Praise for Joanne's performances

Thrilling performance
18 Nov 2010
Mary-Ann Hartley

LAST Thursday evening, conductor Alex Fokkens made his debut with the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra in blistering style. Bursting onto the stage with coat-tails flying, he brought with him an energy and passion which set the tone for an evening of flawless performances by all involved.

Fokkens’s musical pedigree is impressive, including stints as guest conductor to the Black Tie Ensemble, the JMI Orchestra, the Greater Dallas Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of South Africa, the Cape Town Opera, the Grinell (IA) Symphony Orchestra and the UCT Symphony Orchestra.

He holds a masters degree in double-bass playing from Fort Worth in Texas and is currently based in Cape Town where he freelances as a conductor and double-bass player. He is also the music director of the Symphony Choir of Cape Town and resident conductor of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra. I think it is safe to say that he gives a great deal of time and energy to music in South Africa.

The programme opened with the familiar and much-loved overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. There’s nothing like a good trailer to let you know what’s coming up, and this overture is no exception. It contains romantic rhythms and jaunty melodies, with a scoring that hints at mistaken identities, a gala ball and humorous plot twists to come — and the orchestra, under Fokkens’s dynamic and sure direction, provided the perfect start to what proved to be an exciting and varied programme.

In sharp contrast, Bach’s Largo from the Double Violin Concerto was moving in its elegance and grace. Soloists Ralitza Cherneva and Refiloe Olifant achieved a perfect balance in a piece hailed as the most loved slow movement of Bach’s entire concerto repertoire.

Sustaining the mood of elegance and grace, visiting British clarinetist, Joanne Rosario, delivered a flawless performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra in E-Flat. A consummate professional, Rosario is always at one with her instrument and the music she’s performing and consequently a delight to watch and listen to.

Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, as the title suggests, celebrates the expansion of the Russian Empire eastward during the reign of Alexander II of Russia. An Eastern theme could be heard on the French horn (usually the English horn), and was preceded by a Russian theme and a travelling theme.

This piece brought back a more robust mood to the evening and provided a perfect bridge to Sibelius’s Finlandia, a monument to Finnish nationalism. Fokkens drew from the orchestra a rousing performance with particularly strong moments from brass and percussion to whom this piece provides opportunities to shine. There were also lovely dialogues between flute, brass and percussion.

It was fitting that Borodin was followed after interval by Wagner about whose music he once said: “Nothing in the world has made such an impression on me: it moves the very strings of my heart.”

The Prelude to act three of Lohengrin conveys the tempestuous and all-encompassing nature of love and ends with the well-known strains of the Wedding March. Again the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra had their moments in the sun, but the entire orchestra also gave an outstanding and spirited performance.

A highlight of the evening was Piano virtuoso, Christopher Duigan’s performance of Dimitri Shostoko-vich’s Piano Concerto No 2. Most of it would have been unfamiliar to the audience, except perhaps for the recognisable excerpts from Disney’s film Fantasia. It’s a composition of contrasting moods with a soulful second movement where only piano, strings and a single horn exchange lyrical lines. This concerto perfectly showcased Duigan’s technical brilliance in a thrilling performance which drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The programme ended with the conductor’s choice of favourite pieces from Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most loved operas of all time.

It’s hard to believe it was a failure when it premiered in 1875, and that its failure probably contributed to the illness which led to the composer’s death three months later at the age of 36.

Fokkens chose well, ending his selection with the much-loved Habanera and March of the Toreadors.

The cherry on the top was the encore — Strauss’s Tritsch Tratsch Polka, which really showed Fokkens’s ability to work his particular brand of magic with the orchestra, which rose to the occasion in a scintillating end to the evening.

Hats off to everyone involved, for an unforgettable concert, which will go down as one of the best to grace the Pietermaritzburg City Hall stage. — Mary-Ann Hartley.