Review: Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra with Spencer Myer and Alexander Ramm


Alexander-RammIn the company of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, the upcoming autumn does not seem so dreary. The CPO autumn season kicked off with great promise as two world-class artists joined the orchestra on stage.

Pianist Spencer Myer is certainly no stranger to South Africans, having captured first prize in the 10th UNISA International Piano Competition 2004 and his growing legion of fans always looks forward to his sporadic visits south of the equator. But it was new kid on the block, cellist Alexander Ramm, who was the star of the evening.

The series commenced with a special performance of the Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (CPYO) playing Smetana’s ‘Dance of the Comedians’ from Act 3 of The Bartered Bride. Launched in 2004, most of the members of this youth orchestra come from previously disadvantaged communities. Through hard work and coaching by the professional members of the orchestra these young talents develop their skill and love for classical music, and relish the opportunity to play alongside the big guns. Although a little timid and reserved the CPYO did a splendid job of bringing Smetana’s vivacious ‘Dance of the Comedians’ to life. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the performance and applauded with the warm recognition deserved for the achievements of these youngsters.

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra gave an equally pleasing performance of Brahms’s Tragic Overture Op.81 and Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings Op. 20. Under the watchful baton of conductor Brandon Phillips the orchestra managed to wind through a wealth of emotions in these two relatively short works. The Serenade for Strings was sweet, pleasing, simple and tender and Brahms’s Overture dark and brooding. Yet the sombre timbre of the D minor opening of the Op. 81 overture and its two themes – one whispering of impending catastrophe and the other showing gleams of hope -were an apt omen of things to come.

The interpretation of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466 was a huge disappointment. The first movement opened with the orchestra only managing to produce a thin and listless sound. All passion and drama – the very pulse of this enigmatic work – was absent, and by the third movement the orchestra had completely flat-lined. This is not what this piano concerto should sound like. A basic indication of this work’s true nature is the fact that it was written in D minor. Mozart regarded D minor as particularly dark, employing it for most of his Requiem as well as the scene of damnation in his opera Don Giovanni.

Myer’s performance not only lacked dynamic contrast but also variety of tone colour and even direction. Everything sounded the same. The wonderful contrast between the haunting first movement, the lyrical second and the pressing third movement was lost, the cadenza was lifeless and awkward rhythmic accents (especially in the first movement) all contributed to a mix of boredom and frustration amongst audience members.

Happily young Russian cellist Alexander Ramm saved the evening.  His riveting performance of Elgar’s last major work for orchestra, the well-known Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85, beautifully captured the concerto’s mood of disillusion, suffering and distress and kept the members of the audience perched at the edge of their seats as the music ravished their ears. Conductor Brandon Phillips dexterously led soloist and orchestra in playing as one soul from the four insistent opening chords to its repeat at the end of the work, which resounded like a cry of despair.

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra has an exciting programme planned for its Autumn 2012 Season and Capetonians can look forward to a stellar line-up of soloists and an equally thrilling selection of works including a number of gems from the standard piano concerto repertoire. Concerts take place every Thursday evening at City Hall in the centre of Cape Town.

Andra le Roux-Kemp

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra performed with Spencer Myer and Alexander Ramm at City Hall, Cape Town on 10 May 2012.


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