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KZNPO CONCERT: 28 OCTOBER, 2004 (article first published : 2004-10-29)

A contemporary and locally written work, Concert Overture by John Simon, opened a varied programme by the KZN Philharmonic on October 28.

John Simon lectures at the music school of the University of KZN, and he is an experienced composer who has achieved recognition in South Africa and Britain, his homeland. His Concert Overture, also known as Late Gothic Overture, is the last movement of a symphony, reorganised as an independent concert piece. According to the programme note it was inspired by the haunted world of the Gothic twilight as represented by painters such ar Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grunewald.

To be honest, I did not detect much Gothic twilight in the music, except for the dark and mysterious opening, but aside from programmes it stands on its own as an attractive and imposing composition. Running for about ten minutes, it is vividly and skilfully orchestrated, with plenty of melodic and rhythmic ideas, loosely linked; the work is rhapsodic in character rather than symphonic, I think.

It is accessible modern music, and the audience gave it a good reception, acknowledged by the composer from his seat in the Durban City Hall three rows ahead of me.

Aram Khachaturian, the Armenian, was a notable composer in the old Soviet Union but not one in the rank of Prokofiev or Shostakovich. His music is colourful and catchy rather than deeply stirring, and his Piano Concerto in D flat is a good example. The brilliant Italian pianist Carlo Guaitoli gave a performance to be remembered and was rewarded with a foot-stamping ovation at the end. Khachaturian was an effects man, to use the language of the film industry, never more so than in the eloquent slow movement of this concerto, when he used an extraordinary percussion instrument called a flexatone to produce the sound of a singing saw, an ordinary saw held between the player’s knees and played with a violin bow, with the player’s left hand bending the saw to vary the pitch. Guaitoli and the conductor, Kris Russman from Britain, showed total commitment throughout the concerto.

After the interval came the familiar, sad and magnificent strains of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, first performed only a week before his death in 1893 at the age of 53. Here Kris Russman’s vigorous and expressive conducting technique drew a splendid response from the orchestra. The symphony is by no means all pathos. The first movement contains one of the great melodies of symphonic literature (transposed about 60 years later into a popular song called “This is the story of a starry night”) and the third movement is a blaze of orchestral virtuosity. It is, however, the final Adagio lamentoso that leaves the imprint on mind and soul, and this was the memory that the audience happily and sadly took home at the end of an outstanding concert. - Michael Green




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