Brave effort boldly goes to stellar realms


Concert: University of |Pretoria Symphony Orchestra (Musaion, UP)

Conductor: Eric Rycroft (pictured)

Choir: Magaliesberg Children’s Choir

Programme: Symphonic Stellar Spectacular

Music: Holst & John Williams

Trust the University of Pretoria Symphony Orchestra (UPSO) to come up with something unusual and often special with each concert they undertake.

This time they chose to carry the audience off to outer space in a programme that included Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite, Opus 32 for large orchestra, and the Star Wars Suite by legendary soundtrack composer John Williams.

Extremely difficult and therefore challenging, the performance of The Planets must be by far the most gruelling composition the orchestra have ever rehearsed, with the aim to overcome its extreme and vast technical and musical demands.

With 90 musicians on a small stage, many things could go wrong, and they did, but the real test of endurance was the fact that they and their conductor, Eric Rycroft, never gave up.

No audience member with reliable ears could have missed the fact that especially the brass playing was often horrendously out of tune.

It’s great news that the university has now also established a brass ensemble led by Eddie Clayton. Although a separate entity from the orchestra, it will most likely be able to feed the latter with high-quality performers in that department.

On Friday the performance of The Planets was full of compelling moments, yet not adding up to a satisfactory whole. Rycroft took Mars, the Bringer of War at such a fast clip that it lost much of its malevolence and weight.

Rather than terrifying, much of the movement sounded almost jaunty. However, the coda’s grinding chords had plenty of power and bite.

In contrast Venus, the Bringer of Peace – although it opened with a smudged horn solo – was overall a less chaste, more tenderly expressive portrait than is sometimes encountered, with the flutes offering the requisite cooling balm. Mercury came close to its ideal in its (at times) daring refinement and for once those dancing violin harmonics about 30 seconds into the piece really leapt off the page. Jupiter had about as much swagger and exuberant panache it can take, though the Elgarian “big tune” could stand more forthright nobilmente.

In Saturn much of its mysteriousness was underplayed, while Uranus missed some of its cutting-edge effects within quite a rushed performance. The tempo in the final Neptune was also too fast, robbing it of other-worldly mystery. Although the worldless sounds the Magaliesburg Children’s Choir produced was initially fine, Holst’s writing soon became too taxing, with the result that it sounded anything but ethereal.

A blessing of sorts was the fact that the music was accompanied by visuals. This is the first time this reviewer experienced it, so it can’t be a tradition. Nevertheless, John Walton’s film, made in association with the conductor Bernhard Gueller and conceptualised by René Hermans, was more than an added attraction.

The UPSO were in top form in their performance of Williams’s Star Wars Suite – music which is admirably constructed, interestingly orchestrated and was well played. Rycroft gave special attention to overall effect and inner detail, which came through so naturally. Here the slightly less taxing solo work by various sections sounded richly saturated.