It’s impossible to hear the spectral opening to Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ without thinking of scenes from Disney’s Fantasia (1940): the unearthly nocturnal commotion of sinister spirits and witches, and the emergence of Satan himself, all building up to a frenzy amidst diminished chords and daunting horn themes until sounds of the approaching dawn – the church bells and murmuring harp – interlude, driving away the dark forces. Along with this dramaturgical attention-grabber, a programme including the works of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff ensured that the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra would conclude this year’s Celebrity Symphony Season with a proper bang.
Everyone brought their A game to this stage. Internationally recognised conductor Yasuo Shinozaki played the part of the classic maestro, hair and coattails flying as he hopped to the frantic coda of ‘Bald Mountain’. The audience, in turn, sat packed into every last corner of City Hall, including even the standing-room-only spots behind the stage. As one, we leaned forward to catch the chromatic ‘Firebird Suite’ theme cascading down amongst the violins and violas. Prince Ivan’s quest to defeat Kashchei the Immortal with the Firebird’s help, unfolding at the hands of a very engaged orchestra, sounded every bit as magical and scenic as it must have looked with the full ballet visuals for which the piece was intended.
Also bringing a top-notch performance was Italian-American pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi. The silver prize winner of the 2001 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, he is a Steinway artist who is prominently active in performing, recording and teaching. Pompa-Baldi is also often invited to judge international piano competitions, and has toured extensively across Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa. Notable performance venues include the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing and New York’s Lincoln Centre, as well as Carnegie Hall.
Pompa-Baldi made his Cape Town Philharmonic debut last year with Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and it’s no surprise that he was invited back to play Concertos 1 and 2 this time. The first of Rachmaninoff’s concertos – as one might expect from a genius composer at the hearty age of 18 – radiates vigour and theatricality, if perhaps somewhat lacking in musical depth. Thankfully, for the likes of Rachmaninoff this still means being well within the territory of brilliance, and Pompa-Baldi tackled the piece with matching verve. The story goes that Rachmaninoff had big hands, thus explaining the vast expanse of keys the pianist is required to command with every emphatic stroke.
Pompa-Baldi is what I like to call a “feeler”: a musician who favours expression over technical exactitude (though he most certainly is not lacking in skill). So immersed was Pompa-Baldi in the music that he often played with his eyes closed, almost as if he were meditating. At one point, when the pianist was rudely shaken out of his trance by a ringtone, the audience shifted indignantly around the perpetrator, for we also had been jarred out of an intimate moment. Interruptions notwithstanding, Pompa-Baldi played both Rachmaninoff concertos with familiarity and feeling, occasionally making bold musical choices as well as taking liberties with the tempo to maximize the emotional impact of each piece.
In particular, the ‘Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor’, Op.18, turned out to be the perfect finale piece with its recognisable themes and splendid intricacies. The rapport between pianist and conductor fuelled the orchestra to new heights, and in their collective effort the genius of Rachmaninoff came alive to eager ears. Having been scribbling notes up until this point, I had to lay down my pen and paper down in order to appreciate the music in its entirety.
For the star-studded season that it has just had, the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra certainly went out on a high. Now we face the question of what to do with ourselves until it returns in August…
by Esther Lim
Antonio Pompa-Baldi and Yasuo Shinozaki performed with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra on 27 June 2013 at City Hall, Cape Town.