Classical A bravura performance indeed

A bravura performance indeed

Michelle Veenemans (soprano) dazzled and wowed her audience, earning a well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of her National Arts Festival debut recital. Ably assisted by Paul Ferreira (piano) and Gerrit Koorsen (cello) this programme testified to thorough preparation and technically flawless delivery. This prima donna “drama queen” deluxe revelled in the dramatic theatricalities of each work, dominating the stage with confidence and panache. Then with an encore, pre-concert curriculum vitae announcements (please, Mama Veenemans, the audience can read!), and prattle in-between items, this concert ended a quarter of an hour earlier than advertised. For me, there was too much talking and not enough music.

In the opening item, Handel’s Ode for the birthday of Queen Anne, Veenemans revelled in the setting’s rich Baroque ornamentation and stratospheric tessitura. Her well-developed soprano range, outstanding breath control and clear understanding of phrasing were to the fore in this riveting performance, though she should try to avoid scooping at the opening of phrases.

In a concert version of Ach ich liebte, from Mozart’s Die Entführing aus dem Serail, Veenemans exemplary use of facial expression (especially her eyes) aided in projecting the dramatic essence of the music. She showed complete technical mastery of florid passages, and the ornamentation and echo colouring in the coloratura range were handled with aplomb. Traversing numerous genres and styles of performance with ease, Veenemans coaxed multiple vocal colours from a wide prism of tonal shadings in Floyd’s The Trees on the Mountains (Susannah) and Herbert’s Art is calling for me (The Enchantress).

However, for me, her lower register could benefit from more forward projection and her English diction is not always clear. This criticism was especially apparent in Bernstien’s Glitter and be Gay (Candide), though in this work she impressed with fine intonation and much evidence of self-listening.

What puzzles me is that amidst all Veenemans’ technical brilliance and dramatic authority the performances remain emotionally cold; I never felt that Veenemans projected warmth. Ferreira and Koorsen performed some innocuous filler-in items, providing some levity from the intense vocalizing. Sicilienne by Von Paradis was given an introspective rendering with Koorsen’s artistically crafted phrases and subtle tonal inflections revealing the beauty of his instrument.

Ferreira shone in Piazzolla’s intricately scored Libertango, detailing motivic interjections and thematic interplay with finesse. From his first note Ferreira caught and conveyed the mood, maintaining rhythmical impetus and dramatic intensity. In this work he clearly had the measure of the music. Ferreira’s velvet touch, highlighting of rhythmic nuance and harmonic inflections added to the emotional import of Veenemans’ performance, though in the first few items he was too subdued and muffled.

However, in the extracts by Herbert and Bernstein he came to life, colouring the text with a wide palette of tonal tinctures. There was no need for an orchestra in the Bernstein aria or the Nessun Dorma encore (did she have to steal from the tenor repertoire?), with Ferreira’s prodigious fingerwork and calculated arm weight producing every orchestral inflection and timbral colouring imaginable. These heart-felt accompaniments were a truly remarkable musical experience.

Despite my reservations, this concert adds an artistic stratum to the National Arts Festival. This year has seen remarkable performances ranging from one-woman-opera La Voix Humaine, masterly piano recitals (Uhlig and Duigan), the violin supremacy of Samson Diamond, sublime baroque evocation in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, avant-garde performances that stretched the audience’s musical understanding (Crumb and Stockhausen) and the irrepressible Celso Duarte Quartet which conveyed the most exotic flavours and tastes of South American music making.

All in all this Festival has shown that classical music in South Africa is not on the wane and that the future still has many possibilities for expression in this genre.

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