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KZNPO CONCERT: FEBRUARY 9 (article first published : 2006-02-10)

This was a gala occasion: the first concert of the year, the tenth anniversary of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra’s World Symphony Series, two distinguished soloists from Europe and, most important of all, the first public performance on the new R1 million Steinway grand piano.

The concert drew a full house, 1,600 people, to the Durban City Hall. There were speeches, all of them sensible and concise, I thought, and a literal unveiling of the new piano, which was brought on to the stage swathed in a gold drape. The person who donated the piano remains anonymous, at his or her request.

The honour of being the first soloist to play the new piano fell to Florian Uhlig, a 30-year-old German who has lived in London for the past 10 years and who has visited Durban twice before. He played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor. Thus was the new instrument inaugurated with a great virtuoso concerto played by a young lion of the keyboard.

Florian Uhlig is a pianist of the first rank, combining a stunning technique with a true artist’s insight into the poetry of the music. His task was not, I think, made easier by the newness of the piano. It has a beautiful, accurate, rounded tone, but some people in the audience thought it was rather soft. I am not sure about this, but there was consensus among the many experts present that a new piano, like a new car, needs a running-in period before producing its best performance.

Be that as it may, the piano is a wonderful asset for Durban and this first performance was saluted with an ovation from the audience. In response, Florian Uhlig played an intriguingly dissonant and brilliant version of a Chopin waltz, a Leopold Godowsy arrangement of the waltz arranged further by Florian himself.

The other soloist of the evening, the 20-year-old Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, was in no way overshadowed by the heroics at the piano. She played, with the orchestra, a rarely heard four-movement work, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, in which the late romantic German composer turns to traditional Scottish songs for his material.

It is a very attractive work, and Simone Lamsma’s playing was a revelation. She is a tall, slender blonde with a calm and confident demeanour, and she plays a Stradivarius violin worth roughly twice as much as the new Steinway grand piano! From this instrument she extracted an exquisitely pure, full tone, matched with faultless phrasing and judgment. A really beautiful performance which drew its own ovation. In acknowledgment of the prolonged applause Simone played a serene and deceptively difficult movement from one of Bach’s sonatas for unaccompanied violin.

The orchestra, conducted by Robert Maxym with his customary panache, opened the concert with a fine account of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain.

Historical note: 23 years ago, in 1983, the then Natal Performing Arts Council imported from Vienna 14 Bosendorfer pianos (three grands and 11 uprights) for a total of R180,000. The most expensive, a Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano cost R50,000, and, in the privacy of its storeroom, I was allowed to play a couple of little pieces on it. The comparison of prices then and now is quite startling but one should bear in mind that in those days the exchange rate was, I think, about R2 to the pound sterling. - Michael Green




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