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Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Memorable moments from Ian Holloway, Sorin Osorhean and Vessela Minkova. (Review by Michael Green)

The occasional Sunday Sinfonia concerts in St. Thomas’s Church, Musgrave Road, Berea, are arranged by the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra and usually offer chamber music performed by players from the orchestra.

This latest concert gave two big works, one famous, the other virtually unknown. Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20, was enormously popular in his day and is still featured regularly on programmes of chamber music; the last time in Durban was only six months ago, when it was played for the Friends of Music. It is a six-movement, 40-minute work for seven instruments: four strings plus clarinet, bassoon and horn. It is cheerful, ingenious, melodious and delightful to listen to, from beginning to end.

The performers in the Sinfonia concert were three young visiting musicians from the United States, Angelia Cho (violin), Joanna Marie Frankel (viola) and Caitlin Sullivan (cello), and four players from the KZNPO, Simon Milliken (double bass), Ian Holloway (clarinet), Sorin Osorhean (horn) and Vessela Minkova (bassoon). All played with great skill and obvious enjoyment. The string players were prominent throughout the proceedings, and memorable moments were provided by Ian Holloway’s clarinet in the lovely second movement, by Sorin Osorhean (horn) in the humorous minuet and by Vessela Minkova (bassoon) in the fourth movement, a set of variations.

This is a wonderfully good-humoured work and it left the audience in a good humour, too.

Earlier the same players, with one change and two additions - Brendon Caldwell (viola), Alison Lowell (oboe) and Sabine Baird (flute) - gave what may well have been the first performance in South Africa of George Onslow’s Nonet, Op. 77.

George Onslow is one of the curiosities of musical history. He was born (in 1784) and died (in 1853) in Clermont-Ferrand, in central France. His father was an English aristocrat, his mother was French. He was educated in London but to all intents and purposes he was French, and very famous in his time; his admirers called him the French Beethoven, and Schumann and Mendelssohn had a high opinion of his chamber music (36 string quartets, 34 quintets, 10 trios and much more).

Alas, fame can be ephemeral. Today Onslow is almost forgotten, but there have been attempts in recent years to revive his music. The Nonet (nine instruments) performed at the Sinfonia concert turned out to be a splendid, large-scale work, quite advanced for its time. The four movements are energetic, lyrical, elegant and tuneful, and the balance of the instruments is expert. At times, the nine players achieved almost orchestral effects, and one wondered whether this group should not consider making a recording of this work.

George Onslow may have been treated unfairly by history, but at least he was very lucky in one respect. He is surely the only composer to have been shot in the head and survived. When he was out hunting at the age of 45, a stray bullet grazed his scalp and left him partly deaf in one ear. - Michael Green