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Saturday, October 30, 2021


 All three of the works had a feel of ‘triumph’ about them – but the most important triumph of the night was that of the musicians who are still here to delight us with their talents. (Review by Raymond Perrier)

Lovers Reunited

Music, they say, is for lovers. And Thursday night’s concert by the KZNPO at the Durban Playhouse was a celebration of love reunited. It was the first public concert by Durban’s world-class orchestra for 18 months: the joy on the faces of the musicians as they gathered on the Opera stage was evident.

It was thus the first time that we as an audience were reunited in a year and a half with an orchestra which is so dear to our hearts. Our love for them as an ensemble, and for the individual faces that we recognised, was like the excitement of reconnecting with an old amour. Who is that behind the mask? Petya? Boris? Myfanwy? Tshepo?

And if that was not enough, we were all being reunited with the sort of music that this orchestra does so well – big, chewy 19th century Romantic scores. Beethoven (1770-1827) and Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Ludwig and Felix.  Full throttle.

It would be tempting to focus on some practical questions. Why has it taken until Stage 1 for the orchestra to be playing again when unsubsidised arts organisations have worked hard to offer live performances for some time now? And why, when 50% capacity is allowed, was the vast 1,200 seater Playhouse Opera auditorium limited to only 250 places? Why were there so many faces missing from the orchestra? Were these excellent musicians so disillusioned by Durban or by their treatment during the pandemic that they have moved on, thus denying us the chance to enjoy their talents? And why was the orchestra only about two-thirds of its pre-COVID strength (fewer than 50 musicians on stage)?

But as I pondered those questions, I shut my eyes and let the music enfold me. And I was soon prepared to admit that the rich, dark chocolate sound of the KZNPO in full voice was still there and still as exciting as ever. While some credit goes to Justus Franz, the international conductor flown in for the occasion, the main credit must go to the musicians. The stalwarts who have survived, and have been able to stay committed to Durban, supplemented by some new faces who we hope will soon be as familiar to us as the ones who have left. All three of the works had a feel of ‘triumph’ about them – but the most important triumph of the night was that of the musicians who are still here to delight us with their talents.

The opening work was Beethoven’s ‘Coriolan’ overture (Op. 62 in C minor - 1807). I confess to being a little anxious when it began. It should start with strong, bold chords. Was the orchestra a bit hesitant? Did it take them a while to get in their stride? Were the strings as lush as we remember them (after all they were fewer in number)?  Who was really in control of the pace?

I have one stylistic criticism – towards the end there are several sudden, marked pauses in the music: it felt as if they were treated by the conductor as mostly a chance to catch a breath. I see them more as significant ‘silent chords’ that are there to create a series of suspension bridges from one note to another. But the overall performance was certainly competent and acted as an appropriate entrée for the main dishes to follow.

The fish course was Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, superbly executed by the Korean-born Ye-Eun Choi (Op. 64 in E minor – 1839/44). There was no doubt here who was in command of the pace – it was her – and she led the orchestra and the conductor on a roller-coaster of emotions. In the 1st movement she was wrestling with her instrument: the two locked in an intense combat to gain control of the melody brought to a head in the frenzied cadenza; in the 2nd they were engaged in a deeply sensuous seduction as they jointly produced the familiar motif (so familiar that Andrew Lloyd Webber was ‘inspired’ by it); by the 3rd the violinist and violin were engaged in a playful dance, chasing each other round the other instruments in a game of hide and seek.

Watching her face as she performed, we could see the intensity of her passion and concentration but also the sheer pleasure she gained from delivering such a sublime non-stop performance with so many, many notes! The grace of her performance was further enhanced by the fact that, when she finished, before bowing for the audience’s well-deserved adulation, Ms Choi first turned and thanked the orchestra. A worthy gesture. Whether it was the sustained bassoon notes that linked the 1st and 2nd movements, the give-and-take of the fast-paced sections, or the restrained echo behind the love song, she was acknowledging their craftsmanship.

I hope it is not inappropriate to comment favourably on her choice of dress – a slim, shimmering silver one-piece. It further enhanced the image of her rising as a cloud above the black sea of the musicians. The black dress code of a Symphonic orchestra is there to make sure that we are never distracted by the outfits of any one member; it is a uniform so they look uniform. But that goes for styles as well as colour: so flounce in some of the women’s dresses does not enhance the performance nor do a few shoes looking dangerously like trainers. And there is no excuse ever for a conductor, no matter how renowned, to wear a dark blue tail coat.

For the meat course, we were back to Beethoven, and there is nothing beefier than his 5th Symphony (Op. 67 in C minor – 1804-08). It starts with four of the most famous notes in the Classical repertoire – the dot-dot-dot-dash that became Samuel Morse’s code for the letter V. And this time there was no hesitation from the orchestra. The train pulled out decisively from the station clear about its destination. The (train) conductor kept it on the rails and at the right pace throughout, never letting this huge locomotive run away from him but never under-leveraging its power and drive. I especially enjoyed the stately march of the 2nd movement; and relished the big-bottomed sound of the fanfares in the 4th when bass trombone and contra-bassoon give the work the pomp and power that it needs as it hurtles towards a triumphant conclusion.

A few broader comments. I was struck by an interesting coincidence of ages. All three pieces were written by the composers when they were in their 30s (respectively, aged 37, 30 and 34) and the soloist is herself 32. We claim that now is an era dominated by the youth but clearly so was early 19th century Germany. But I could not help wondering what music written by 30-sometings today will still be played in 220 years’ time…. 

I was also struck by the mix of the audience. It seemed to be much younger on average, and less relentlessly white, than KZNPO audiences of the past. There were clearly groups of young professionals who were enjoying the sound and sight of a full concert orchestra no less than the oldies. Let us hope that that continues. I suspect that this was also because some of the older loyalists are not yet keen to venture into the city centre after dark – post-COVID and post-riots. Given that, let us hope that the management quickly reinstate the open dress rehearsal on the morning of the concert to make this wonderful music accessible to more people.

The audience that were there were clearly the most committed and the ones most eager to re-engage with the KZNPO. That meant that for the most part the audience were no less disciplined in their behaviour than the musicians, and rightly so. If anything, they were too disciplined – twice I felt that there was an urge for a standing ovation and yet perhaps we worried that such exuberance was not COVID-compliant! It was, however inexcusable that six members of the audience were allowed to walk in after the beginning of the Symphony, in full view of most of the auditorium, to take up their very prominent seats, even if (especially if) they are well connected.

At the beginning of the concert, a Board member, Dr Dirk Pretorius, stood up to welcome the audience back after such a long absence. He spoke, rightly, of the importance of the creative industries to the South African economy, something that politicians including the hapless Minister, have failed to honour other than with lip service. He made the point that the strength of the KZNPO is in the musicians themselves. Again, let us hope that this is not just lip service. The regular musicians have had to survive (and will have to continue to survive for some months yet) on two-thirds of the pre-COVID salaries (which were hardly elevated to begin with). Of course, budgets have been cut. But let us hope that the Board has the fairness and courage to ensure that the money that is available is used on the people who create the music and not on indulgences, expenses, flights and administration. If it is only the musicians who have to make financial sacrifices for the KZNPO, there may soon be no orchestra to be the pride of Durban.

The final concert of the Special Spring Symphony Concerts season will take place next Thursday, November 4, 2021, at 19h30 in the Playhouse Opera. Tickets booked through Quicket. – Raymond Perrier


To link direct to the KZN Philharmonic’s website click on the orchestra’s banner advert on the top right of the page or visit