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.
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.