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Sunday, September 18, 2011


Bobby Mitchell

Young American pianist turns out to be a brilliant performer with a hyperactive keyboard style. (Review by Michael Green)

For the first concert of its eight-week spring season the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra presented a programme ranging from the very familiar to the totally unfamiliar.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B flat minor is probably the best known big work in the entire repertory of classical music, and its presence on the programme no doubt helped to ensure a reasonable attendance at this concert. The totally unfamiliar was a piece by the South African-born composer John Simon, called Fanfares for Tristan. It was in fact the world premiere of this composition.

John Simon was born in Cape Town 67 years ago. He left South Africa as a young man and spent 15 years in Britain before returning here and becoming, among other things, a lecturer in music at the University of KZN. He returned to Britain five years ago and now lives there permanently. He is a prolific composer, having produced two piano concertos, a violin concerto, a symphony and a substantial amount of orchestral, vocal and chamber music. The Fanfares for Tristan is a “Fantasy-Portrait” depicting the Celtic warrior whose romance with Isolde inspired one of the greatest of Wagner’s operas.

Skilfully scored for a full orchestra, John Simon’s work runs for about 15 minutes and has five sections. An imposing passage for the brass instruments announces the “warrior-hero”, and this is followed by some humour, then a reverie with the woodwind prominent, then a romantic interlude and then Tristan’s death.

I found the work attractive and intriguing, and so apparently did the audience. The composer, who was present, was given enthusiastic applause at the end.

The Russian-American conductor Victor Yampolsky was due to take charge at this concert, but recovery from an operation prevented him from coming here, and the orchestra’s resident conductor, Lykele Temmingh, filled the gap at short notice, assuming the responsibility calmly and effectively.

The soloist in the Tchaikovsky concerto was a young American pianist, Bobby Mitchell. He turned out to be a brilliant performer with a hyperactive keyboard style, hands flying and occasionally feet as well. “Do you think he’s on steroids?” somebody asked me afterwards, a remark intended and accepted in jest, I hasten to add. He certainly brought a different dimension to this well-loved and magnificent concerto, and he was given an ovation by the audience.

The programme was completed with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 1, Winter Daydreams, not as well known as some of the other five symphonies but one of the composer’s best works, I think, with a slow movement that is as lovely as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The orchestra was in splendid form in this long continuous flow of melody.

The popular pre-concert lectures and discussions have been resumed. I will be speaking next Thursday about the music of Falla¸ Weber and Brahms/Schoenberg, and there will be a brief interview with the soloist, the Spanish clarinettist Maximiliano Martin. Royal Hotel at 18h15. The charge of R30 includes sandwiches, tea and coffee. - Michael Green