Review: CPO Summer Music Festival with Joanna MacGregor

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Joanna MacGregorArjan Tien’s mellifluous three-concert stint with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra came to an end with a programme of 20th century Russian compositions. While their Summer Festival is not at an end yet, this Russian invasion may well have been the high point.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite opened the programme. Shortly after the composer’s return to Russia from 16 years in exile, he was commissioned to compose the score to a film based on the satirical tale of Lieutenant Kijé, a fictitious character born out of a clerical error. As an orchestral suite sans film, Prokofiev’s music still narrates the story successfully.

With all the double basses together on the right side of the stage for the first time this season, Maestro Tien led the euphonious CPO in a joyful symphonic retelling of this fantastical tale. In five movements the mythical figure is born, sings a song, marries, dies in battle, and is buried. Bridget Wilson’s outstanding piccolo playing made for an uncanny facsimile of the military fife, while David Thompson’s offstage trumpeting convinced as a bugle call. Much of the shenanigans of the inventors of Kijé was played whimsically by John Rojas on his tenor sax.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his second piano concerto as a graduation piece for his son Maxim. The many in-jokes and characteristic Shostakovich humour make for an eclectic listening experience. Joanna MacGregor, with her playful body language and mischievous glances at the conductor, proved to be the ideal interpreter.

It was delightful to see how every musician on stage revelled in the music of the first movement, playing with it as if they were toddlers in a sandpit (without the fighting and crying).

In contrast to the jocular opening, the second movement is a romantic daydream that bears some resemblance to Rachmaninov. MacGregor’s elegant legato phrasing gave an airy quality to the beautiful melody, her playing at once simple and heart-rending.

The third movement sticks its tongue out at the audience again. MacGregor and the orchestra showed great rhythmic accuracy throughout Shostakovich’s mock technical exercises and 7/8 time passages.

Following a long and well-deserved standing ovation, MacGregor returned to play a suite of her own arrangements of Astor Piazzolla tangos. Her ‘Milonga del angel’ was sensitive and passionate, brimming with barely contained lust. She segued immediately into ‘Libertango’, hammering on a muted bass string before unleashing the burning desire that had been developing.

The second half of the programme kept up the excitement that was buzzing around the City Hall. The CPO was really on fire for Stravinsky’s challenging Firebird. They performed the complete ballet music, instead of one of the more usual orchestral suites.

Stravinsky’s inventive score is widely regarded as the definitive manual for film scoring. With eyes closed, one could imagine a film being played out by Maestro Tien and the orchestra.

The most famous section, the Infernal Dance, was spine-tinglingly satisfying – its dramatic orchestral hits executed with pinpoint accuracy. The dramatic buildup exposed signs of fatigue from an exhausted orchestra, but overall their performance was nothing short of spectacular.

The CPO have set a very high standard of musicianship at this concert, and with 3 more symphony seasons to look forward to, they are sure to reach even loftier peaks later this year.

Rudolph Maré

The CPO Summer Music Festival Concert with Joanna MacGregor took place at the City Hall on 2 February 2017.

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