Friday, 6 March 2020

A Night of Dance and Drama at the JPO

Due to a number of conflicts, I didn’t buy a subscription for the Johannesburg Philharmonic’s Summer Season 2020. But I did decide to go to the last week, conducted by Daniel Boico, as a birthday gift to myself, and for the experience of two works that I love and was keen to hear again. It turned out to be just about the most rewarding decision I’ve made so far this year, and one of the most heartening experiences I’ve ever had at a classical music concert.

The programme began with Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, in E-flat, the one nicknamed “The Emperor Concerto.” Larger and louder than Beethoven’s four previous piano concerti (or any other concerto that came before), this work often sounds like a piece for two orchestras, one of them played in a reduction by a single, heroic pianist. Last night, that pianist was Jan Jiracek von Arnim, a tall, thin, bespectacled teacher from Vienna, with an air of confidence and comfort that he was equal to the challenge.

The concerto begins with grandiose arpeggios in the piano part, in a faux-improvisatory style. Beethoven premiered all his own piano concerti except this one, his last, because his hearing had deteriorated too far. He meant for the opening to sound like a majestic cadenza, which he would probably have improvised in performance; his implicit message to the soloist is: Play as if you’re improvising, but play exactly what I would have played. Von Arnim’s hands raced through this opening with a poised assurance that he would keep up for the entire performance.

Von Arnim’s strong, smart playing was well suited to the bright sound of the Linder Auditorium’s Steinway. His bass notes chimed as if they were played on huge, pealing church bells, and his sound rang out across the hall, audible even above the orchestra’s loudest moments, without ever becoming too boisterous. As a performer, he’s great fun to watch: sometimes he lifts his entire body to descend onto a sforzando chord, or bangs his head with the music, and his floppy blond hair waves with the music.

He expertly changed the mood from moment to moment with just a flick of the wrist. During the development of the first movement, there’s a moment when the pianist plays fortissimo (very loud) minor scales in double octaves up and down the keyboard, with the final scale growing softer as it ascends to a major-key resolution at the high end of the piano. Here, von Arnim thundered through his part — it sounded as if he’d brought a dark, booming storm with him into the hall, with a sudden, unexpected parting of clouds to reveal bright sunlight as it resolved.

The quiet, prayerful second movement was begun slowly by the orchestra and conductor, but von Arnim seemed to pick up the tempo with each piano entry. This movement can often sound like an ethereal nocturne, exquisitely tranquil and unrushed. At last night’s performance, it sounded more like a dance, with von Arnim’s triplets waltzing through Beethoven’s score.

The last movement was played at the usual Allegro tempo, with plenty of fluid, dance-like motion from the pianist. He seemed to having a whale of a time as he leapt about the keyboard, and playfully hammered out musical jokes. Even a number of slips and mistakes didn’t deter his fun, or our enthusiasm in the applause we gave. He cheerfully announced his encore as a souvenir from his home town: Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat, Number 4 from Opus 90. His cascading arpeggios gave way to a song-like left hand melody that sounded as if it were being sung by the happiest Austrian baritone.

The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, in F minor. The combination showed that Tchaikovsky is an ideal counterbalance for Beethoven: less intellectual, but with greater psychological insight; less monumental, but more vividly colourful. Tchaikovsky’s last three, surpassingly great symphonies are each like an epic novel, with both majestic sweep and a disconcerting intimacy, on an emotional journey between bitter despair and exuberant joy.

Boico, a frequent guest both in Johannesburg and Durban, is a highly energetic conductor, who brings passion and excitement to the familiar pieces of the traditional repertoire. In these times of digitally engineered high-quality recordings, neatness and precision are not areas where live symphony performances can compete with listeners’ home entertainment, especially not when pressed for rehearsal time. Where live performances win out is in the thrill of unpredictability, the immediacy of the connection with an audience, and the sheer physicality of sound.

Boico and the JPO succeeded in delivering a live performance worth experiencing. From start to finish, his tempos were fast, and I wished he’d taken more time to let some moments breathe, especially in the slow second movement. But, by the time the finale rolled around, the symphony’s headlong dash was so breathlessly exciting, and carried such irresistible momentum, that I couldn’t imagine it being any different.

The Linder Auditorium has a rather dry acoustic, but, under Boico, the JPO’s sound resonated winningly and resoundingly. The bass registers rumbled, the cymbals crashed gleefully, and the brass fanfares rattled the walls. At the finale’s conclusion, the entire orchestra united in a giant blazing ball of sound, and the hall seemed unable to contain it. One last thrill that’s exclusive to live performances is an audience’s response to such auditory excitement: the surge of 900 people leaping to their feet and roaring their applause is an equally rousing sound that I won’t soon forget.

Last night’s concert will be repeated tomorrow night (Saturday, 7 March), at 19:30, at the Linder Auditorium in Parktown.

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