The Stellenbosch University Symphony Orchestra kicked off their 2012 season under the auspices of the Woordfees festival with an atypical programme full of French flair. The evening literally started with a big bang as the orchestra broke the silence in the Endler Hall with the opening fanfare of Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld.
The orchestra’s energy was electrifying and the audience was taken on a roller coaster ride of sweet melody, merry string tunes and general magnificence. The contrast between the hearty cheer and the airy intimacy of this treasured piece was conveyed effortlessly and flawlessly, and no encouragement was needed for the orchestra to go full blast with the noisy can-can finale. At times, the conductor, Corvin Matei, had to pull back the reins as the orchestra revelled in its conquering of Offenbach and won over the audience.
After this exhilarating performance Peter Martens, the soloist in the Henri Vieuxtemps Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No 1 in A minor Op 46, had his work cut out for him. Having been a virtuoso violinist himself, Vieuxtemps is probably best known for his seven violin concertos, yet this Belgian composer – a contemporary of Schumann and Berlioz – has undeservedly been left out of standard repertoire and hence it is sadly rare to hear a performance of his works.
The splendid Vieuxtemps Cello Concerto is perhaps one of his best-kept secrets, and Saturday’s performance by Peter Martens will most certainly be hailed as one of the best performances of the 2012 Woordfees festival. Martens’ hands and fingers explored the high and low registers of his instrument, darting over the cello with unbelievable ease as he played intricate passages that were more reminiscent of virtuoso violin playing than one would ever expect from a cello composition. The audience sat mesmerised throughout and held its collective breath during the demanding cadenza at the end of the first movement.
After the interval, the programme promised yet another curious treat and the audience buzzed with excitement as everybody settled for the final performance of the evening: the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony no 3 in C minor. Despite its name, this work is not so much a concerto for orchestra and organ, as an orchestral piece with the organ really only used to colour the conversation and provide harmonic support for transitional sections.
However, organist Mario Nell did not disappoint. Nor did the Stellenbosch University Symphony Orchestra. True to this work’s reputation, they left us breathless in its wake. In the first movement, which incorporates the traditional sonata-form first movement as well as the slow movement, the orchestra showed relentless energy, complemented by the organ, to capture the victorious and restless mood of the composition.
But was that it? Were those subtle peeps from the organ all that we were going to hear from the legendary Marcussen organ? Thankfully no. In the final Maestoso part of the second movement the immense power of the organ erupted in a volcano of sounds, an ecstatic ensemble between orchestra and organ. Evidently Mario Nell enjoyed the big chord-fests, almost blowing us out of the hall as he put his foot down to produce those chords with utmost conviction and pomp.
Of this final majestic movement Saint-Saëns himself said that he had given everything that he could give and what he had done he would never be able to do again. The Stellenbosch University Symphony Orchestra certainly set the bar high with their first performance for the 2012 season. Will they be able to do it again? I hope so, because it was nothing short of stupendous.
Andra le Roux-Kemp
The Stellenbosch University Symphony Orchestra gave their first performance for the year in the Endler Hall of the Stellenbosch Conservatorium on 2 and 3 March 2012.
If you liked this review, read our review of Mirjam Contzen at Endler Hall.