Lala Kahle Cemetery
Certain springs

Tea and Symphony 2

The spaces in the Albany Parking Garage seem smaller, or is it that the car’s bigger. 

Tonight the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra will present the first in their Summer Symphony Concert Season 2017 and I’ve come to town to be at the final rehearsal, which is due to start at ten o’clock.

The performance tonight will be at half past seven.  This year, the concerts will be taking place at the Playhouse, across the road from the usual venue, the Durban City Hall.

“Durban’s Playhouse complex links the city’s present with its past. The current theatre facade preserves two of the city’s most famous landmarks, situated adjacent to each other in central Smith Street opposite the City Hall, first conceived as cinemas, namely the glamorous Prince’s Theatre, which originated in 1926, and the grand, Tudor-styled Playhouse, which originally opened its doors to public fanfares and capacity house in 1935.

In the early 1980s, these two celebrated entertainment venues underwent expert renovation and conversion into a state-of-the-art, multi-venue theatre complex that faithfully preserved many of the buildings’ original characteristics and architectural features. This was officially opened in the mid ’80s as The Natal Playhouse, subsequently to become known by its present-day title The Playhouse.”

I love this descriptive name.  I like saying it aloud, too, because I’ve said it often, growing up in Durban. 

As a small child, it was confusing but magical to settle in your seat and look up to a sky of midnight blue with occasional stars.  Luckily there are still stars on the ceiling of tonight’s venue, The Opera.

Ouch, the tickets to be at the rehearsal have gone up to R30!  But the excellent programme booklet is free.

Just a few people here, sprinkled about in the stalls.   I sit in the same seat, or one very near it, as I sat in on the 31st of March 1989, the opening night of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’.   My mezzo-soprano friend Sue, Carmen for this run, had organized complimentary tickets for us.  I’d asked to be near the front, so I could see her well.  I’d seen that our tickets were to be in Row C.  Oh, I’d thought, in my ignorance, why not in the front row?

Of course, Rows A and B had gone and the orchestra were in the pit.  We were bang next to them.  I was 35 weeks pregnant, enormous in a kaftan.  We enjoyed the theatre buzz as the orchestra settled themselves and their sheet music, with riffs and trills, then tuned up.  The conductor made his entrance.  Nice aftershave.  He raised his baton and suddenly the great opening whirl of the Overture was upon us.

The baby sleeping in me woke with a jump.  It was such a big jump that I startled too.  The kaftan moved wildly from side to side.  Ooof another kick.  The baby continued to hurtle about his small space, as Carmen beguiled Don José.  The next day I had two contractions.  But luckily, Nick, you managed to stay put till your due date, in May.  However you’ve never really developed a taste for opera; funny that.  Maybe, with the richness of all the years stretching out before you, you will come to like it, in time.

So this is why I had to choose this row today!  Besides, I like to be on the left, to see the pianist’s hands.  Tonight we’ll be further back in the stalls.

It’s about ten, and the resident conductor Lykele Temmingh comes onto the stage and claps his hands for silence.  He asks everyone to listen carefully, and gives the starting time of the following night’s rehearsal.  Then the first violinist, concertmaster, hits an A on the piano and the orchestra tunes up.

Tonight’s guest conductor, Kwamé Ryan, has been on the stage for a while and now he ascends the stand. He asks if everyone’s happy to play tonight’s programme straight through without a break “and then go”, and all agree. 
“We do have another audience – good morning, everybody,” he says, turning to us, and there’s a ripple of applause.   I think that was not a necessary, but still a very nice, thing to do.

They get started on Beethoven’s Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus.  There are some pauses, some repetitions; someone mentions “double-dotted…”  Reading music is so complicated; I’ve such respect for these people.  They seem to read it as easily as words – just another language. 

The violinists’ fingers depress and release the strings so nimbly, seeming to dance among them.  I wonder whether any are left-handed.  Certainly they’re all playing right-handedly.  I catch two of them having a giggle.

A member of the orchestra attracts the attention of the conductor, saying “Maestro!”  I love that.  He describes a place in the piece; I think he gave the number of the bar.  “Can you give us a beat, so we know the tempo?” ure, no problem.”

The Overture’s only about six minutes long, and rehearsing it doesn’t take long either. 

Then tonight’s guest soloist, Joanna MacGregor, enters from the wings.   Kwamé Ryan greets her.  “Good morning Joanna.”  She smiles at him, at the other musicians and at us, and settles herself on the piano stool.  Her piece is Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2 in F major and it’s not long before she’s joining in the first movement, the Allegro.  Her hands chase each other up and down the piano.  In a pause, she pushes her scarf out of the way.  Her arms jerk and jab as her arched rigid fingers stab the keys.  I think of marching military and sit up straighter, eyes wide.

Then to the second movement, the Andante.   Sombre murmuring intro and then the first plangent note of the piano drops limpidly into the orchestral sea.   It carries the music with it, to a trill, then a silvery descent, gently leading the other musicians; staying silent for a few bars, then returning.  The notes, and how they have to be played, determine that the pianist’s arms move gracefully, tenderly, as her fingers stroke the keys.   My breathing’s slowed; my shoulders have relaxed down.  My eyes are closed the better to hear.  Slowly, as if reluctantly, the movement draws to a close with the soft repeated tapping of a single note…

I come back to planet earth, so grateful my life has included this moment.

One to add to my list of favourites!

The last movement is Allegro again.   Shostakovich wrote that some of the rippling scales and arpeggios are quotes from Hanon’s finger exercises.  It sounds like it.  All ends with a bang, and Joanna MacGregor stands.  Pianist and conductor consult.  I don’t catch it all but do hear that she would like them, in one part, to “play a bit less, otherwise I have to play up.”

