In key for a new season

Mail & Guardian , South Africa
May 7 2004

In key for a new season

The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s (JPO) fourth birthday is on
June 21 – an unbelievable feat, because the months between January
and June 2000 were some of the blackest for orchestral musicians in
Johannesburg. Paul Boekkooi looks back on four years of the
Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and previews its new season

he Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s (JPO) fourth birthday is on
June 21 – an unbelievable feat, because the months between January
and June 2000 were some of the blackest for orchestral musicians in

At the end of January 2000 the old National Symphony Orchestra was
disbanded owing to a lack of funds. That orchestra gave two
heart-rending free performances to the Johannesburg public in
Parktown’s Linder Auditorium without a conductor. Both houses were
brimful. Many thought it the final death knell for orchestral music
in Africa’s richest city.

The musicians thought differently. They started forming committees to
investigate the possibility of establishing a new orchestra where
each member would be a stakeholder in the company they collectively
own. The JPO gave its inaugural concerts on June 21 and 22 that year
in the Linder with Finnish maestro Hannu Lintu conducting. The
sustainability of regular symphony seasons was one of the challenges
facing the new orchestra. It met only sporadically during the first
30 months of its existence. However, since 2003 it presented four
symphony seasons annually. With ample corporate funding, the JPO is
now able to plan seasons at least a year ahead. After an excellent
first season in 2004 with only a couple of artistic disappointments,
lovers of symphonic music can look forward to an arguably better
second symphony season, starting on May 12 at the Linder. The
five-concert season on Wednesdays and Thurdays at 8pm ends on June

Although United States composer Alan Hovhanness’s Mysterious Mountain
(1955) is apparently popular on Classic FM, a live performance of
this work by the composer of Armenian and Scottish parentage might
have a different impact.

Only a minority might appreciate the composer’s New Age sounds and
his sometimes boringly conservative harmonies. The orchestration is
colourful and mystical, but unfortunately at times, also wearisome.

However, the same concert presents French pianist Jean Dubé (23) who
won the International Liszt Competition in Utrecht, The Netherlands,
two years ago. He’ll be playing the Liszt Piano Concerto No 1 in E
Flat Major.

But how adroit will conductor Michael Hankinson be and what kind of
exoticism will he be able to evoke in the full score of Stravinsky’s
Firebird Ballet?

The week after that, on May 19 and 20, a new conductor will take his
bow with the JPO – Pretoria-born Conrad van Alphen, who already has
an international reputation. He will conduct Russian master pianist
Boris Petrushansky in a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No
4 in G Op 58, while he will also bring us one of the 20th century’s
most celebrated symphonies: the Shostakovich No 10 in E Op 93. In
terms of formal analysis, few of the composer’s symphonies have had
more written about them than this one.

For the three remaining concerts, the JPO has contracted a maestro
who has had a special relationship with it from the very first year –
Germany’s Bernhard Gueller. He or the riveting Charles Ansbacher from
the US, who conducted during this year’s first season, is the kind of
orchestra trainer the JPO needs to continually grow as an symphonic
entity. Gueller brings us three stimulating, divergent programmes.

The first, on May 26 and 27, are by Czech, Hungarian and Russian
composers, opening with a selection of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances,
followed by a rare performance of Bartok’s Viola Concerto as prepared
for performance from the composer’s original manuscript by Tibor

The brilliant, Russian-born violinist, who lives in Pretoria but is
often one of the JPO’s sub-principals, will be the soloist. The
concert ends with Rachmaninov’s swansong, the broodingly melancholic
Symphonic Dances, Op 45.

The following week Anton Nel (piano) is the soloist in music by
Viennese composers: Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture, the Brahms Piano
Concerto No 1 in D Op 15 and Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 in E Flat Op
55 (The Eroica), also performed at the JPO’s inaugural concert.

The theme for the final concert on June 9 and 10 is The Planets. Not
only will Gustav Holst’s famous suite be heard, but the June concert
opens with Mozart’s last and arguably greatest symphony, No 41 in C
K551 (The Jupiter). Book at Computicket.