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Tuesday, April 7, 2015


(Aubrey Lodewyk, who gave a thrilling performance)

A rousing Resurrection. (Review by Raymond Perrier)

I have only been living in Durban for eight weeks but I confess that I have already fallen in love and already been jilted. The KZN Philharmonic’s six-week Summer Season meant that every Thursday evening I had a weekly date that I could look forward to. From Mozart to Schubert to Stravinsky they never failed to disappoint and when the six Thursdays came to an end I was bereft.

But like any attentive lover they did not abandon me completely and instead my Easter weekend was crowned by their performance of Messiah on Easter Sunday afternoon. I confess that I was worried.  They had excelled at big beefy music – their three increasingly generous offerings of Beethoven showed they could deliver the T-bone steak of the repertoire. So I was bit anxious about how they would deliver on the lightness and subtlety of Messiah – for though the roustabout Hallelujah! chorus is the most well-known part, the majority of the work with both soloists and choir is nuanced and subtle.

I should have had no fear. They trimmed down – at 30 they were less than half their usual size – and added a harpsichord (Andrew Warburton) for some Baroque texture. This was not one of those ultra-fat-free ‘Age of Enlightenment’ no-instruments-less-than-200-years-old performances, but their semi-skimmed tone was exactly what was needed to support the magnificent Playhouse Company Chorale.

The singers, assembled I assume just for this performance, were the stars of the afternoon. From the moment they began with the crisp opening of And the Glory, the Glory of the Lord…, it was clear that here was a group that could articulate the words, the notes and the layers of Handel’s masterpiece.  They gave us hopeful expectation in the Nativity choruses (For unto us a child is born), brooding menace in the Passion (And with his stripes) and joyful exuberance in the Resurrection and Triumph (Great was the Company). Despite numbering almost 80 people they were able to move nimbly as a group - as was shown in the contrasting textures they employed in Since by one man.  Watching the interaction between them and the conductor, Naum Rousine, was one of the extra delights of being able to see Messiah and not just hear it.

However, this was not the only visual aspect of the afternoon: because the chorus and the soloists were expected to perform not only as singers but also as actors. I have seen some exceptionally successful ways of turning a musical piece into a visual performance: Jonathan Miller’s Passion of St Matthew and the English National Opera’s staging of Messiah both stand out.

Ralph Lawson as director was not aiming for anything on that scale, rather just a few indicators through costumes, lights and gestures. This is always tricky and what makes the music more accessible for some will inevitably be a turn-off for others. Sometimes the hand gestures of the chorus and soloists seemed exactly right and natural, but sometimes they felt stilted and staged (which, after all, they were). If you gaze into the middle distance for too long it begins to make people uncomfortable. The costumes were equally mixed in their impact. I loved the rich satin colours of the Chorale during the Nativity scenes, and the blacks and dark blues for the Passion. But then they surely had to change into white for the Resurrection and the Last Judgement. And I was left wondering why the women were in ball gowns but the men not in tail coats, and what on earth was going on with the ‘blackamoor’ outfits at the opening (especially when they then became shepherds dressed as Georgian valets).

What the staging did do was create the unusual situation of having the soloists singing from behind the orchestra and not up front. This was just one way in which the soloists, alongside such an extraordinary orchestra and an exceptionally good choir, had a hard job to do.  But 3 out of 4 did so commendably. I would happily grant a merit to the two women, a distinction to the baritone but a ‘could do better’ to the tenor. The latter has to set the ball rolling with the opening recitative; but ‘rolling’ was exactly what was lacking in July Zuma’s performance. I wanted round tones so that his Comfort ye would wrap me in the reassurances of the Isaiah. But instead I was left feeling distinctly uncomfortable as he reached up for the higher notes – instead of swooping down to them. Perhaps in any other production he would have been fine but in this company he was unfortunately the weakest link in what was a very strong chain.

The two women were brilliant contrasts – in tone, in colour (of voice and skin), in build and in style.  From the beginning I loved the slight gravel of Violina Anguelov’s Behold, a virgin shall conceive; she then came into her own with the menace of He was despisèd.  On other hand, Khumbuzile Dhlamini (clearly a local favourite) managed to invest her arias with air and light and yet still be as substantial as the words demanded.  Her rendering of How beautiful are the feet of him is still ringing in my ears.

But my first prize – and, judging from their ovation, the audience agrees with me – goes to the baritone, Aubrey Lodewyk. Many of his pieces have to leap from low to high and from consolation to desolation: darkness and light (The people that walkèd), death and life (Behold I tell you a mystery), defeat and victory (The trumpet shall sound).  Each time he gave us a thrilling performance and clearly enjoyed every moment of it.

The latter aria was one that I hold dear not just because I sing it in the shower (to a somewhat lower standard!) but also because I want it played as my coffin leaves the church at some point in the distant future. For me it is a perfect musical expression of my own belief in the Resurrection. Watching Aubrey’s performance of it, I was struck by the sense that the baritone also actually believed what he was singing: the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised. In fact, I hope it is not too fanciful to suggest that here was a company of singers and musicians most of whom believed in what they were presenting.

I would contrast that with the many well-rehearsed, technically precise, professional performances of Messiah I have seen in Britain in which believers, let alone committed Christians, would be by far the exception.

Messiah is a curious piece since it is wholly religious yet not written for and not generally performed in churches (in contrast, say, to Bach’s near-contemporary settings of the Passion). For Durban the Easter Messiah is not just a musical event, it is also a civic event – though shamefully many of the civic leaders failed to use their complimentary seats and left a gap in the centre of the auditorium. But more than that, it is clearly a religious event. The belief in the content of the piece was, I felt, shared by most of the audience no less than those attending The Passion Play being performed upstairs in the Drama Theatre.

As I was leaving, buoyed along by the closing ‘Amen’, an elderly lady caught my eye.  She wanted to share, I thought, some insight on the performance, but instead squeezed my hand and said ‘Jesus is alive’.  I had come from reflecting on that message during the five church services I had attended in the previous 72 hours. And the message was no less heartfelt in the velvet foyer of the Playhouse than in the wooden pews of the Cathedral.  – Raymond Perrier