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Review of May 2021 Concert

The foot stomping and lengthy applause at the end of the Rach 2 concert was only fitting for orchestra, piano soloist Sylvia Jiang, and conductor Beth Cohen. Sylvia Jiang, who stepped in to replace the scheduled soloist, Somi Kim for the Rachmaninoff Concerto No 2 Op.18 in C minor, was spell-bindingly brilliant.  Beth Cohen is now based in Christchurch, although she was born, then trained and worked in the United States of America.  She has a formidable history of conducting both there and in New Zealand, although new to the list of talented SMCO conductors.

The Rachmaninoff was the highlight of the concert performed for the capacity audience. The expressively played bell-like repeated chords from the piano, which open the concerto were riveting.  The restrained intensity which built as the chords became louder held the audience enthralled.  The blending of solo and orchestral lines was magical as they swapped roles.  There were many highlights from the orchestra but two were the horn solo in the first movement and the clarinet solo, shared with the piano in the second.  Jiang’s rubati and lovely legato playing with the muted strings were other highlights of the slow movement.  The third movement provided great scope for Jiang to show her virtuosic talent as well as her delicate pianism.  She was fully supported by the orchestra and conductor in a stunning performance from all.  In response to a standing ovation Sylvia closed with a beautifully understated Nocturne by Edvard Grieg.

The Faure and Copland which preceded the Rachmaninoff were full of great interest and pleasure for the audience. 

Faure’s Pelleas et Melisande Suite Op 80 is a little gem of four pieces – Prelude, Spinning song, Sicilienne and The Death of Melisande.   The Sicilienne and The Death of Melisande are perhaps most familiar; all four pieces, with their sensitive dynamics, dreamy string themes – often muted – and evocative woodwinds and rich harp lines were played most expressively.  The last movement was played at Faure’s own funeral.

Appalachian Spring of Aaron Copland is a challenging piece for orchestra with its frequent changes of time and key signatures.  It was written as a ballet in 1943-4, commissioned by dancer and choreographer Martha Graham but arranged by Copland as an orchestral suite in 1945.  Although Copland composed it without knowing what the title would be it certainly captured the feeling of emerging spring and pastoral settings.  The suite of eight sections covers the period of one day – opening with a dreamy sunrise and closing with a prayer-like orchestral coda as day fades.  There were movements of great energy with suggestions of square dances, country fiddlers and farm work.   Two of the inner movements were the musings of a young couple contemplating their wedding, and a dance based on a Shaker melody “Simple Gifts.”  The very quick shifts in rhythm and quirky woodwind and brass entries, required and got total concentration from orchestra and conductor.  It was acknowledged very warmly.

The orchestra grows in many ways, especially its imaginative programming and quality of playing.  A concert full of charm and brilliance.

Review by Rogan Falla