Reviewed by Andy Wilding
Conductor / Soloist: Howard Shelley
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall Thursday 3 November 2016
Symphony no.35 in D “Haffner”
Piano Concerto no. 18 in B-flat
Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor
The Friends of Orchestral Music is a registered non-profit organisation that is dedicated to supporting classical orchestral music in Cape Town. The lion’s share of the funds raised are presented to the orchestra, but FOM also enables a variety of up-and-coming instrumentalists, assisting with bursaries and outreach programs.
FOM fund raising events are planned throughout the year, most notably the enchanting soirées featuring local and international soloists and chamber ensembles. FOM also collects a R50 donation per person at the CTPO open dress rehearsals, usually held at the City Hall on the morning of the performance. By far the most glamorous event in the FOM calendar is the annual Gala Concert, an exciting opportunity to showcase the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra in the light of an international star, and 2016 was no exception. The CTPO gave a shining performance conducted from the piano by natural born entertainer Howard Shelley. The evening was a critically acclaimed success, graciously sponsored by Nussbaumstigting, and Naspers (who sponsored the Joshua Bell concert last year.)
The 2016 Gala Concert will also be remembered as Ruth Allen’s 90th birthday present! The concert was dedicated to this rare jewel of the classical art and music community – an industry mainstay; an indomitable supporter of classical music through feast and famine. What a birthday present this must have been, to see the orchestra that she had helped return from the Isle of the Dead, thriving, fierce, and full of life.
A program that features works from one composer feels quite focussed and calming, like arriving at a holiday destination with no further plans to travel, because you are exactly where you want to be. With Shelley’s Mozart program, we were comfortably transported into the Vienna of the 1780s and allowed to wonder around, explore the society, experience the culture. The symphony was elegantly phrased and impressively accurate. The Andante, around 72 bpm, was a leisurely stroll distinct in it’s complete absence of urgency, providing plenty of space to hang ones thoughts.
Maestro Shelley earned his supper a few times over, giving his audience a delightfully entertaining master class before the B-flat piano concerto. He told us to listen out for the winds, who would be playing a greater part than in any concerto before, and also rattled off an astounding array of examples on the keyboard where Mozart had used variations or derivations of the opening phrase of the 18th in other piano concerti. Thus, with his audience eating out of his hand, he rang the bonus bell: charm. It requires a skill that precious few performers have or take the time to develop: the skill of talking to the audience. There is an immediate intimacy even in a concert hall, with a performer who speaks, a kind of subconscious capcha test – Are you a robot? Seeing the humanity in the way an instrumentalist speaks is (almost always) endearing.
Lid off, Shelley got down to business, delivering amazing balance and sensitivity with the orchestra, and a cadenza of astonishing accuracy. Wondering far from the tour bus, I came to the conclusion that Mozart would be enjoying Shelley’s demonstration of the piano forte immensely, and probably envying it over his baroquey harpsichord at home. Shelley’s Andante was as dramatic as he promised it would be, having explained in his short introduction that Mozart was fond of infusing his second movements with operatic lyricism.
After interval we were rewarded with another of Shelley’s wonderful introductions, which served not only to remind us to look out for Beethoven’s cadenza in the first movement and Hummel’s in the third, but also that FOM Gala Concerts offer something special to the music lover. There is a sense of witnessing history in the making, to be in the audience of an icon performing on the City Hall stage. And what a pleasure to host a star so comfortable in his world that he speaks piano as his home language, whether illustrating a quick example or playing entire works from his iPad.
His D minor was sublime in its clarity, precision, and serenity. Not uncommonly a fan of exciting tempi, I enjoyed the Romanza’s languid first subject, a shade lazier than the Haffner Andante, and the dreaminess contrasted well with the fiery passion of the second subject. Beautiful ensemble playing from the winds.