A joyous occasion

2008-10-24 00:00


Event: 25th birthday concert of KZN Philharmonic Orchestra

Venue: Pietermaritzburg City Hall

Wednesday night’s concert was meant to be a celebration, and it certainly was that. With three choirs, four top-flight home-grown soloists, a charismatic American conductor, the ever-reliable KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, a number of dignitaries, a near full house, a stage brimful of instrumentalists and singers, and a festive atmosphere, the evening was a joyous occasion.

The orchestra has much to celebrate: 25 years of taking beautiful music to varied audiences, its outreach programme, its consistently high standards of performance, its total commitment to an art form which does so much towards breaking down barriers and bringing people together both to perform and to listen. Fittingly, at the end of the evening and after a prolonged standing ovation, the full orchestra and massed choirs sang Happy Birthday to You, to bring the occasion to a merry and affectionate close.

Conductor Leslie Dunner was a pleasure to watch: expressive but never affected, radiating enjoyment coupled with total assurance, his control over the orchestra and especially over the huge combined choir was impeccable. Apart from his giving the “big” moments in the music their full value, he was perhaps most impressive in his exquisite rendering of the quieter pieces — Bach’s oh-so-famous Air on a G String (so often heard, seldom performed with more lyricism) and the Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The four soloists were clearly competent but inevitably rather swamped by the great choral and orchestral tsunami happening around them.

As for the choice of music: Bach’s Orchestral Suite Number Three is one of the composer’s most accessible and brightest works and, with its five sections, provided a varied and satisfying first half. But undoubtedly Beethoven’s Ninth, the Choral, was the grand climax of the evening.

This expansive four-movement symphony, with the famous choral Ode to Joy as its finale, has attracted a certain amount of negative criticism in its time and much of the symphony is not to everyone’s taste. It has qualities of harshness and plain noisiness, with occasional touches of Bierfest elements, which remind one that Beethoven was indeed, and tragically, deaf when he composed it. Its first movement, in particular, seems to go on forever.

But of course it is a huge piece. It was played when the Berlin Wall came down and it has always been a concert favourite for big celebratory occasions. The Ode to Joy was even adopted by the post-UDI (then) Rhodesian government as the rebel colony’s national anthem — a considerable irony, given that country’s subsequent disastrous history.

However, the whole symphony is spectacular, was excellently managed by the conductor and provided a suitably rousing end to an evening which achieved its purposes: to say “Well done!” to our province’s superb orchestra, to fill the city hall with people united by music and to pay homage to music itself. David Pike.

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