The programme for the penultimate concert of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra’s Spring Season was heavy with promise, not only for its great selection of works, but for the opportunity to hear and experience the two featured artists of the evening.
Conductor Theodore Kuchar and pianist Charl du Plessis have each attained celebrity status for their respective achievements. Kuchar is one of the most prolifically recorded conductors of the past decade with his name appearing on over 100 compact discs by leading labels like Naxos, Brilliant Classics and Ondine. He has conducted and collaborated with numerous orchestras and superstar artists the world over, including the reputable Berlin Symphony Orchestra and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as artists like Yo-Yo Ma, James Galway and Joshua Bell.
South African-born pianist Charl du Plessis also oozes star appeal. Du Plessis has been named a Steinway artist and is especially known for his versatility as a pianist; being able to perform music ranging from baroque to pop and making his own interpretations of classical and jazz favourites accessible to a wider audience. In addition to the many accolades and awards he has won, the latest CD by the Charl du Plessis Trio, Shanghai Brunch, won the KykNet Ghoema Award for Best Instrumental album in 2012, and was nominated for a SAMA award as the Best Classical and Instrumental album for 2012.
The audience was buzzing with excitement at the great privilege of having Kuchar conduct the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra on home ground. And Kuchar lived up to expectations as his fierce commitment, passion and discipline guided the evening’s performances, from Aaron Copland’s magical Appalachian Spring:Suite, to the concluding performance of three movements from Bedřich Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Homeland).
A magnificent rendition of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring:Suite ensured a rave opening to the evening. This concert suite first premiered in 1945 and offers a potpourri of sounds ranging from typically Western Americana, to images of folksy square dances with country fiddlers and hymn-like spiritual elements. It tells the story of a pioneer celebration in spring in the early part of the last century, around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills. And, while Copland was initially lambasted for his contribution to “populist American” music, this final in a trilogy of dance interpretations of the American frontier spirit has attained a status much higher than just an overtly patriotic morale booster.
The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra beautifully and convincingly captured this characteristic and strikingly diverse spirit of American music and in particular the American frontier spirit in their performance. Their playing was positively superb, from the slow and blooming sound palette of the first section to the robust final variations based on the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts.
As du Plessis walked on stage, it was clear that he had a great number of fans present in the City Hall that evening. And sure enough the audience thoroughly enjoyed the playful and racy Rhapsody in Blue of George Gershwin. Du Plessis’s brilliance, his excellent sense of timing and his gaudy demeanour was spot on for this showy composition that is quite ironically described as Gershwin’s first serious composition. And, as Kuchar walked from side to side on his podium, pointing at and engaging directly with orchestra members, it also became clear why he has been described as “…an exciting and talented conductor with a take-no-prisoner approach”.
Du Plessis’s own composition, Re-invention Suite no. 1, is a crossover arrangement of two classical works – the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 and a theme of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in a minor – with jazz and pop elements. The first movement, Mozart’s Shuffle Concerto, sees the famous Mozart theme reinterpreted to include drums and bass as well as a new rhythmic framework. The final movement, Grieg’s Gaga Romance, is a combination of a well-known Grieg theme together with Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’.
Du Plessis’s crossover arrangements have gained him immense popularity amongst the general public, and have made a number of classical and jazz favourites more accessible to a wider audience. Whether you are a fan of these crossover arrangements or whether you dismiss them as Richard-Clayderman-inspired-compositions-in-a-post-modernistic-style, they are certainly entertaining! The audience lapped up the performance, as enthralled by the orchestra as by du Plessis’s ability to switch easily and convincingly between classic, pop and jazz.
The concluding performance of the evening, three movements from Bedřich Smetana’s cycle of six tone poems Ma Vlast (My Homeland), was the final triumph of an evening of splendid music. Moving from the patriotic American frontier to Smetana’s Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) posed no problem for the enthusiastic orchestra under Kuchar’s experienced hand. In fact, Kuchar’s recording of this work with the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra (Brilliant Classics) has been described as “breathing the fresh air of the composer’s homeland”.
The audience sat spellbound as we listened to Smetana’s expression of his deeply felt Czech patriotism. We were overwhelmed by the grandeur of nature in his Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests. And the vigorous polka had us all fired up for The Moldau, a depiction of the Vltava River and Smetana’s most famous work, for which the orchestra gave an emotion-filled performance of this well-known sweeping string tune against the murmurs of the water on the riverbanks.
The final movement selected from Smetana’s Ma Vlast was Šárka. This lesser known movement tells the Central European folk tale about a maiden who vows to destruct the male species after having been spurned by her lover… a vow that is no doubt still taken by many a maiden today. However, two males that might just be saved from such womanly scorn are the two stars of this wonderful symphony concert; Kuchar with his stern command and Du Plessis with his surfer-blond hair.
Andra le Roux-Kemp
Charl du Plessis performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Theodore Kuchar at the City Hall, Cape Town on 23 August 2012.