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Saturday, November 6, 2010



The spring season of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra was brought to a triumphant conclusion in the Durban City Hall with a programme of strong contrasts: a concerto that had probably never been heard before in full by anybody in the audience, and a symphony that is the best-known in the entire repertory.

The unknown quantity was Jacques Offenbach’s Concerto Militaire, his concerto in G major for cello and orchestra, which was written about 160 years ago but fell into obscurity, with much of the original score lost (parts of it were played occasionally). The missing bits and pieces were traced in various parts of Europe and the United States quite recently and the concerto was reassembled. The principal modern exponent of the work is the French cellist Jerome Pernoo, and it was he who played it in the Durban City Hall, with resounding success.

As its name suggest, the concerto has a crisp military flavour, but there are also many lyrical moments, especially in the beautiful slow movement. It is certainly tuneful, as one would expect from a composer who was a pioneer of the operetta type of music. It is a long work, running for about 45 minutes, but interest does not flag, mainly because of the extreme virtuoso role given to the soloist.

Jerome Pernoo was more than equal to the exceptional technical demands made on him. He is well known in Durban and two days earlier had scored a great success (with Jerome Ducros at the piano) in a recital devoted mainly to Beethoven and Brahms. The Offenbach work allowed him to give full rein to his pleasantly flamboyant personality. His enjoyment of the music and his commitment to it were obvious. He smiled with happiness, scowled with fierce concentration. He exulted in a long and very difficult cadenza written by himself. At one point, when he was not playing, he twirled his cello exuberantly. The result of all this was a totally captivating performance that had the audience on their feet at the end, with cries of Bravo.

He obliged with an encore, remarking to the audience that he played not only Offenbach but also Bach often. The encore was a movement from one of Bach’s sonatas for unaccompanied cello.

In all this, the orchestra played its role with enthusiasm and skill under the guidance of the splendid young Italian conductor Alessandro Crudele. However, the orchestra’s big moments came after the interval in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, a fitting choice to end the season.

As I mentioned in a pre-concert lecture, the opening notes are probably the most famous in all music, and the symphony’s great popularity may have obscured the fact that it is a supreme achievement in intellectual and emotional power. Alessandro Crudele and the orchestra gave a resonant performance. The transition from the sinister quiet of the third movement to the blaze of radiance in the finale was delivered with great effect, and Beethoven’s final salvo of massive chords was absolutely stunning. Recorded music is excellent, and essential to music-lovers, but it cannot quite equal a live performance like this one. - Michael Green