Feb 06

Unpack a Babushka of Musical Dinner

– Isha Ranchod

Johannesburg CBD.  The City Hall, where Stravinsky once conducted, is up the road.  Stravinsky.  Babushka dolls, oddly, come to mind inside the Rand Club, where the South African National Youth Orchestra is preparing to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite for the Members’ Christmas dinner.


Like the outer layer of a Russian doll, we have the bustling CBD of Johannesburg, where sounds of cars, shouting, hooting, and even Bollywood music can be heard. Inside the first doll is the opulent Rand Club building, with its history of colonial men and their upper-class living.  Open the second doll to find yet another stark contrast – that of excited youth orchestra members rehearsing in their shorts and slip slops.

In a club building where only men were allowed entrance until 1989, the orchestra is being conducted by a woman – Sarah Ioannides, from the USA.  The building is a perfect fit for the varying repertoire, with the establishment of the Rand Club in 1887 slotting between the composition of the Mozart concerto in 1791 and the Pulcinella Suite in 1922.


Once starters and main meals have been served to the guests, they file into the orchestra’s new playground, a vast dining hall, with beautiful high ceilings and rich maroon carpets. The young instrumentalists, now dressed in their elegant concert black, showed no sign of nerves.


SANYO Managing director Sophia Welz introduced the orchestra, the conductor, and the pieces.  The solo part of the Mozart concerto would be shared by two players.  Tiaan Uys took the stage for the first movement.


The orchestra’s introduction showed off their control in the treatment of the dynamics.  Though some of the faster upper string passages were not as clean as they could have been, the players kept a fleet sense of airiness throughout.


Uys was precise, with an eye on the conductor to better communicate.  His higher and lower registers were both very clear in their differences. His cadenza was a daring jazz improvisation which fitted like a glove.


Cameron Williams was the second soloist, playing the second and third movements.  The orchestra began in a slightly sluggish manner in the second movement, but had settled by the introduction of the second theme.


Either Williams’ general dynamic level was softer than Uys’, or the orchestra was playing louder, but this softness made his cadenza more effective, inviting the listener to lean in closer.


In the third movement, the orchestra played well, and the brass section’s sound particularly solid.  The vibrant driving force towards the end made a perfect close to the concerto.


After a short changeover in some of the orchestra members, the Pulcinella Suite started off with the Sinfonia movement in a stately tempo.  Within its spare texture, the orchestra found a full sound.  Even the most sections were clean.


The Serenata movement put the strings, with their delicate +spiccato+ effects, in the foreground.


The Tarantella movement ended with a slight hiccup. This was enthusiastically forgiven by the audience, which allowed the orchestra to dive into the subsequent Toccata with even more vigour.  In the Vivo movement, the trombone stole the show and held his own commendably in the circus-like theme.


The Minuetto and Finale were played with the confidence that the work deserved.

The audience showed their appreciation and encouragement vocally.  It gave the young players the energy to give a festive encore with a traditional African piece, Bawo Tixho Somandla, followed by a happy-go-lucky brass Jingle Bells rendition that had the audience singing along.


Not many youth orchestras can say that they took over one of the oldest and most historical buildings in Johannesburg.  The experience of playing together will equip them well for the weekend’s additional concerts in Johannesburg and Pretoria.