Bongani Tembe, the CEO and Artistic Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic and Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestras brought both orchestras together for two concerts in Johannesburg this week. They were both sold out. In his programme messsage he says “I hope it will be a night to remember!”
The concert began with a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto by the new principal clarinettist of the KZN Orchestra, the tremendously talented, young Junnan Sun. He is already much awarded and highly commended, but this is the first time I have heard him play. The Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major is a very well known piece (as the bobbing head of the man next to me attested – he was never still) and Junnan Sun played it exquisitely, with lots of feeling. I enjoyed the whole thing, but particularly the second movement, the Adagio, which was hauntingly lovely.
Daniel Raiskin, a Russian born conductor now based in Europe, was on the podium. He held the two orchestras together very well and they played particularly well together in the classical, comfortable Mozart.
After interval the audience was treated to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 5. This was composed in 1901 and 1902. Of Mahler’s nine symphonies, number 5 requires the second smallest orchestra – a mere 12 woodwinds, 14 brass players, 4 percussionists, a harpist and a string section large enough not to be drowned out by the others. (His 8th Symphony requires so many musicians, including vocalists, that it has been nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand” and it is seldom performed.) The whole thing is obviously richly scored, but it is in the third movement that the variety reaches its peak.
Donald Bouwer starred in the magnificent trumpet solo which opens the work. There are six horns and Shannon Armer played the third movement solo.
I loved it! The person with me found it dissonant and modern (Mahler was apparently quite disturbed by its reception in Cologne in October 1904 when it had its world premiere and wished he could conduct it fifty years from its actual premiere – over a century has passed since then.) I find it accessible and interesting, but it is a long work, lasting over an hour. The Adagietto 4th movement is often performed alone, making its British premiere at a Proms concert in 1909. The full work would not premiere in Britain for another 36 years – till October 1945. The Adagietto is also used in the 1971 Luchino Visconti movie, Death in Venice. It is said to represent Mahler’s love song to Alma, his wife. According to a letter she wrote to Willem Mengelberg, Mahler wrotea poem:
“Wie ich dich liebe, Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen.
Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen und meine Liebe.”
(How much I love you, you my sun,
I cannot tell you that with words.
I can only lament to you my longing and love.
Herbert von Karajan once said that when you hear Mahler’s Fifth, “you forget that time has passed. A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience. The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath.” This was certainly my experience last night.
Bongane Tembe – it was certainly a night to remember. I look forward to many more nights to remember under your leadership in the future.