of place. The encore was an uproarious success.

Joanna MacGregor, Arjan Tien, CTPO, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

Joanna MacGregor after the encore: Milonga del Angel and Libertango, Piazzolla

The evening of un-square timing was complete with Stravinsky’s Firebird, orchestra members fondly referring to the timing in places as merely “1”. Requiring focussed rehearsal, and clear indication in performing, Tien’s conducting style is ideally suited in its precision. Like a dancer at times, his movements are accurate, beats clearly visible at the top of his baton. This must be a huge relief for an orchestra, allowing the soloists to shine – sublime oboe and celli in the “Round of the Princesses”, and beautiful performances by principals Brandon Phillips bassoon and Sergie Burdukov oboe. Caroline Prozesky’s horn made the most goose fleshy spine tingly entry into the finale, the phoenix reborn, rising though the smoke of its ashes. It is among the more challenging works for orchestra and the CTPO’s synchronism was amazing. In this case, pressure certainly does make diamonds.

Arjan Tien, CTPO, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

Arjan Tien and the CTPO after Stravinsky The Firebird

Arjan Tien, Joanna MacGregor

Louis Heyneman, Arjan Tien, Joanna MacGregor

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Paul Lewis Arjan Tien CTPO – Berlioz Brahms Beethoven #ClassicalConcertReview

Paul Lewis Arjan Tien CTPO – Berlioz Brahms Beethoven #ClassicalConcertReview

Reviewed by Andy Wilding

Conductor: Arjan Tien
Soloist: Paul Lewis
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall Thursday 26 January 2017

BERLIOZ ROMAN CARNIVAL OVERTURE – BRAHMS PIANO CONCERTO NO.1 IN D MINOR OP.15 – BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO.5 IN C MINOR OP. 67

The 11th CTPO International Summer Music Festival opened with a refreshing sense of excitement and optimism that infused the concert from start from finish. In a quick speech from the stage before the overture, Cape Town Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson announced the budget of 46 million Rand to be invested in the refurbishment of the City Hall over a period of 4 years!! This music to the ears invited smiling high spirited applause and renewed our long standing hope that the city’s iconic centre of orchestral music would be restored to its former elegance. There was something of a Christmas morning to this concert, as if we had all been very good and Santa was giving us all the presents we always wanted. Lurking under the tree behind the other presents (second violins and violas) was a brand new Steinway, complete with red ribbon and bow. In another mini presentation before the concerto, orchestra CEO Louis Heyneman presented the keys to the piano to stage manager Salie Paulse, to further delighted applause. But this concert will be remembered for more than its heart warming sense of family, support, and success after perseverance far beyond expectation. The orchestra was on top form, and they had one of their favourite conductors leading them through a program that seemed as enjoyable to play as it was to hear.

Ian Neilson, Paul Lewis, Arjan Tien, CTPO, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #ClassicalConcertReview

Cape Town Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson announcing the budget of 46 million Rand to be invested in the refurbishment of the City Hall

Unusually, one noticed two conspicuously giraffe-like double-basses seated where the second violins would normally be on the left, and on closer inspection the second violins were sitting in the cello section and the celli were sitting in the violas and it was all rather confusing. But there is method in the madness, as Maestro Tien explained to me last year when he chose the same layout to conduct Melvyn Tan’s Mendelssohn 1 and Brahms second symphony with the CTPO on May 12. For practical and acoustic reasons, the layout of the orchestra has always been at the discretion of the conductor. Until Mahler’s time (1860 – 1911) it is very likely that the treble and bass were balanced equally across the stage: The violins are in front – 1sts on the left, and 2nds on the right. This creates a wonderful clarity as violins almost always play in two parts, and these two parts are more identifiable when panned left and right. Celli are in the centre for warm-heartedness, and double basses flank the cello section two on either side. Maestro Tien prefers this layout for works conceived before Mahler’s time – the entire classical period and a great number of romantic composers. Wagner (1813 – 1883) conducted his own works using the layout that is now considered modern, which is how we most often see the CTPO seated. The use by modern conductors of Wagner’s layout is due to his extremely high influence on composers like Debussy and Strauss and his continued legacy through Furtwängler into the recording age.