The conductor wants to go again because of something in bar 33.  He says, “32?” and off they go.  I wonder if it’s tricky to pick it up in the middle.

 He then asks the “clarinets and bassoons” to play “incisively, with some cut.”  They play a few bars.  “That amount of presence is good.” 

He thanks Joanna and she smiles at him and her fellows. 

As she leaves the stage, one of us claps then we all do, and she looks out to the auditorium and smiles again.  She seems so pleasant.

“Guys, do you want a break?” Kwamé Ryan asks.   But it seems they’ve got the bit between their teeth and are ready to play on, and then leave.   He nods.  “We should probably let the trumpets and trombones know we’re continuing without a break.”  Someone’s probably gone off to do that, and we get on with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, the Pastoral.  Five movements, the first putting into sound the happiness felt upon arriving in the countryside.  It’s easy to identify with that!

Now I can see the conductor more clearly.  His eyes, his expressive face and body breathe theatre.  He moves like a dancer.  Runnels of sweat slide down his cheeks, ignored.

Wouldn’t it have been a crime if he hadn’t been able to work in music, and had had to be an office clerk instead, or an insurance salesman or a car mechanic or a computer programmer, or work in the fields of Trinidad, where he grew up!

It seems he’s holding the baton lightly but I bet he’s gripping it tightly.

A violinist in the third row annotates his score.  I love to see the utter concentration on the faces before me.  It must be hard, reading all those little crochets and demisemiquavers.  Well, maybe not, for them. 

The second movement evokes a scene at a brook, and the melody suggests gently flowing water.  I like having a story, a series of scenes to picture.   I’m entranced by the bird calls, which the programme notes say “act as a coda to the tranquil vista portrayed.”  The flute’s a nightingale, the oboe a quail and the clarinet, so unmistakably, a cuckoo.

The third movement is entitled, a merry gathering of peasants.  To this scherzo rhythm they have to be dancing!  Hearing the music makes it easy to see the folk dance, in the mind’s eye.  I watch as the maidens link arms in a circle and weave patterns of movement.   Then the young bloods leap into the sylvan glade, stamping their boots.  They hold out their hands and the girls join them with a run to be lifted up high.  In this idealized world of mine (and Beethoven’s) they make defying gravity look easy.  Flushed, laughing, they suddenly scatter.

Oh, I hear why.  Anyone who’s been in the Drakensberg on a summer afternoon would recognize this.  It’s a thunderstorm looming, in this fourth movement.  The lower strings rustle uneasily.  A girl in a dress the colour of apricots darts back to pick up the flower which came loose from her hair.

The violins sound like the first sprinkling of raindrops.  Then the sudden thunder of the timpani and it’s a downpour, with sustained blasts of sound.  Water streams from the leaves to splash on the trodden grass.  The brook swells.  Branches are tossing in the high winds and I think of the birds.  The piccolo pierces the cacophony.  I feel the vibrations come through the floor to my legs.  Finally the storm retreats.  The thunder moves on.   It’s a distant rumble now.

The violinists have been so busy.  They suddenly have a pause and one immediately scratches her right ankle. 

The fifth movement melds in, a hymnal melody arising, a song of thanksgiving after the storm.  At its conclusion the conductor’s eyes are alight, his mouth open in a soundless shout of exultation.  He must feel, all must feel, so exhilarated. 

He takes out a handkerchief and wipes his face, and pages back in his score.   “Lots of really beautiful things in there.  The storm was really good.”  I catch snatches… “the 5th bar… the 7th bar… I encourage you to be careful… the crescendi a little bit later… allow a little bit of space… be mindful of that please…”

I love it that they won’t let it go if they feel it could be better.  That’s why they are such a brilliant orchestra with such a high standard of conductors.

But they’re not finished yet.  “In the third movement, from the first bar into the second bar, it feels like it’s rushing.  Please make sure it has its feet under it and not behind it.”  So they play again, till he stops them by saying “Etcetera.”  “Great job.  Thank you.  See you tonight.”

He acknowledges us as the lights dim.  Time to disperse.  I, and only me this time, get up from Row C.

Out into the sunshine; midday in the sub-tropics.  I’m so proud that we have a world class orchestra, and grateful to all who support it, by donating, or simply attending the concerts.  Without an audience, there’s no show. 

There’s more – our orchestra has a vigorous outreach schedule, bringing music to schools and rural areas.  It also nurtures South African musical talent, in its Cadetship Programme, with over 30 former KZN Philharmonic cadets now playing professionally in orchestras here and abroad.   To the leader of the orchestra, Bongani Tembe, well done and take a bow!

Just thinking… we only have two generations in our family, now, though many of my sixty-something school contemporaries have four.  Our next generation consists of just five people at the moment. 

I’d like them to hear what I heard this morning, and I email them:    

Shostakovich Piano Concerto N. 2 in F major, Op.102

second movement, the Andante

“ Hi all

I’d like to suggest a moment for you which, if you make time to experience it, will remain bright in your memory as one of pure beauty.

It’s the moment the piano enters the second movement of this concerto.

When you can, in your busy lives, please find this on YouTube, turn it up loud, sit or lie down, close your eyes and listen…

There are several clips online but the one I recommend is

because it’s played by Dmitri Shostakovich Jr who is the composer’s grandson and conducted by Maxim Shostakovich who is the composer’s son.
You’ll need to set aside between 7 or 8 minutes, something like that. 

Light a candle, pour a small libation – choose your time…. enjoy…”

I hope I don’t drive them too nuts.