South African orchestral jewel

By Kristin Shafel     Tue, Mar o1, 2011

One of only three professional orchestras in South Africa and the first to tour the United States, the Cape Town Philharmonic appeared in their Kansas City debut last Friday night for a 500-plus audience at the Folly Theater for the Harriman-Jewell Series. Cape Town, with its conductor Martin Pantaleev and solo violinist Philippe Quint, put on a concert of accessible twentieth century works and a romantic Russian standard.

South African orchestral jewel

The concert opened with the spirited, breezy Johannesburg Festival Overture by William Walton. The orchestra started out with good rhythmic energy and well executed dynamic contrasts. Short phrases were neatly traded from one section to another, and the trumpet lines were especially crisp. Intonation was spotty however, and I wish the brass and woodwinds had been on risers for better projection. I had trouble discerning the “African” percussion towards the end of the piece. I did enjoy their rendition though, which was an appropriate and fun piece.

Barber’s tender Adagio for Strings followed Walton’s overture. Built on seemingly simple melodic and harmonic material, it is an achingly beautiful and extremely difficult piece to perform perfectly. The violins struggled with shifting in unison and matching vibrato on the first appearance of the main theme, but redeemed it on subsequent iterations. The violins recovered well from this common issue and the ensemble maintained a warm, enveloping tone and was balanced throughout. Cape Town’s cello section relished their turn with the main theme, bringing out its hauntingly melancholy character.

Grammy-nominated violinist Philippe Quint joined the orchestra for Korngold’s Violin Concerto, Op. 35—a piece rampant with tutti cinematic gestures and a solo violin part both technical and emotive. Quint was very concentrated and unruffled on stage, his body language minimally engaging the audience at best. However his highly accurate and clear, commanding yet nuanced tone immediately captured the crowd. Rapid spiccato technique, sweeping legato lines, the perfect amount of vibrato, and extended intervallic passages were all performed by Quint with cool prowess and excellent intonation. The ensemble was sensitive to their soloist, giving him room to ring out through richly colorful chords and well-controlled dynamics.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, Op. 35 was last on the program. A bit of an exhibition piece, Sheherazade features every section through its several prominent solos. Intonation and rhythmic unison were off in the woodwinds occasionally, though their tone and volume control was strong, and sometimes the second violins and violas were lost in the louder, broader chordal moments. Perhaps at this point in the evening the group’s energy level and momentum began to waver, although Cape Town still and again displayed deft manipulation of dynamics and swift adaptation to the work’s mood and theme changes. Concertmaster Patrick Goodwin and principal cellist Kristiyan Chernev played their hefty solos admirably and expressively.

Conductor Martin Pantaleev was equal parts energetic and gestural, precise and restrained, and dynamic and dramatic. Pantaleev’s commitment to the performance was staggering. Often from memorization without a score, he was resolutely communicative and a veritable embodiment of the music. One highlight of the evening was simply watching him conduct.

Cape Town treated the audience to the lively Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein as its encore. The group’s energy was renewed on this piece, playing tightly with enthusiasm and physicality. I was impressed with this program of predominately twentieth-century works, and would have loved to hear another contemporary piece. Overall, Cape Town presented a pleasant and successful evening of music that awakened a curiosity in me about what more South Africa has to offer in arts and entertainment.

Harriman-Jewell Series
Cape Town Philharmonic
Friday, February 25, 2011

Folly Theatre
12th and Central Streets, Kansas City, MO

Top photo courtesy Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra