Stunning sounds from France, Spain, Brazil

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TO NDR James Grace

Music from France, Spain and Brazil made an attractive and unusual programme for the second Durban City Hall concert of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra’s winter season.

The conductor was the Hollander Arjan Tien, much admired here after 16 years of visiting Durban, and the soloist was the highly accomplished Cape Town guitarist James Grace (pictured).

The evening opened with the well-known Ritual Fire Dance by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), the most famous of all Spanish composers. This work is, I think, most often heard in its piano version, but the original orchestral score is highly effective, and the KZNPO made the most of its strong, fierce rhythms.

The guitar concerto by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) breathes the atmosphere of the composer’s native Brazil. Earlier, James Grace had joined Liezl-Maret Jacobs at the regular pre-concert lecture and illustrated some cello effects achieved on the guitar, as well as passages inspired by the rain forests of Brazil.

The performance itself was highly successful. The work is scored for a small orchestra, about 35 players, so as not to drown out the solo guitar, but even then it is necessary for the soloist to use an amplifier. The lengthy solo cadenza was particularly impressive.

The encore provided one of the high points of the entire concert.

James Grace played the haunting Memories of the Alhambra, written 120 years ago by the Spanish guitarist Francisco Tarrega. It is difficult and unforgettable, the theme picked out against a ceaseless tremolo (rapidly repeated notes).

We moved to France with Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, written originally as children’s piano pieces, and later expanded to a ballet suite with enchanting orchestration. Arjan Tien’s expressive conducting style was seen and heard to particularly good effect here.

Finally, Ravel’s most celebrated work, Bolero, was given the full treatment by the whole orchestra – about 70 players.

This hypnotic and extraordinary composition, written in 1928, has always been controversial. Some find it dull and repetitious, but there is no denying its compelling power. It’s a long, slow, 15-minute crescendo, starting with a murmur from the drums, and ending with a massive blast from all the instruments. It was brilliantly played by the KZNPO and brought the house down. –

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