Looking back, it is always the best of times that seem to pass the most quickly. The last nine days, crammed full of rehearsals, master classes and concerts, and peppered with new friendships and illuminating coaching sessions, have evaporated in a flash. Last night, at the penultimate evening concert of the 2019 Stellenbosch International Chamber Music, the students of the Festival Concert Orchestra presented a programme of five contrasting works to showcase the full orchestral sound palette, replete with copious solo passages for the more advanced players.

The programme was bookended by the music of Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), a self-described “Sunday composer”. A scientist by day, Borodin only wrote music in his free time but still won enough acclaim to earn a position amongst Russia’s “Mighty Handful”, alongside Rimsky-Korsakov whose music we heard earlier in the week. In the Steppes of Central Asia is a gentle tone poem that depicts a peaceful interaction between Russians and Asians in the vast steppe lands. The opening clarinet theme, representing the Russians, is followed by an oriental-sounding melody on the cor anglais. A third theme of pizzicato quavers represents the plodding hooves of horses and camels. Pedro Carneiro’s encouraging baton wove Borodin’s themes together into a contrapuntal depiction of the long desert journey, with the caravan gradually disappearing over the horizon.

The next two items, although quintessentially French, could not have been more different. Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande, illustrating the doomed love of Mélisande for her husband’s brother, is dreamy in its pre-impressionist character. The Sicilienneis the most familiar scene, in which a beautiful flute solo floats serenely over the sweeping accompaniment of the harp. This work has been described as “a tasteful balance of sentiment and restraint, of emotion and poise” and was satisfyingly contrasted with the grotesque fantasy depicted in the Danse Macabreby Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). After the harp announces the twelve strokes of midnight, the dead are summoned from their graves by Death playing his fiddle (Jeffrey Armstrong). Whether it was the xylophone representing rattling bones, or the cockerel crowing at dawn (portrayed by the oboe), the students were fully engaged in bringing this vigorous musical tale to life.

Given Beethoven’s colossal role in the development of the symphonic tradition, no pedagogically-inspired programme would be complete without his music. In 1810, Beethoven completed a suite of incidental music about Egmont, a Flemish statesman and general who pleads for tolerance but is beheaded for treason. The themes of liberation, equality and sacrifice appealed to Beethoven’s idealism. But I was not aware that Beethoven’s powerful overture to Egmont, a standard work in the repertoire, is followed by a sequence of movements for soprano and so it was in this context that rising star Janel Speelman introduced a new timbre to this year’s Festival, which has been almost completely devoid of vocal music. 

Although the Polovtsian Dances are attributed to Borodin, much of the colourful orchestration that we enjoy today was thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov who together completed the manuscript after Borodin’s death. In this extended dance scene (which usually features a chorus), a group of slaves sing wistful recollections of their homeland, gradually growing in vigour and ending in shouts of praise for their royal master. Each episode features a different flurry of wind, brass or percussion instruments that participate in this sparkling dance of exotic melodies. “Flurry”, “sparkling” and “exotic” also entail complexity, and the students in last night’s Festival Concert Orchestra performed this final piece with remarkable aplomb. 

The festive character of the Polovtsian Dances would have been sufficient as a concert finale, but that was not all. To celebrate “the victory of being on stage”, a beaming Carneiro presented the final march from Egmont. After the first few bars, he decided to rest his legs by sitting down on the podium – a display which emphasised the orchestra’s skill at playing sans conductor. As a last surprise, a rendition of the South African National Anthem gave the appreciative audience an opportunity to participate in the evening’s exhilarating display of unity through music.

You have only two opportunities left to hear the students at this year’s SICMF. The first takes place at noon today (Sunday) in nearby Jamestown. In this community concert, the Festival Concert Orchestra will reprise the works by Saint-Saëns, Beethoven and Borodin described above. Later, the very last performance in the Endler Hall will feature the Festival Symphony Orchestra at 4:30 pm (note the time). In addition to Danceand the Organ Symphonyfrom Friday night’s concert, two new additions to the programme (Sibelius’s Andante Festivoand Henri Tomasi’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra) bring this year’s SICMF to a close.

John Woodland


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