ArtSpoken & Reviews

Fury and ecstasy at the JPO & KZNPO joint concert

Jared Beukes
10/27/2018 07:15:40

Jared Beukes: The JPO's fantastic start to their new symphony season featured energetic performances and a tribute to Albertina Sisulu.

An orchestra’s gala concert is a culturally important event, but its artistic significance is always a gamble. Daring originality often yields to respectability, and listeners hear a competent performance rather than an inspiring one. But no such problem beset Thursday night’s Johannesburg Philharmonic concert, which commemorated the centenary of Albertina Sisulu. The American conductor William Eddins and the additional forces of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra exalted concertgoers’ experiences far beyond expectations. The audience’s mood rose very quickly in the evening from delighted anticipation to genuine, ecstatic joy.

The tone was set well by the welcoming dignitaries. The Chair of the KZNPO Board, Saki Makozoma, welcomed concertgoers and visitors from the Sisulu family and foundations, including Max and Elinor Sisulu. The Chair of the JPO Board, retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, spoke tenderly about Albertina Sisulu, her place in the history of South Africa, and his own connection to that history. Minister Lindiwe Sisulu spoke after the intermission about her mother’s joy in music and introduced the commemorative work commissioned for her centenary, MaSisulu Sinfonia, by the South African composer Bongani Ndoda-Breen.

A particular musical pleasure of the joint performance with the JPO and KZNPO was having so many more musicians on stage than usual, especially in the string sections. And the very special pleasure was having the guest conductor Eddins at the helm of that group; the sound was bolstered not only in volume but in bright, sparkling engagement and febrile New World energy. Eddins conducts without a baton, and conducted the first half of the evening without a score. He stands resolutely on the podium, with his feet very wide apart, and waves his arms in huge, swinging motions. He isn’t shy about dancing across the podium and even jumping when moved to. I could see during the performance that the players all held a close and empathetic connection with the conductor, whose direction was always clear but gleefully idiosyncratic.

The evening began with the Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’s opera “Samson et Dalila,” which follows the orgy of the Philistine priests and priestesses in the Temple of Dagon. I had thought that Eddins began the work too slowly, but his ideas quickly became clear, as the piece built effectively in savagery and sensuousness towards a feverish climax.

Next, the American violinist Rachel Lee Priday came out to play the solo in Brahms’s violin concerto in D major. Eddins and Priday seemed unified in their singular conception of Brahms and the piece. Their Brahms was the raging, thundering, table-thumping, heaven-storming, kick-stomping Brahms, a composer of boundless fury and unlimited ecstasy, albeit one who expresses his extremes in backward-looking classical forms and traditional structures, and an abiding sense of beauty and lyricism.

Eddins and Priday phrased all sections of the entire concerto in tandem, arcing wondrous long lines of thought and emotion over bar line after bar line. They kept close communion throughout, sometimes even seeming to dance together to the music. Priday, who plays with an enormous and strong sound from her violin, soared with bravura through her virtuosic part; as the orchestra took up the theme in the finale, she urged them to play it faster. (Unfortunately, despite the rapturous applause she enjoyed, no encore was forthcoming.)

The concert ended with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” in commemoration of another centenary. The orchestra unleashed another magnificent burst of energy and drama. Eddins’s inflections brought forth such strong feelings in the music that, if there could possibly have been any listener who was unfamiliar with the Broadway musical, they could have followed the emotions of the story in fine detail and with strong convictions just by hearing this performance. It’s worth noting that the orchestra applauded Eddins at the end of the evening just as enthusiastically as the audience did.

Jared Beukes
Arts writer
Related Venue:
Linder Auditorium, 27 St Andrews Road Parktown Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa