French orchestra, Freire in night of exceptional music


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A concert by the Alma Chamber Orchestra from France provided a highly enjoyable prelude, in the Durban City Hall, to the coming winter season of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Alma Orchestra was formed two years ago by a French businessman, Zouhir Boudemagh. It consists of about 50 young players from French orchestras and its purpose is to “play for peace” world-wide. It has just returned from North Africa and is now touring South Africa. “Alma” means “soul”.

The orchestra’s South African tour has been sponsored by Ivor Ichikowitz, a politically connected Joburg business-man who established his fortune through the sale of second-hand and new South African military weaponry to countries in Africa and the Middle East. He is apparently a good friend of President Jacob Zuma.

For the Durban concert, the Alma Orchestra was reinforced by players from the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra. It has a lively young conductor, Lionel Bringuier, and an equally lively concert master, Anne Gravoin, who leads the orchestra and sometimes conducts it herself.

On the South African tour they have been joined by a distinguished Brazilian pianist, Nelson Freire, 70, who has had a long concert career; he played a Beethoven concerto in public at the age of 12.

The Durban concert attracted a good-sized audience, obviously boosted by a generous number of complimentary tickets. Many of these listeners had probably not been to a classical concert before, and one hopes that they will come again.

Unusually, and previously unannounced, the proceedings opened with the anthem of the African Union, sung with an orchestral accompaniment, by a choir of about 100.

Then Nelson Freire took the stage and gave an exceptional performance of one of the great masterworks, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 in G major. He turned out to be a most interesting figure: grey hair, grey beard, slow gait, but with superbly skilful and agile fingers. He took the concerto at a brisk speed, faster, I think, than most pianists, but conveyed fully its many subtleties and graces.

A brilliant performance brought forth an ovation from the audience, and the pianist responded with two encores, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, both exquisitely played.

The orchestra showed in the concerto that they were a group of accomplished and disciplined players under the quite restrained but effective direction of the 29-year-old conductor, Bringuier. This impression was confirmed in a precise and balanced performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4, the Italian Symphony.

The concert was completed with a work called Earth by the film music composer Wael Binali, who was born in London of Qatari parents and now lives in the US. –


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