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KZNPO CONCERT: NOVEMBER 15 (article first published : 2007-11-17)

The very familiar and the totally unfamiliar made up the programme for this concert by the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra in the Durban City Hall.

Somebody said on the radio the other day that Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor is played more often than any other piano concerto, mildly surprising when one considers the Tchaikovsky No. 1 and the Rachmaninov No. 2. The Grieg is a wonderful work, and repeated performances cannot stale its infinite variety.

On this occasion, the soloist was a Swedish pianist - Staffan Scheja. He is a mature man, in his fifties I would say, grey-haired and dressed in the traditional white tie and tails. He has an imposing record in Europe and the United States and it is easy to see and hear why. He is a strong, powerful player, as was shown most clearly in the long first movement cadenza. And he drew some lovely sounds from the piano in the slow movement, a piece of music as eloquent as anything to emerge from the romantic era.

The visiting American conductor Leslie Dunner provided, as he always does, sympathetic co-operation. And earlier he had taken the orchestra smoothly through the ebb and flow of Grieg’s Lyric Suite, arrangements by the composer of four of the best and best-known of his 66 Lyric Pieces for piano solo.

The unfamiliar came with a work for orchestra and choir called Paradise Regained by the South African composer Christopher James. He was born in Zimbabwe but has lived in South Africa for the past 33 years and has written a number of full-scale compositions, including two piano concertos, a cello concerto, a ballet and an opera.

The title Paradise Regained is, of course, taken from John Milton but the music appears to have no connection with Milton’s poetry. I assume that the paradise regained is the new South Africa. The work consists of seven pieces in broad rhapsodic form with titles like Dance of Life, Dance of Eternal Life and Dance of Ecstasy. The music is not avant-garde and is quite easy on the ear, with snatches of melody from various sources, the most conspicuous being a lengthy quotation of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

To my ear most of the various items had a certain sameness, a kind of pleasant meandering which livened up considerably towards the end with the introduction of the choir. The choir in action here, called SA Singers, were very good, about 50-strong and all of them black singers; no arguments here about quotas.

According to the programme “the work is affectionately dedicated to President N.R. Mandela and to all successive presidents of this country”. Presumably this means Thabo Mbeki, and in the future, who knows? Jacob Zuma, Mrs Zuma, Toyko Sexwale, all potential dedicatees? This dedication must be about as politically correct as one can get.

Finally, we returned to old Europe with a rousing performance of Ravel’s famous (infamous?) Bolero. - Michael Green




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