Beautiful, graceful symphonic melodies of past ballet classics

2011-09-15 00:00

AT some stage of their lives almost every little girl dreams of being a ­ballerina, and I was no exception.

I read every book I could find on the subject, including biographies of all the greats such as Margot Fonteyn, and my sketchbooks were filled with drawings of famous dancers.

My mother sent me to ballet lessons with Megan de Beyer, and my life was complete. That is until I went to my first ballet, Swan Lake, and was introduced to the magic of a live orchestra. After that all I wanted to do was learn to play the piano so that I could play ballet music.

Last Friday night’s concert brought all those childhood memories flooding back. The first half of the programme opened with American composer Aaron Copland’s exuberant, foot-tapping Hoe-Down from Rodeo, and continued with some of the best-loved favourites of the ballet genre such as the Invitation to the Dance by Carl Maria von Weber, Les Patineurs (Skater’s Waltz) by Emile Waldteufel and Divertissement: Pizzicato from Sylvia by Leo Delibes.

All the magic of ballet was there in the melodic cello solo in the opening bars of Invitation to the Dance, the graceful melodies and sleigh-bell sounds in the Skater’s Waltz and the ­pizzicato playing by the strings, where the musicians use their fingers to “pluck” the strings instead of using their bows. It was entertaining watching the percussionists move from ­instrument to instrument.

My personal highlights of the first half were the Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli and the ­Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin. These both come from 19th-century operas where ballets were ­often used as short scenes within operas to enable scenery changes.

The Dance of the Hours symbolises the eternal struggle between the ­forces of light and darkness through musical depictions of the hours of the day in a series of solo and ensemble pieces.

The Polovtsian Dances contain the evocative melody which formed the basis of the song Stranger in Paradise from the 1953 musical Kismet, and is characterised by strong, dramatic musical contrasts. It was a fitting end to a riveting first half.

What was exciting about this concert was that just when you thought you knew all the pieces and were comfortably settled in your seat enjoying the familiar strains of well-loved ­melodies, the second half of the programme brought an unexpected ­surprise, in the form of Franz Liszt’s Totentanz.

After the Black Death, a tradition of Totentanz, Danse Macabre and Triumph of Death paintings came about. Images of dancing corpses and armies of skeletons aimed to remind us of our vanities of earthly life. In Totentanz, the orchestra uses the wooden part of the violin bow to create a sound like shuddering or clanking bones.

Charismatic conductor, Naum Rousine, dressed all in black with his signature red bow tie, and looking like a magician conjuring up sounds from instruments to mix in a musical cauldron, clearly enjoyed every moment of the Totentanz, as did pianist, Christopher Duigan.

This is a big piece of music and ­definitely not for the faint-hearted. Written in the 19th century, it is surprisingly modern and very demanding with many technical challenges for the solo piano.

Duigan proved beyond a shadow of doubt why he’s so highly regarded, both nationally and internationally, as a concert pianist. He delivered a performance of riveting intensity, with his hands and arms doing a dance of their own. He moved me to tears in a performance which took the audience on an unexpected and emotionally charged musical journey.

His technical brilliance and sensitivity to every nuance of the music, made this for me the musical moment of the evening. Sustained applause from the audience after his performance showed me that I was not alone in feeling that.

Following Totentanz was Swan Lake. It too deals with the forces of light and darkness but in a different way from Dance of the Hours, looking rather at the forces of good and evil in the shape of a white swan, Odette, and a black swan, Odile. The music has some of the most beautiful and lyrical melodies ever written. One really gets a sense of the story, with all its romance and drama, in the ­musical score which was beautifully performed by the orchestra.

The encore was another highlight, and the second time I was moved to tears. Adagio from Spartacus is an evocative piece of music, a change from the usual light music chosen for an encore, and took me back to a time in my childhood when I first heard it in the sixties as the theme music in a film called Mayerling, a story of star-crossed lovers starring Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve.

Rousine conducted with great passion and dramatic flare, drawing powerful performances from the orchestra with gestures which were sensitive to the changing moods of the music. One could sense that this piece was a favourite of his.

We are lucky indeed to be treated to concerts of this nature by ­organisers Brad Glasspoole and ­Duigan, ­under the auspices of ­Cameron ­Mackenzie and Parklane SuperSpar. We also have Parklane SuperSpar to thank for the delicious danishes and iced coffees handed out at interval by the Maritzburg College boys. What a lovely way to spend an evening.

REVIEW: Symphony in the City, Invitation to the Dance

Pietermaritzburg City Hall

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