Over time many music historians observed specific trends amongst the composers of symphonic music – even when they were not necessarily or specifically writing symphonies per se. With three different programmes filling three orchestral concerts this weekend, plus a fourth presented at Khayelitsha at noon on Sunday which will partly be a repeat of Saturday evening’s one by the Festival Concert Orchestra with Joost Smeets conducting. This most popular genre in classical music is once again deservedly given priority treatment by the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival. PAUL BOEKKOOI puts all those composers’ symphonically inclined performed works in perspective before looking back in more detail at Friday’s concert of music by Sibelius, Arutiunian and Rimski-Korsakov.

Sibelius completed seven symphonies, but preceded them with his Karelia Suite, an early work. He once mentioned what he aimed for in this symphonies: “I searched for a kind of logic that would make an inner link between all the motives possible”. Arutiunian wrote relatively very little in a strict symphonic form. His Symphony in Four Movements and his Sinfonietta are scarcely formalistic. To be honest, neither is his Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra a typical concerto in the conventional three movements. Rimski-Korsakov wrote three symphonies early in his career, clouded somewhat with less inventiveness than what he applied later in his career. This related to nationalism and folklore. He made up for this with his Scheherazade (performed twice this weekend), the Capriccio Espagnole and the Russian Easter Overture.

Regarding the Saturday night and Sunday noon concerts, Dutch composer Peter van Anrooij created his proudly ceremonial and nationalistic Piet Hein Rhapsody on the theme of the Dutch song “De Zilvervloot”. Although this is a test piece of sorts for any orchestra, he never got that far to write a symphony. Edvard Grieg’s Bergliot, Op. 42, a dramatic work for narrator and orchestra, has been given a South African context in this version which was narrated by Armand Aucamp. Grieg wrote only one symphony (in C minor) which he preferred to withdraw and did so, but in the 1980s it received its premiere performance and enjoyed some temporary interest before it started to fade away again. In contrast with the somewhat formulaic Grieg, Bizet’s only symphony, the No. 1 in C major, is a youthful gem of a work with its virtually never ending melodic richness and its beautifully shaped classical structure. Therefore, the main conclusions many of the most brilliant musicological minds made about symphonic composers, was as follows: Those living in the furthest regions of the northern hemisphere are overall more serious regarding the concept and content of their symphonies. In this context one should also mention Denmark’s Carl Nielsen who has been described by Hugh Ottaway as “…no romanticist, but no anti-romanticist either.” These Northerners are no doubt both far more serious as well as passionate than their more approachable southern colleagues.

Daniel Raiskin from Russia, via The Netherlands, conducted the Festival Symphony Orchestra in music by Sibelius, Arutiunian, and Rimski-Korsakov. He is not a newcomer to the SICMF and neither as a guest conductor of at least two of our orchestras: The KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The soloist in the performance of the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Arutiunian was the Faculty Artist Billy Ray Hunter, currently principal trumpet with, amongst others, the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Sibelius’ three-movement Karelia Suite, Op. 11 is a popular and charming composition in which the composer sketched real or imagined historical events in an illustrative rather than an overtly serious way. The themes are clearly delineated and developed within an incidental atmosphere which the listener can easily follow. With   an orchestra reaching toward a membership around a hundred, the effect in the Endler was rich and sonorous. There was some intonation problems regarding the horns in the opening Intermezzo. In the Ballade which followed maestro Raiskin inspired with some very subtle narrative effects in both the string- and woodwind playing, while accents plus crescendos and decrescendos in the Alla Marcia were initially controlled with delicateness before the joyful procession gained in momentum at the thrilling end. All of it was controlled in a tasteful way, with not a single section within the orchestral palette ever sounding too dominant.

Orchestral accompaniment is an art in itself and a very necessary tool and process both young conductors and young musicians in orchestras must acquaint themselves with, preferably over long periods. A concerto, like Arutiunian’s for trumpet, is also a different kind of beast from, say, Mozart or Beethoven. This Armenian work is, collectively seen, rhythmically very tricky. Furthermore: Added to this is that the ensemble must be absolutely exact in the way they respond to the lightness of attack by the soloist. The sudden tempo changes were handled with great alertness from the conductor’s perspective, while the orchestra as a whole supported Billy Ray Hunter’s vision, namely to let the work speak for itself, without allowing any eccentricities to intrude.

On a couple of occasions when the work was performed in local symphony seasons, they did not have the nearly frightful intensity which Hunter displayed. Neither were any of them this driven in the Allegro energico sections or as blazingly spot-on in the frightful intensity of the cadenza. Perhaps the performance could nevertheless still reflect a bit more distant mystery in the quieter passages.

As a matter of course Daniel Raiskin was indeed totally on “home ground” with Rimski-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Op. 35. It was a nurturing experience, this travelogue in sound through some of the most exotic and Oriental soundscapes ever created. With young musicians given the chance to foremost express themselves individually with the nearly unending solo work scattered throughout the orchestra in this four-movement masterpiece, one scarcely can think of more ideal repertoire to have adrenaline being pumped up to the high levels we experienced.

The two main string players carrying the brunt of the solo work, were the violinist Jeffrey Armstrong and the ’cellist Thapelo Masita. Both have musically speaking much in common. Armstrong’s solos were well considered interpretatively and technically. There is a calmness in the playing, giving him the chance to concentrate on a continuous overarching expressive line. This also leads him and makes him to touch listeners with his subtle dynamic contrasts and shadings. Masita sounded slightly more reticent, but produced a tonal spectrum where, both in the middle and high register, real warmth could be found at the core of it.

In the full orchestral ebb and flow of the opening movement, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, the conductor demonstrated his magnificent control of orchestral dynamics and an intense sweep in those melodic lines where the full string sections were involved. The specific placing of the various sections on stage led to a perfect balance in the orchestra. The virtuosity of The Legend of the Kalendar Prince was perfectly sustained – especially by the individual brass and wind instruments – while the final page’s accelerando sounded enormously exciting.

Some natural, unexaggerated phrasing of the melodic lines in The Young Prince and the Young Princess made this part sound like a song without words before the very rhythmic section on the clarinets and other woodwind started. Nearer to the end of the movement, at a sudden pause when the harp has something to play, nothing happened. This was the only clear lapse in the performance. Finally, Festival at Baghdad and all the drama following it, were both excitingly characterised and handled in orchestral terms.

One felt proud to have heard such astounding orchestral playing. A brighter future for orchestral musicians should be a possible scenario for orchestral performers. Can this dream, perhaps, one day become reality?


2 thoughts on “Review: Can this dream, perhaps, one day become reality?

  1. Heather Wood says:

    Thank you for all this interesting information regarding up and coming young people. Is it possible for you to please let us have the programme for the festival on specific days as we have searched on line and unable to find it. Thank you

    1. admin says:

      Dear Heather,
      Please find details and downloadable .pdf on https://www.sicmf.co.za/schedule/

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