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Saturday, November 7, 2009


Ben Schoeman gives another display of pianistic pyrotechnics. (Review by Michael Green)

The young South African pianist Ben Schoeman, who earlier in the week had fascinated a Friends of Music audience with his virtuoso skills, gave another display of pianistic pyrotechnics when he appeared with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, playing Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini.

This set of 24 variations is a splendid work, written in 1934 and first performed by the composer himself in Baltimore, U.S.A. The theme, from Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice for violin, has had an irresistible attraction for many composers. Liszt, Brahms and Lutoslawski are among those who have made use of it. It is a brief and flexible kind of melody, well suited to variation treatment.

Rachmaninov’s rhapsody is an extremely difficult work for the pianist, and it was played with extreme brilliance by Ben Schoeman. His rapid hand movements and fingerwork were wonderful to behold and hear, and in the most famous variation of all, the eighteenth, he played with a beautifully sweet and clear tone. This is the tune that everybody knows. Not everybody knows that it is an inversion of the main theme, which is turned upside down, so to speak.

At the end Ben Schoeman was given a foot-stamping ovation by the good-sized audience, and he responded with an attractive encore, Romance by Jean Sibelius.

The orchestra played under the baton of a visiting young Dutch conductor, Vincent de Kort, and they shared the success of the Rachmaninov work.

The concert opened with the well-known Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus suite. Thinking about this music in the abstract, I find it a bit too ingratiating and syrupy. Hearing it played by our 70-piece orchestra under a good conductor was a different experience. The music sounded emotional and grand, and it certainly aroused much enthusiasm in the audience.

Vincent de Kort is a fairly restrained type of conductor, using flowing, graceful gestures rather than violent energy to obtain the results he wants. He and the orchestra achieved another success in the second half with excerpts from Prokofiev’s outstanding Romeo and Juliet suites. - Michael Green