Arjan Tien has a precise clearly defined conducting style that seems to have a reassuring effect on the audience. His rhythmic visual upbeats project a demeanour of someone completely in control, calm, and easy to follow. His swelling crescendos are exhilarating, always leaving enough in reserve for a hair raising climax. Berlioz’ rousing galloping Roman Carnival theme recurs a number of times and each received a unique treatment. The overture may also be remembered for a stunning cor angles solo by Carin Bam and succinct precise percussion.

Paul Lewis, Arjan Tien, CTPO, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #ClassicalConcertReview

The CTPO’s new piano being carefully positioned for its inaugural performance by Paul Lewis

After some delightful ado to much applause involving the removal of a giant bow and ribbon from the shiny new piano, Maestro Paul Lewis took the stage. Things became somewhat surreal as the opening bars of Brahms’ 15th registered work erupted from tympani and brass. At this point the audience had a number of things to be excited about and it was hard to tell which was more fascinating: the sound of the new piano and how it differed from the previous one, or the phenomenal and faultless performance by a visiting international super star. The exposition of the concerto was for me quite a dreamy bemusing state of hypnosis where Lewis’ exceptional performance was unsurprising. I found my attention drawn to the bright singing tones of the decidedly beautiful new instrument, chosen from the factory in Hamburg by our own Maestro and professor François du Toit. The new piano is like the Mediterranean in sparkle, depth, mystery, and clarity all the way to the bottom.

In the second subject, I came to Lewis’ performance – gorgeous notes falling from the piano like soft rain. Lewis has mastered a remarkable artistic skill and control that stretches the timing of phrases in the span of his hand, never late, and yet so fluid. The development of the first movement rumbled in darkness and thunder… We were in the presence of Apollo! Such power. Accuracy. Elegance. It was a hair-standing-on-end performance that had us floating in our seats – a technically polished delivery of which any great pianists would be proud, imbibed with lyrical soul. He pronounces the profound in Brahms. The lilt in his line conveys a spontaneity as if improvising a story, the enchanted audience hanging on every word.

Paul Lewis, Arjan Tien, CTPO, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #ClassicalConcertReview

Pianist Paul Lewis and Conductor Arjan Tien after the Brahms piano concerto no. 1 with the CTPO

The interval was astonished.

Beethoven 5th Symphony, although standard repertoire, must be among the greatest challenges for a conductor. There is so much comparison, so many individuals in every audience and every orchestra having their own favourite version which they consider to be the benchmark. Arjan Tien led the CTPO in a distinct and individualistic interpretation that avoided the obvious without upsetting widely accepted norms. His treatment of the immortal and beloved ‘knocking of fate’ theme was crisp and dogmatic, with the answering line closely following the first, keeping a sense of movement and not over-labouring the obvious.

The City Hall has hosted one or two notorious cases of Beethoven Espresso performances, which many audience members and orchestra players found ridiculously fast (although this reviewer rather likes the pacey interpretations of David Zinman and Krystian Zimerman). As a piano student of Beethoven expert Dr. Stewart Young, I always enjoyed hearing about his internationally acclaimed doctorate research into Beethoven’s tempo markings. To present an all-too-short summery that no doubt excludes volumes of important facts: many modern researchers believe that Beethoven was using a faulty metronome and hence, some of his given tempi are not only impossible in many cases, but also contradict the Italian terms he gives (eg. Allegro con brio). Hence the wide scope for interpretation of the tempo of Beethoven’s works. A reliable source of reference is Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny who attended many contemporary performances of Beethoven’s works and played them himself, and from his notes it is possible to arrive at some astonishing reinterpretations of Beethoven’s tempi.

