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Review: Celebrity Symphony Concert With Santiago Cañón Valencia & Bernhard Gueller

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A 5-piece drum set and an electric guitar hooked up to an amp: such a setup on the stage alongside a row of woodwinds, brasses, horns, and a double bass promised – at the very least – something quite unconventional.  Sure enough 18-year-old cellist Santiago Cañón Valencia took the stage to perform an eclectic piece by equally eccentric composer Friedrich Gulda.  The ‘Cello Concerto’ kept us grinning (if perhaps somewhat stupefied) as we heard snatches of jazz, polka, rock, and maybe even mariachi between a minuet here and a cadenza there, the dynamism of it all spearheaded by a very focused Valencia.

Santiago Cañón Valencia is a rising virtuoso cellist who hails from Colombia.  His musical gifting has already gained him a wealth of top prizes at major international competitions, including the 2010 Beijing International Cello Competition in China and the 2011 Johansen International String Competition in Washington, D.C.  Having performed his first concerto at age 6 with the Bogotá Philharmonic, he is now known for his appearances with numerous orchestras around the world and is certainly a figure to watch in the coming years.

From the opening notes of the ‘Overture’ movement, Valencia’s musicality commanded attention.  To be sure, this was aided by a toe-tapping contemporary groove which made James Bond impressions with its big band sound, curiously inlaid with the occasional mellow baroque refrain.  The cello played in the background like a one-man string section in the ‘Idyll’, and here it was clear that Valencia – despite his young age – was leading the pack on his own terms.  The third movement featured a lengthy unaccompanied solo, taking us through a tour de force of the cello between the jollity of a romantic cadenza to the haunting turbulence of an erratic avant-garde segment, complete with a stomp of the foot by the soloist.  In the ‘Minuet’, other instruments joined in layers through a repeated dance cadence until a full sound emerged to prepare us for the coming finale: a boisterous marching band ending with the cello sounding almost like a fiddle in the exhilarating din of bangs and whistles and flourishes.

The evening had begun on a much more conventional note, though certainly with some drama of its own.  Once again under the baton of the emphatic Bernhard Gueller, the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra played the overture to Edouard Lalo’s opera Le Roi d’Ys.  The oboe, in dulcet tones, unfolded the story of a quiet town called Ys and a princess in love, unfortunately with the man engaged to her sister.  Between the trumpet fanfares and the sweeping strings to denote the intensifying plot (that ends with the tragic destruction-by-flood of an entire city – brownie points to Shakespeare for his theory on “a woman scorned”), the piece had Gueller literally hopping on the podium.  It also featured a reflective cello theme in the middle which, in retrospect, proved to be good segue into the afore-mentioned Gulda concerto. 

In comparison, the evening’s final piece – Schubert’s ‘Symphony No.9 in C Major’ – lacked the same kind of energy.  To be fair, it was hardly a surprise as the other two pieces required a substantial degree of vigour that would have been difficult to maintain.  I also have nothing but admiration for the Cape Philharmonic members who at this point were performing in their third full-programme concert in seven days.  Barring the occasional sluggishness, the orchestra bravely trekked on through the ‘Great C Major Symphony’ to give a grandiose performance of what is considered to be one of Schubert’s finest orchestral compositions.

All in all, it was a night of engaging music all around.  But the most generous applause, by far, was conferred to Santiago Valencia Cañón’s hearty performance of the Gulda concerto – an intriguing piece which still has me thinking. 

by Esther Lim

Bernhard Gueller and Santiago Cañón Valencia performed with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra on 13 June 2013 at City Hall, Cape Town.

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