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Review: CPO with Michael Thornton

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Michael ThorntonThe Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra ended its spring symphony season with a very big bang. The two works for large orchestra on either end of the programme were spectacularly loud. Daniel Boico, however, firmly dispelled any notion that volume must come at the cost of musicality.

The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s one act ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, was banned shortly after its première, but continued to be performed as an orchestral suite.

The story tells of a prostitute who is forced to stand by a window and lure men into a room, where three ruffians rob them of their possessions. A Mandarin walks by and is aroused. He is lured in, and attempts to force himself on her. The wealthy Chinese man is stabbed, and starts to glow. Terrified, the girl allows the Mandarin to have his way with her. The glowing stops, and he bleeds to death.

Bartók’s orchestration is phenomenal. A dazzling variety of sound effects and tonal colours help to bring the story alive.

Daniel Boico’s energetic control of the orchestra through a myriad of complex rhythms and frequent tempo changes kept the audience spellbound. During the out-of-breath finale, the violins, who were not numerous enough, were outmatched by the extra forces around them. This did no harm to the shocked excitement of the audience, though.

The first horn concert by Richard Strauss was an odd choice to include in a programme of 20th century works. It may have worked better as a curtain raiser, but proved to be an anticlimax after the Bartók. This juvenile work, composed for his father in the style of Mozart, required only about half of the orchestra. The more typically-Strauss second horn concerto may have been more suitable.

Nonetheless American horn guru, Michael Thornton, gave a masterclass in horn playing. There were a few fluffed notes though, proving how elusive perfection is on this precarious instrument. An enthusiastic sitting ovation followed.

The big bang from the opening number was nothing compared to the cataclysmic din of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Thornton joined the orchestra to augment the horn section. He was clearly keen not to miss out on any fun.

The seven movements correspond to the planets, excluding Pluto (not a planet then or now) and Earth. The first movement, entitled ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, was undoubtedly a major inspiration for John Williams’ Star Wars score. The mighty brass section contributed greatly to the cinematic largesse that courted early applause from a few excited audience members. Boico made big dynamic contrasts between loud and soft, allowing the super loud passages to have even more impact.

The anthemic ‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’, contains a melody familiar to Rugby fans the world over as the Rugby World Cup song. While I’m generally unmoved by either the sport or the song, Boico’s rendition of the original gave me goosebumps.

‘Neptune, the Mystic’ conjures the ethereal vastness of the galaxy beyond our solar system, with two harps and a celesta. An optional offstage women’s chorus is called for in the score near the end of the movement, but an electronic keyboard was used instead. The cheesy canned sound was not an acceptable substitute for real voices.  It was the musical equivalent of fur on the dashboard of a luxury spaceship.

It has been a year of many memorable symphony concerts by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. They return to the City Hall in January for their mouthwatering 11th International Summer Music Festival.

Rudolph Maré
www.rudolphmare.com

The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra performed at Cape Town City Hall on 1 December 2016 as part of their Spring Symphony Season.

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