Four orchestras with slightly different identities, six soloists, four composers, three conductors, two South African premières and a capacity audience brimming over with merriment filled the Endler Hall for the Faculty Concert 7 on Thursday night. The repertoire – two contrasting Romantic works by Frenchman Camille Saint-Saëns and his German contemporary Max Bruch, plus a wacky Valse Brillante by the American composer George Hamilton Green and the Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin’s heavily jazz influenced Piano Concerto No.2, Op.14 – might perhaps for some palates have been a bit too much of a mixed grill, but to others just the right kind of relief after six days of intense s-e-r-i-o-u-s-n-e-s-s. PAUL BOEKKOOI, your blogger, felt much younger after these miraculous and revival inducing sound potions concluded their work.
Trust Saint-Saëns to have come up with some sophisticated and imaginative new ideas during the last dozen or so years of his creative life. Amongst those compositions we discover that the three sonatas for woodwind (oboe, clarinet, bassoon) and piano are amongst the most sublime of them, but his double concerto in the form of a tone poem of sorts, La muse et le Poet, Op. 132, is also very much worth hearing. The programmatic subtext of this work he never divulged, but it is safe enough to say that he was influenced by the poetry in four lyrics by Alfred de Musset. In them a poet seeks consolation and inspiration through a series of dialogues with his muse. The poet is represented by a ‘cello; his muse by a violin, as the title already suggests. The opening music somehow portrays that there is a heavy melancholy in the air, but it is the violinist who opens up the conversation. The way in which Alissa Margulis introduced her part and suggested an opening up of tonality, is somewhat doused by the poet’s despondent mood. In the course of the work the composer suggests these sudden mood swings with a subtle clarity – elements which were as effectively illustrated through Alexander Buzlov’s ‘cello.
The work as it expands becomes a strange double concerto with solo dialogues, but also, at the same time, there are sections where one of the two solo instruments has the upper hand. Margulis and Buzlov’s involvement became even stronger as the work progressed, while their rapport with violist Xandi van Dijk who at every edition of the SICMF seems to dig in deeper as a conductor leading Romantic works with a well-rounded expressiveness and a fine ear for textual detail. Climaxes were never overpowering, while many solos in the orchestra (especially from the woodwind) were expertly handled.
Bruch’s Double Concerto for viola and clarinet, Op. 88, is “pure” music, i.e. without any symbolic, neither realistic programme which needs to be unravelled to its core. Since the international success with his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 21 after a conclusive revision which was completed in 1867, Bruch has never composed a work which could equal this concerto’s popularity. This Double Concerto rewards easy listening fanatics, but it also seems to have positively enhanced its reputation over the past two or three decades. Thursday’s performance featured the amazingly inspired combination of Juan-Miguel Hernandez on viola and Ferdinand Steiner on clarinet.
With conductor Daniel Raiskin and a very responsive orchestra we experienced Bruch’s mastery regarding both the contrasting and blending of these two instruments. Expressive phrasing connected to some well-drawn legato playing were just some of the special qualities heard in the Andante con moto. In the following Allegro moderato and Allegro molto there were passages where close dialogues were effectively contrasted, with themes or shortened fragments that were echoed between the two instruments. Even if Bruch might have lost some melodic richness over the years, his feeling for the intricacies regarding the concertante style is never in doubt. It was this element that was communicated most imposingly between the two soloists and their conductor.
In the second half South African premières proudly filled the space, with first George Hamilton Green’s Valse Brillante performed with the chutzpah one can expect from one of the world’s best equipped xylophone virtuosos. When hearing the main theme from which Green spun many a variation and development and – who knows? –even some instant improvisations from Rob Knopper (the man hitting the resonating pipes without a glitch with drumsticks), I thought: Heard this before, but perhaps in one of many possible arrangements which most likely could have been simplified for lesser xylophonists? What struck everyone was the tempo and diligence with which Knopper performed the piece without getting exhausted or losing track of the unending stream of notes. Joost Smeets conducted the 27 piece wind band with precision and the kind of ease that made the music flow with unstoppable excitement.
The cherry on the cake was Luis Magalhães’ nervously alive and in pianistic terms also delightfully conversational take on some early and traditional inspired jazz as it has stylistically informed the Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin in his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 14, completed in 1972. Kapustin was luckier than most of the earlier born Russian composers, like Prokofiev or Shostakovich, who had to deal with Lenin’s legacy and could not avoid to collide full-on with a monster like Stalin. However, Kapustin, who is still alive, had to survive other Russian heads of state like Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Andropov… no nice guys either.
In his solo works as well as his six piano concerti, Kapustin consistently incorporated jazz elements, while changing and shifting the orchestral detail from one concerto to the other. Apart from the solo piano, No. 2 requests a band plus strings, while a kind of Gershwin style is found in this particular orchestration. The Allegro molto first movement had, apart from short momentary snippets of boogie-woogie, and lightning quick dialogues with especially brass and woodwind, also a proper cadenza for the pianist: impressively different from the Classical or Romantic ones we are used to. Magalhães had a real workout in front of the piano which he managed with a kind of cavalier aplomb. It was an excellent idea to perform the finale, Rondo-toccata, a second time as an encore. This time around the tempo was just right to fit in all the notes, while the drummer and double bass player Uxía Martínez Botana kept it up to make the second run a better-fitting one on all levels.
Bravo to all involved, and especially the lightning flash piano man!


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