Tien’s tempi in the 5th symphony were exciting without raising too many eyebrows. My silent iPhone metronome app measured around 96 crotchets per minute for the first movement. This is by no means dawdling, but in my understanding Beethoven expected no less of a virtuosic performance from his orchestras as he did from his soloists. The languid opening bars of the second movement inspired a collective deep breath from the audience after the intensity and excitement of the Allegro. An easy 80 crotchets, it was a sensitive and lovely performance of perhaps the most well loved work in the classical repertoire, immaculately performed. Tien’s control over dynamics and the responsiveness of the CTPO is astounding: mid-phrase, an instrumentalist’s level can be brought up or down as if on a mixing desk.

The bridge into the fourth movement demonstrated Tien’s ability to make something old into something new, incredible suspense and trepidation as tympani and strings cross over thin creaking ice through the mist into the final movement. Even though we all knew what was coming, Tien brought the burst of triumphant fanfare that opens the finale in all its joy and relief, as if for the first time. He has an almost child like energy, irrepressibly jumping with excitement that is of course highly contagious and translates directly via the CTPO to the audience. However in that ecstatic state, Tien retains such attention to detail, artfully articulating Beethoven’s phrasing and accented notes. There seems to be a great sense of two-way trust between him and the CTPO as he brings them from full after-burn down to single threads and then back into glorious exploding fireworks. His tempo in the final movement accelerated to an exhilarating 110, and the CTPO obligingly ripped it up. They really are a formidable orchestra!

O reader, if you had a similar experience of this concert and feel strongly about supporting classical music in Cape Town, you can easily contribute to the already growing presence of the younger generation at symphony concerts by sharing this review amongst your friends, let them see what all the fuss is about, and bring a few of them with you to the next concert!

Arjan Tien, CTPO, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #ClassicalConcertReview

Arjan Tien with the CTPO after performing Beethoven Symphony No.5

 

Paul Lewis, Arjan Tien, CTPO, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #ClassicalConcertReview

Paul Lewis, Louis Heyneman, Arjan Tien

Nettle and Markham Mendelssohn Shostakovich Omri Hadari CTPO #ConcertReview

Nettle and Markham Mendelssohn Shostakovich Omri Hadari CTPO #ConcertReview

Reviewed by Andy Wilding

Conductor: Omri Hadari
Soloist: Nettle and Markham
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall Thursday 10 November 2016

Program:

Mendelssohn Ruy Blas Overture, op. 95
Mendelssohn Double Piano Concerto in E
Shostakovich Symphony no. 5 in D minor, op.47

This concert honored Maestro David Tidboald, congratulating him on his 90th birthday. Tidboald’s contribution to the industry in terms of infrastructure is unparalleled. He established and conducted the KZN Philharmonic and the CAPAB and NAPAC orchestras. He also founded two major youth music festivals that provide vital performing experience to young instrumentalists, and prepares them for orchestra playing. With celebrations for Ruth Allen’s 90th the previous week at the Gala Concert (and again the following week on the 17th, which was her actual birthday) members of the city’s classical musical community experienced a trans-cultural custom as old as stone: honoring its elders. Our modern lives are so unrecognizable from their roots in pre-industrialised, pre-nuclear, tribal, socialist civilisation, that moments like these of gratitude for our tribal elders are strangely reassuring: In the throes of global madness, we are maintaining our humanity.

The overture revealed Hadari’s clear time-keeping and demanding expectation from the CTPO to play at the standard of the best orchestras in the world, to which his conducting style is accustomed. The result was a virtuosic performance with exceptional work from the strings. His outstanding control of dynamics was immediately discernible, always keeping us on our toes, and always assuring enough potential energy for climaxes to explode wonderfully.

Nettle and Markham, Omri Hadari, CTPO, Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #CapeTownPhilharmonicOrchestra #CTPO #ConcertReview #ClassicalConcertReview

Nettle and Markham one second after completing the Mendelssohn double concerto in E, with Omri Hadari and the CTPO

The concerto (MWV 5) performed by Nettle and Markham has a tremendous history, beautifully told by David Nettle in the program. Mendelssohn composed it in 1823 aged 14, but revised it later on. The concerto remained in a state of flux until his early death and was not published, hence it does not have an opus number, but a Mendelssohn-Werkverzeichnis number or MWV, German for Mendelssohn Work Index. The MWV was established because the composer did not keep up with his admin – He cataloged only 72 works with opus numbers, and then died, leaving 121 works to be added posthumously. Several versions of the concerto exist, in various states of development, and in all the confusion Nettle and Markham found it best to create their own edition, favoring the original 1823 version.

Nettle and Markham, Omri Hadari, CTPO, Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #CapeTownPhilharmonicOrchestra #CTPO #ConcertReview #ClassicalConcertReview

Nettle and Markham with Omri Hadari, Mendelssohn double concerto in E

Their edition is scintillating, playful, and wise – all our favorite reasons to listen to Mendelssohn. As entertaining to see as it was to hear, watching the runs and witty exchanges was simply delightful. Nettle and Markham are extremely well matched, sharing a flawless technique and shapely sense of phrase. Repetitions are never the same, but explore a different interpretation of line, changing the meaning of the sentence even though the words are the same. The exciting acellerando into the coda of the first movement had everyone on the edge of their seats. The CTPO was outstanding – lively soft lyrical violins and a horn entry in the Adagio that was dolce de leche.

Shostakovich 5th is a treat for the romantic music lover, an explicit emotional expression of sarcastic submission and yearning for freedom under tyrannical rule. Hadari’s dynamism is ideally suited to such dramatic works as this. Many people experience great romantic works as a journey in the imagination, where the music tells the story. Hadari’s mastery articulates the subtleties of his interpretation, like the terrifying power of Stalinist Russia: a dread march that develops a splinter motive of resistance and hope from the trumpets. This leads to a cacophonic anticlimax, like the momentary appearance of the cold sun on a freezing Siberian evening. After the trumpets had stated their protest, Hadari’s Stalin marched on without so much as blinking. Political propaganda swallowed that trumpet’s protest, as if it had never happened.

Omri Hadari, Patrick Goodwin, CTPO, Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #CapeTownPhilharmonicOrchestra #CTPO #ConcertReview #ClassicalConcertReview

Omri Hadari congratulating concertmaster Patrick Goodwin and the CTPO after the Shostakovich 5th symphony

The show stealer for me was concertmaster Patrick Goodwin’s awkwardly pretty solo in the midst of a macabre, military ball, a paradox beautifully illustrated by Hadari’s skill. The CTPO painted these musical pictures in world class standards. String technique was astounding, annunciating a perfectly synchronous pianonissimo pizzicato, with accellerando! Stunning ensemble playing from winds, bassoons expertly handing the oddly high register. Beautiful solos by Gabriele von Durckheim flute, Daniel Prozesky clarinet, and Caroline Prozesky horne. As the first movement drew to a close, the melody seamlessly passed from flute (von Durckheim) to picolo (Bridget Wilson) to violin (Patrick Goodwin) – an outstanding moment of magic.

Omri Hadari, CTPO, Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Andy Wilding #CapeTownPhilharmonicOrchestra #CTPO #ConcertReview #ClassicalConcertReview

Standing ovation for Hadari and the CTPO after the Shostakovich 5th symphony

Hadari’s demands on the orchestra are relentless, continuously sculpting the balance and tempo, and insisting on absolute precision. The results that he produces are spectacular and remind us why we attend classical concerts. Pressure makes diamonds – If sound is anything to go by, playing under Hadari is extremely good for the CTPO!

David Nettle, Richard Markham, Louis Heyneman, Omri Hadari

From left: David Nettle, Richard Markham, Louis Heyneman, Omri Hadari